Most of us have heard of Lake Como in the lake district of northern Italy at the foot of the Alps, just this side of Switzerland. But this week, Scott and I are staying on Lake Maggiore, just east of Como, and to be honest, I think we must have gone through a secret portal to a magical fairy land.
We are staying at Hotel La Fontana, a small family owned B&B that sits on beautiful gardens, overlooks Lake Maggiore and features a beautiful, large cascading fountain at the center of the property, hence the name.
After two and a half weeks in southern Italy, where life is so much more intense and in your face, this quiet, peaceful oasis is a welcomed change. Don’t get me wrong, I love Salerno and Irpinia and all of the charming mountain villages in the south. It is the home of my people, and it is where I feel at home. But it is loud, chaotic, dangerous, and driving is an experience that Americans cannot fathom.
As we headed north toward Milan, things began to transform. I love traveling by train because as the terrain and cityscapes change, you get a front row seat. Just lean back and see Roman ruins turn into shimmering lake towns or volcanic mountain ranges melt into fields of sunflowers.
We arrived by train in Stresa, the small town on Lake Maggiore, and right away, it didn’t feel like Italy. There are many English and Austrailan tourists here and because of the close proximity to Switzerland, the atmosphere is very different. For example, when eating at restaurants, people have quiet conversations in hushed tones and wear crisp linen clothing. They stop at traffic lights and obey the rules of the road. They wait for pedestrians and park in an orderly fashion. Streets are maintained, lawns are green and trimmed, and well groomed dogs are walked with leashes. Hotels have French names and the shops cater to the affluent world traveler. I could feel my haggard American nervous system begin to calm down.
Lake Maggiore is the second largest lake in Italy and is considered to have two nationalities as it straddles Italy and Switzerland. This magnificant lake even plays a part in the famous film, Farewell to Arms, based on the book by Earnest Hemmingway.
The cuisine on Lake Maggiore is interesting. Most of the foods and beverages are borrowed from other areas of Italy: pizza from Naples, Caprese salad and bruschetta from Tuscany, seafood risotto from Milan, spaghetti pomodoro from the south and wines from Piedmont. They do have some local treasures though; lake trout and Magheritines, the delightful buttery cookies known as the Baci (kiss) of Stresa.
So what to do in this lake oasis? An excellent way to spend a day is to visit the three islands – Isola Madre, Isola Bella and Isola Pescatori. Little river boats and ferries are available all day and are hop on-hop off. The ticket office and boat launch are right in town, and the boats run very 30 minutes throughout the day and early evening.
Have you ever joked about owning an island? Well in 1670 Count Vitaliano Borromeo did just that. What was once a empty patch of land in the middle of Lake Maggiore is now Isola Bella, home to Palazzo Borromeo complete with a throne room and a botanical garden that almost puts the Bobli gardens in Florence to shame. It took 400 years to complete- quite the fixer-upper. In the most ostentatious manner possible, the Baroque garden is worth the price of admission. White peacocks strut and preen through the rare and exotic trees and flowers.
Isola Pescatori is not owned by the Borromeo family; it is publicly owned and named for the generations of fishermen and women. It is easy to spend the day boating and strolling through the three islands, stopping for a look around and enjoying excellent Italian food and wine.
One more suggestion for a stay on Lake Maggiore- take the cable car up to the top of Mottarone. In the Finivia cable car, climb 1000 feet, with stunning panoramic views of Lake Maggiore and the surrounding towns. On a very clear day, the snow on the Alps glistens and the views of Lake Maggiore and the little towns below are breathtaking. What are you waiting for! Here are some of our favorite shots.