Baroque Delight or Flower-Strewn Barge?

‘The problem with Italian food is that after three days you’re hungry again.’  I came across this observation – or something like it – years ago, in one of those foodie magazines.  The name of the magazine and worse – the author’s name – are long gone, but the idea stuck.

I’d been back for less than a month when the rumblings started.  I was hungry again.  As much as I love Italy, this seemed a bit soon, even to me.  I was still digesting Sicily.  Worried that I might be coming down with something, I decided to check the fount of all knowledge and googled ‘travel hunger’.  Up popped an astonishing array of sites, all quite sane looking, about the different ways people were relieving their desire/hunger for travel.  Urban Dictionary was even looking for a word to encapsulate the concept.   That worry dispelled, it just took a bit of rationalizing – who knew how much longer I’d be able to travel?; better carpe the diem while I still could and besides, I had accumulated enough points for the airfare from the trip to Sicily – to convince me to go.   There was just one question – Where?   Since I’d just been in the far south, why not book end the year’s travels with a trip to the north?  I had visited Italy’s Lake District years before in the spring.  What would it be like in the fall?  (And what about the rest of Sicily, you might be wondering.  Not to worry.  I’m not dropping a thread here, just putting it aside for a while.  Will pick it up again, maybe in the depths of winter when those ads of pristine white beaches and clear aquamarine waters are beginning to drive us stay-cationers crazy.)

Mid-September I flew to Milan, picked up a car – a far too shiny, far too bright red Fiat Punto, but it’s all they had left in the small car bracket con marcia (‘with gears’, as opposed to our automatic North American cars that don’t have gears?) – and headed to Stresa on the south shore of Lake Maggiore.  From here I would make my way east and fly back from Venice.


I hadn’t come to Stresa for the modern art show.


Nor to luxuriate in one of the grand Belle Epoque hotels lining the promenade.


And although it had one of the most beautifully located children’s playgrounds I had ever seen, that also was not why I was here.  I had come for the gardens.   Three of them.  Isola Bella, Isola Madre and Villa Taranto.  


Isola Bella.

Isola Bella, the most extravagant of Italy’s Baroque Gardens, was tantalizingly close, but by the time I’d arrived in Stresa and checked into my (very simple) B&B, it was too late for garden visiting.  After the long flight and drive – which was not that long, but like all first drives, a little stressful – strolling along the promenade, looking out at the gardens I would be visiting the next day, was not a bad way to ease into the trip.  Not bad at all.


In the distance, to the right of Isola Bella, Isola Madre. The Mother Island.


A hop, skip and a jump to the west of Isola Bella, the grandly named Isola Superiore dei Pescatori (fishermen). No gardens on this tiny island, but lots of good choices for lunch.

To kick-start my circadian rhythm onto the local time – and to make sure I got to Isola Bella before the hordes – I had set my alarm clock for 7:30, enough time to be more or less awake for breakfast which started at 8.  Typically a ‘morning person’, I didn’t really think I’d need the alarm, but lately I’ve noticed a few physical changes – including a middle-zone spreading which caught me totally by surprise; I thought I was going to bypass that one – and I was worried my switch-over mechanism might be wearing down too.

The following morning, after figuring out where I was, having been jolted out of a dead sleep, I looked out the window.  My first thought was that I had set the alarm incorrectly.  The sky was still grey.  The sun hadn’t risen yet.


Until recently the weather in September – the shoulder season – has been glorious.  A fact reflected in still high rates in many hotels.   The crowds are a bit smaller.  The days, although shorter, are still warm; the skies a wonderful deep, clear blue.  And the fall rains have yet to begin.  But even in Italy, where so many aspects of life remain comfortably the same, global warming has started to affect age-old weather patterns.


Off in a corner of the room where breakfast was served the TV was turned on to RAI 5 (pronounced like ‘wry’ or, given the often questionable content, ‘rye’) one of several of Italy’s national public broadcasting channels.  The weather forecast for north-western Italy was variabile. (vah-ree-a-bee-lay).  I asked Giuseppe if variabile included pioggia (pyoj-juh). Rain.  He said it included tutto.  Everything.  He was right.  By the end of the day there had been clouds, thunder, rain, drizzle, sun, hot and cool.  Mid-afternoon I passed by a French tourist who was struggling, for what must have been the umpteenth time that day, to take off her jacket without strangling herself on the straps of her purse, camera and bag.  I overheard her muttering about ‘cette histoire avec la jacquette‘ (and yes, I know that is not the ‘right’ word for jacket, but that is what she said.)  But the boats were still running, so after digging out the rain jacket I had shoved into the bottom of my suitcase at the last minute – sure I would never need it – I set off for the ferry to Isola Bella.


Isola dei Pescatori was almost unrecognizable under the dark skies and the cloud hovering over the mountain behind it had an unappealingly snow-like appearance.

Some gardens may be at their atmospheric best under gloomy, grey skies – Sacro Bosco for example (Sacred Forest or Monster Park?, May 12, 2015) – but how many garden books have you seen that show the gardens under anything but bright, sunny days and clear blue skies?   It was still so miserable on the way over I didn’t even bother taking my camera out of my backpack as we approached the landing.  Luckily, although it was a bit of cat and mouse, the skies cleared now and then.  I took the following two just as we left the dock on the way back to Stresa at the end of the day.

The design of the gardens is meant to represent a majestic galleon at anchor in the middle of the lake.  This horticultural galleon takes up most of the island, even in some places, spilling over the edge, which led one visitor, obviously not a fan, to dismiss it as a ‘flower-strewn barge’.


As in all things beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. A flower-strewn barge or a horticultural wonder?


The prow.

At the opposite end of the island is the palace.  It was built by a powerful Borromean count as a summer getaway for his wife, whose name just happened to be ‘Isabella’.


A summer get-away fit for a Borromean Count’s wife.

Like many of Italy’s great gardens, access is through the palace, an extraordinary example of Italian Baroque.  (‘Extraordinary’ of course being a curiously ambiguous word.)


While the gardens spill over the eastern edge of the island, on the west end the palace is the edge.

Amongst the ornate decorations are enormous Flemish tapestries in which the unicorn plays a dominant role.  The Borromeans had adopted the mythological creature as their family symbol.  And not just because of its appearance.  Already in the 16th century, as it is becoming in modern times, fresh, pure drinking was a scarce resource.   The unicorn, which could turn even the vilest, most stagnant body of water into clean, fresh drinking water merely by dipping its single white horn in that water, was an easily recognized symbol of wealth and power.  That is, when it wasn’t busy goring other creatures.


With its single horn the unicorn could purify water…


…or gore other less endowed creatures.

From the entrance level we go down a flight of stairs to a series of underground grottos.  Here Isabella and her ladies-in-waiting would escape the stifling heat of long summer afternoons on the island.


The walls of the grottoes, all dug by hand, are covered – literally – with shells, black marble…


… and there are statues that prepare us, somewhat, for the gardens we are about to enter.

By the 17th century throughout Italy the wealthy elite had grown tired of the restrained elegance of the Renaissance and what they perceived as its obsession, slavish veneration even, of the ancient Romans.  What they wanted were spectacular, grandiose expressions of their power and glorious achievements.  And when visitors walked out of the grottoes on Isola Bella and stepped into the gardens, the Borromeans, like their counterparts elsewhere in Italy, wanted to make sure the first thing those visitors saw made a big impression.


The Courtyard of Diana makes a powerful impact.  Even under dark skies.

Visitors of the time would have lingered in front of the scalloped niches, admiring the  statues which they had no trouble identifying as symbols of the myriad glorious  accomplishments of the Borromeans.  Since I had no clue – nor frankly, interest – in any of that, I climbed up one of the staircases that flank the hero-studded monument.  It led to a large terrace overlooking the eastern part of the gardens.  The prow.


From up here, close to the unicorn’s lofty perch, the cloud I’d seen earlier hovering over the mountain beyond Isola dei Pescatori looked even more snow-like.

If you turn your back to the unicorn, there is a wonderful view of the eastern part of the garden, but it was all so dismal-looking under those dark clouds I couldn’t bring myself to take any photos.  The only bright spot was the lily pond in the centre of the ‘prow’. I went back down the staircase and along the side of Diana’s Courtyard to the eastern end of the island to have a closer look.


Terrace along the north side of Diana’s Courtyard.


Improbable.  Ethereal. There is something so strange, so unearthly about these beautiful, perfect flowers that rise out of the murky depths.  I love them.



As I was hunched over the pond focused on the lilies, I started getting a strange feeling.  Was it getting lighter?  Sure enough.  There were even a couple of patches of blue to the east.  How long would it last?  I quickly took a few more photos of the lilies and then rushed back to all the areas I’d passed by before.



In addition to the views which had suddenly come to life, there were hidden horticultural treasures I’d missed before.


The ‘heart’ of the banana plant aka tree. One of the most beautiful I’d ever seen.

I was so focused on the top of the banana plant I almost missed the activity at ground level.


I’d seen quite a few of Isola Bella’s white peacocks preening themselves earlier and just assumed this one under the banana was a bit more thorough…


Do they preen in sync on purpose?

…until up popped another head…


…and another…


… and one more.


Nearby were a couple of gardeners.  I walked over to have a chat.  They were a little startled when I called out ‘Buon giorno’ and looked askance at me when I started talking to them, but when they realized that language was not going to be an issue, they relaxed, even seemed to enjoy my questions.   They were part of a team of eleven full-time gardeners who look after Isola Bella, adding that nine take care of the gardens on Isola Madre.  Wanting to know something about working conditions, I asked a question along the lines of ‘Once hired, did the gardeners tend to stay?’, which I am painfully aware, sounds terribly rude in English.  All I can say is that is not exactly how I phrased the question in Italian and they were not at all offended.  In fact, when the gardener on the left, a rather handsome-looking fellow, replied that he had been working there for 25 years, it was my turn to look askance.  Was he pulling my leg?  As well as molto bello, he also looked molto giovane.  Young.  Then it occurred to me that under the apprenticeship program that is much stronger in Europe than in North America he might well have started at age 15, making him now 40.  Still, as they say in Italian, he carried his years well.


Fall gardening is pretty much the same everywhere.

Additionally, there are three ragazzi who look after the limoni – Isola Bella’s huge collection of potted citrus.   In a few weeks the young lemon specialists would be coming over to the island to prepare the collection for the coming winter.  This involves setting up a temporary greenhouse, transferring all of the pots – over 300 of them – and then all sorts of trattamenti to ensure the plants survive the winter.  I headed back to the prow to have another look at the citrus.

With the sun, the gardeners seemed to have sprung to life.  The peacocks – white ones only are allowed here – strut around the gardens in complete freedom.  Oblivious to all of visitors gawking at them – and apparently to the gardeners with their noisy machines.


Keeping the lines straight when mowing the lawn in the Courtyard of Diana is uniquely challenging.

If you can get over the absurdity of it all, there is a certain fascination to the Borromeans’ self-aggrandizing monument.  I walked back and forth in front of it and then went up the staircase to have a look at the view under the now sunny skies.


It may be tasteless.  It may be crass.  But it is also without a doubt an unforgettable sight.


View from the unicorn’s perch.

Strolling around the gardens today it’s hard to imagine that before that 17th century Borromean Count started creating his version of the Garden of Hesperides which, as the Greek scholars among you will know, was the mythical garden from the long-lost Golden Age described by Ovid in the Metamorphosis, there was nothing remotely bella about the island.  It was a big, bleak, ugly hunk of rock that glaciers eons ago had strafed bear of all soil and vegetation.


Not even the gardeners’ noisy machines seemed to perturb the peacocks as they sauntered around the gardens.

Before any work on a garden, even one based on mythology, could be started, soil had to be brought in.  For years, the locals, many of whom had had their homes on the island expropriated and had been relocated, often forcibly, to the mainland, watched in amazement as boatload after boatload of soil was ferried to the island.  Then came the marble and finally, boatloads of tropical plants.


What fun to be here when they were pruning this one.

Since the Count hadn’t told anyone what he was up to, many wondered if he had gone crazy.  A possibility not lost on many of today’s visitors.


The sun-drenched terraces of the galleon’s prow lined with potted citrus.

When I watched the potted citrus being transferred out into the gardens of  Villa Medicea di Castello (The First Renaissance Gardens, Part III, Villa Medicea di Castello, Sept. 22, 2013), I was sure even the most resolute non-gardener could not help being struck by the lengths we are willing to go to in order to create and maintain a garden.   Isola Bella‘s citrus collection was smaller – 300 pots compared to Castello’s 500 – but there was no permanent building like the Limonaia where Castello’s lemons were safely over-wintered. Keeping Isola Bella‘s citrus alive over the winter entailed the additional step of having to assemble – and disassemble – a temporary greenhouse.  And on top of all the logistical challenges that come with being on an island, this island is hundreds of kilometres north of where you would normally think of finding lemons, citrus of any kind, growing outdoors.  And yet, unlike the pinks and turquoises we optimistically bring back from the tropics only to relegate a few months later to the back of our closets, when you are standing there, gazing at Isola Bella‘s citrus-covered prow, all those lemons and oranges and grapefruits don’t seem at all out of place.  Somehow they are not pink flamingoes.


I would have gladly spent more time wandering around the garden, but I’d seen how quickly the weather could change and wanted to visit Isola Madre while the sun lasted.  I made my way back to the ferry landing.


The peacocks sure got around.


From the ferry landing on Isola Bella, a view of Isola dei Pescatori where I’d be having lunch.  But first, the gardens of Isola Madre.

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