Guide Tour of Isola Bella of Lago Maggiore, Piedmont, Italy

Isola Bella (means ‘beautiful island’ in Italian) is one of the Borromean Islands of Lago Maggiore in North Italy. The island is situated in the Borromean Gulf 400 metres from the lakeside town of Stresa. It measures 320 meters long and 180 meters wide and is largely occupied by the Italian garden of the Borromeo palace, which occupies the south-eastern coast of the islet.

Isola Bella, together with the nearby Isola Madre, has contributed to making Stresa one of the Grand Tour destinations. The island is a natural treasure made even richer by human intervention. Isola Bella is dominated by its sumptuous Baroque palace, along with a luxuriant Italian-style garden, which reaches a height of 37 metres and is laid out on ten terraces. Many parts of the palace are open to visitors: richly furnished rooms and opulent salons embellished with priceless artworks.

Although the islet of Isola Bella is not very large (it measures just 320m in length by 180m in width), it holds a real jewel of beauty: the gardens of Palazzo Borromeo. With their wonderful alternation of parterre and terraces placed at different heights, and skilfully alternating with statues, obelisks, large stairways, these gardens represent a real attraction for many tourists who come to visit them every year. At the entrance to the park you will be greeted by the Teatro Massimo, a large amphitheater that occupies the very center of the island.

The formal Italian-style baroque Garden on Isola Bella is world-famous, in many places raised on artificial terraces like an elegant ship of stone and flowers sailing through the intense blue of Lake Maggiore. The nucleus of its complex theatrical structure, around the Teatro Massimo, is represented by ten superimposed terraces which form a truncated pyramid, surrounded by parterres on different levels, linked by stairways. The colossal unicorn, obelisks, statues and grottoes, the two water-wheel towers and other architectural elements astonish visitors.

The garden is full of flowers and exotic plants of great rarity, which grow thanks to the particularly mild climate of the Borromean Gulf. Here the soil and the climate of the lake offer an ideal habitat to allow species and varieties to grow on the island. Everything on the island has been designed to create a scenic effect, including the “Theatre” constructed at the end of the superimposed terraces, dominated by a statue of a Unicorn, the heraldic emblem of the Borromeos, which is flanked by statues representing Nature and Art. The huge, extraordinary garden is further decorated with ponds, fountains and a plethora of statues dating from the second half of the 17th century.

The island gives its best in spring and summer, seasons in which you can admire these wonderful gardens in bloom, but even at the beginning of the autumn season with the shades of foliage the glance is enchanting. White peacocks saunter amongst the magnificent architectural features recalling ancient Gods, mighty trees such as the camphor, citrus trees, rare for this latitude, and the splendid collections of roses, rhododendrons and camellias. The peacocks symbolise a place redolent of the eternal beauty of a Paradise.

Until 1632 the lower island or “island below” was a rocky cliff occupied by a tiny fishing village with two churches, one dedicated to San Vittore, present since the 11th century, the other to San Rocco. The Borromeo family took almost four hundred years and the teamwork of hundreds of architects, engineers, plasterers, painters and cabinetmakers, who have given rise to the extraordinary transformation of Isola bella from a rock of the lake into a place of delights.

The Borromeos, who had already been owners of Isola Madre since 1501, from the first two decades of the 17th century with Giulio Caesar III and Carlo III focused their interest on the island, launching the grandiose project that was to lead to the creation of the palazzo and the garden. In 1632, Carlo III of the influential House of Borromeo began the construction of a palazzo dedicated to his wife, Isabella D’Adda, from whom the island takes its name. He entrusted the works to the Milanese Angelo Crivelli, who was also to be responsible for the planning the gardens.

The construction regained momentum when the island passed to his sons, Cardinal Giberto III (1615 – 1672) and Vitaliano VI (1620 – 1690); the latter in particular, with the financial support of his brother, entrusted the completion of the works to the Ticino architect Carlo Fontana and made the villa a place of sumptuous parties and theatrical performances for the European nobility. Francesco Maria Richini also worked on the palace, and the Milanese sculptor Giuseppe Vismara intervened for the gardens. In the neoclassical era, in the late eighteenth century, he also worked on itGiuseppe Zanoja, designer of the ballroom.

His successor, his nephew Charles IV (1657 – 1734), was responsible for the completion of the gardens which were inaugurated in 1671. The island was restructured in order to transform it into a fantastic ship, in which the part of the palace was the bow and the part of the terraced gardens, on what is called an amphitheater in the stern of the castle. In fact, the project envisaged a long landing, which was not completed in its entirety, in front of the building in the western part.

The island achieved its highest level of social success during the period of Giberto V Borromeo (1751–1837) when guests included Edward Gibbon, Napoleon and his wife Joséphine de Beauharnais, and Caroline of Brunswick, the Princess of Wales. It is said that Caroline, having fallen in love with the place, did her best to convince the Borromeo family to sell her Isola Madre or the Castelli di Cannero islands; her request being turned down, she established herself on the banks of Lake Como at Cernobbio in the Villa d’Este.

This aim was to be carried forward, extended and defined by Vitaliano VI, who is to all intents and purposes considered the founder of Isola Bella. The work that resulted in the current layout continued without interruption throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, arriving at 1948, when, with Vitaliano IX Borromeo, the Salone Nuovo, the northern façade and the great pier were built.

Main Attractions
Isola Bella is one of northern Italy’s premier attractions in Milan or nearby. The design idea of the island was to resemble a gigantic ship rising out of the water and that’s exactly what the island looks like, with the stern formed by the garden and its 10 sloping terraces and the prow formed by the tip of the island and the dock. The architects transform this rocky little island into something magnificent, an incredible Baroque palace with Italianate terraced gardens. The palace (Palazzo Borromeo) is fascinating, encapsulating 400 years of family history, as well as its incredible portrait gallery and its gardens, some of the most spectacular ones in Italy.

Palazzo Borromeo
The Palazzo Borromeo, a place of Baroque art suspended over the water. Inside there are halls where you can admire authentic furnishings of the seventeenth century, paintings by artists of the time, marbles, neoclassical stuccos, all with breathtaking windows and openings overlooking Lake Maggiore. A princely Baroque residence that has continued to change over the centuries, from the beginning of the works in the mid-seventeenth century at the behest of Vitaliano VI until the creation of the Salone Nuovo in the post-war years with Vitaliano X.

The visit to the palace is an incredible journey between art and history that winds through the over 20 rooms, among which the Throne Room, the Queens Room, the Napoleon Room, where the French general slept during his living room on the island, and the salon with the splendid Flemish tapestries in silk and gold. And then again the Berthier Gallery with its mosaic of over 130 paintings and the magnificent caves made with pebbles and splinters of tuff, stucco and marble which in addition to an ornamental function also had the purpose of protecting guests from the summer heat.

Galleria Berthier
A fascinating itinerary between art and history accompanies you through its over 20 rooms. Heart of Palazzo Borromeo, the Galleria Berthier is a mosaic of over 130 paintings including masterpieces and, following a practise that is recurrent in other noble collections of the period, a number of copies of the great masters of the past of the calibre of Raphael, Correggio, Titian and Guido Reni. Unique settings are the Throne Room, the Queens’ Room, the Tapestry Hall and the Caves, born to amaze guests by transporting them into a magical marine world.

Inside there are paintings by Cerano, they are The Judgment of Paris, Europe kidnapped by Jupiter transformed into Taurus, The triumph of Galatea, by Salvator Rosa, by the Flemish Muller called il Tempesta (artist hosted for a long time by the Borromeo, his patrons, who had also saved him from the trial of attempted murder of his wife), by Nuvolone, by Francesco Zuccarelli, etc.

To remember the gallery of tapestries, so called for its huge Flemish tapestries, six in all, of the sixteenth century, in silk and gold, whose recurring theme is the Unicorn, emblem of the Borromeo. In the very particular environments of the caves, covered with stones and shells of an infinite variety of types, there are also archaeological remains of the prehistoric Culture of Golasecca.

Teatro Massimo
The Teatro Massimo is the most important monument in the garden of Isola Bella. Statues, obelisks and fountains are perfectly integrated together with the vegetation of the ten scenic terraces, at the top of which rises the statue of the Unicorn, the heraldic symbol of the Borromeo family. Since 2002 the gardens of Isola Bella, together with those of Isola Madre, have belonged to the prestigious circuit of the British Royal Horticultural Society.

All around the Theatre is a glorious display of rare flowers and plants: the centuries-old camphor tree, Gunnera manicata, known as the giant rhubarb – the leaves of which can reach two metres in diameter -, the perfumed sweet Osmanthus, the extremely rare Halesia diptera with its flowers that seem like snowflakes, the star anise and the Mexican pine.

During its blossoming period the Parterre of Azaleas is enchanting, and the Garden of Love is a joy for the eyes, composed of boxwood hedges creating green embroidery that is visible from the height of the terraces. Camellias, espaliers of roses in May, oleanders in June and citrus trees and panicled hydrangeas at the height of summer all enliven the Italian-style garden of Isola Bella, where white peacocks roam freely.

Facilities and Services
Isola Bella is a popular tourist attraction, with a regular ferry service from Stresa, Laveno, Pallanza and Intra. It plays host to the annual Stresa music festival.

Isola Bella Apartments
After meticulous restructuring work, the age-old dwellings of the fishermen have returned to their former splendour in the ancient town of Isola Bella. Spacious apartments to spend a weekend or a few days of relaxation, but also a starting point to discover the numerous tourist destinations overlooking Lago Maggiore and Lake Orta.

The Vicolo del Fornello
Il Vicolo del Fornello winds its way through the old town, where today the age-old fishermen’s houses are elegant showcases of products made in Italy. There are three single-brand stores. The first is dedicated to sporty attires and accessories with K-Way. The FOPE space – a company that is the symbol of Vicenza’s goldsmithery, and the Borromeo bookshop dedicated to the world of the Borromeo Lands where you can browse through books, objects, souvenirs and typical Piedmontese delicacies.

The offer continues in the three concept stores. At Capricci creations of cashmere and foulard, Mammaramao bags, Maliparmì accessories. Il Vicolo with jackets and coats designed by Herno, Acqua di Stresa perfumes created with the flowers of the gardens of Lago Maggiore, and scarves by the 5min. Milano brand and other fashionable accessories, such as socks by Happy Socks and le Furlane shoes. L’Emporio is a small bazaar of unexpected furnishing accessories like Miho’s ones, clothing and items for original gift ideas, like the Bomb candles.

Torre Noria coffee shop
A space to treat yourself to a gourmet break, have breakfast, lunch or an aperitif. Salads, cheese and cured meat boards, sandwiches with tasty combinations to be accompanied by smoothies and selected soft drinks. A corner for relaxation immersed in a dreamy setting where you can also enjoy just a glass of good Italian wine or a coffee looking out over Lago Maggiore, surrounded by blooming flowers.

The bistro Il Fornello
Quality and research are the hallmarks of this gourmet space on Isola Bella: from the selection of excellent ingredients to the care in the preparation of the dishes, which can be enjoyed on the pleasant terrace with views of the lake. The bistro Il Fornello Bottega con Cucina came about as a result of the restructuring of the old fishermen’s houses of the ancient town and owes its name to the oven where the nets were baked for fishing.

A restaurant and a shop: the two souls of the bistro give visitors the possibility of choosing the experience they prefer. The ingredients and the authentic flavours, selected with care from among the local producers and the Italian centres of excellence, can be tasted in recipes prepared by chef Francesco Luoni, tried at the counter for a slow pause or purchased to take home as a souvenir of the trip.

Located on the Vittorio Emanuele lakefront, Delfino dates back to the 18th century and today, thanks to an initiative of the Borromeo family, it has returned to its former glory after a complex restoration and functional upgrading. Today the Delfino is a restaurant where visitors to Isola Bella can treat themselves to a break for breakfast, lunch, aperitif and dinner in the spaces of the charming terrace overlooking Lake Maggiore. Embellished with original materials and restored antique details that give it a vintage allure, the new Delfino also has two exclusive suites, in addition to the Isola Bella Apartments.