One Man’s Dream Garden

‘A garden doesn’t need to be big, but it should be the realization of one’s dream.’  So said the man who created the gardens of Villa Taranto on Lake Maggiore. My plan was to visit that garden the day after touring Isola Bella and Isola Madre.  Maybe someone else would have found a way to squeeze all three into one day, but taking a cue from ‘Slow Food’ and all the other slow movements out there nowadays, I like to take my time when I visit a garden, and given the shorter opening hours and limited fall ferry schedule, I felt it would be better to leave Villa Taranto for the following day.  And it might have been better – if it hadn’t rained and if I hadn’t changed my original plans because of a big, glossy pamphlet at the ferry landing in Stresa.


The ‘Lago Maggiore Express’ promised an unforgettable, round-trip journey of the lake by train and by boat.   Highlights included a ride on the narrow gauge railway through the scenic Centovalli, a stop-over in Locarno, Switzerland and enchanting views of the lake on the return trip by ferry.  The owner of the B&B I was staying in said lots of his guests had taken the trip and loved it. It was an all-day excursion, departing from the train station in Stresa at  9:38 a.m. and returning to the ferry landing at 7:15 p.m.   I only had one more day in the area.  What would be the best way to spend that day?  Go back to a garden I had already visited, the easy, safe choice – or  take a chance on an excursion to an area I had never been to before, an excursion that would take me through the countryside west of Lake Maggiore and  into the Italian part of Switzerland and past the picturesque villages along the northern shores of  of Lake Maggiore.  Even for someone who loves gardens, it wasn’t much of a choice.


And there was one more thing.  From Stresa it was a 40-minute ride on the Ferrovia Statale, the modern, state-run railway, (love the name – ferro means ‘iron’ and via means ‘road’) to the mountain village where we would transfer to the narrow gauge train that would take us to Locarno.  I was delighted to see that we had over an hour before the ancient train departed.  This meant I would have time for a much-needed, mid-morning cappuccino (a real one, not the watery stuff they served on the train) and to explore the village.  I’m always up for meandering along the cobblestone alleyways of Italy’s charming, medieval centres, but that wasn’t why I was  keen on exploring this particular village.  It was its name.


Beyond the flags at the train station in Locarno, the mountains of the Centovalli (Hundred Valleys).

I have never quite got over my aversion to talking on the phone in Italy.  In addition to the fact that, as everyone knows, Italians speak molto rapidamente and you don’t have any visual clues to help fill in what you miss, there is another hurdle, totally unrelated to your  proficiency – or not – in Italian.  You’re going to have to learn the names of all the major, and some minor, Italian cities.

Unlike us English speakers, who sensibly use Alpha, Bravo, Charlie etc. when spelling out names over the phone, Italians use the names of their cities – Ancona, Bologna, Como.  Some of them are easy – ‘R’ for Roma,  ‘N’ for Napoli, ‘M’ for Milano and ‘F’ for Florence where I lived.  But not all the letters have a well-known city for this spelling system, so you end up with obscure towns like ‘E’ for Empoli and ‘I’ for Imola.   To complicate things even further, strong, regional loyalties lead to disagreements about which city represents which letter.  For Sicilians there is no question that ‘P’ is for Palermo, but in the north, you may hear Padova or Pisa. This geographical spelling system obviously takes a bit of work, but once you get used to it, it’s actually kind of fun.   My favourite city letter of all was ‘D’ for Domodossola (doh-moh-dos-soh-lah), the name of the mountain village we would be stopping in.


Locarno’s Piazza Grande.

As it turned out, due to engine problems, the train crawled its way to Domodossola, leaving us barely enough time to make our connection.  (Making the excrutiatingly slow ride even worse was the fact that while the delay was periodically announced – in Italian, English and German – the exact nature of those engine problems was never disclosed.)  In addition to missing out on my favourite ‘spelling village’, the much-lauded journey through the Centovalli was, if anything, even worse than the train ride to Domodossola.  The narrow, hard seats were so tightly jammed together it was impossible not to be constantly bumping knees and the views – at least what you could see of the views through the filthy windows – were, frankly, boring.  No photos of that two-hour ordeal.  On the positive side, the little old train huffed and puffed its way through the mountains, at some point crossing the border into Switzerland – we had been given multiple warnings about bringing our passports, but never needed them – and arrived right on schedule in Locarno where the sun was still shining and as luck would have it, the second day of a food and wine festival was in progress.   Wonderful!  I was starving.


There was just one problem.  It had somehow slipped my mind that unlike all the countries around it – France, Germany, Austria and of course Italy – Switzerland had stubbornly (perversely?) held on to its own currency, the Swiss Franc.  All I had were euros.  Feeling foolish and annoyed and in no mood to join the long line of people at the currency booth by the station I headed for the Tourist Office.  At the very least I wouldn’t spend my time in Locarno hungry and lost.

While I waited for the young woman at the counter to finish helping the visitor ahead of me, I pondered not what I would say to her, but in what language. She and the visitor were both rattling away in German.   When I first took up Italian years ago, that was the end of German for me. (Although I was surprised, as I travelled around northern Italy, which was full of German tourists this fall, by how much I could still understand.  No wonder we start to have problems remembering things at a certain age – there’s too much stuff in there.)  In the end, I decided I would start off in Italian.  Even though so many Europeans have an annoying ability to speak perfect English, it still makes me feel lazy.   So when it was my turn, I very politely asked what turned out to be a very stupid question – ‘Buon giorno.  Parla italiano?’   Locarno is the capital of the canton of Ticino.  Italian is the official language of Ticino.  She smiled – very generously it seemed to me, given the ignorance of her country my question had revealed.  I’m not sure I would have been so magnanimous if confronted with one of those tourists who come to Toronto in July and want to know where the snow is.  When I got over my embarrassment I asked her for a piantina, a map of the city.  I wanted to explore Locarno, but I didn’t want to get lost and I certainly didn’t want to miss the 16.15 ferry back to Stresa.  She was so simpatica despite my initial blunder I decided to also confess to her my money dilemma.  She smiled again.  Apparently I wasn’t the first.  No problem.  All I had to do was have a coffee at the restaurant which was conveniently attached to the Tourist Office and pay for it with a big euro note.  I would get my change in Swiss francs.  By this point I was more in the mood for a glass of wine than a coffee so I ordered ‘un bicchiere di vino bianco, per favore’, although it still felt weird speaking Italian in what I’d always thought was a mostly German-speaking country.   When it came time to pay, I gave the waiter a 20 euro note (the wine was 5 CHF).  Barely skipping a beat he handed me back 15 CHF.  Since I didn’t have a clue what the exchange rate was, I had no way of knowing if I had just been ripped off or not, but I didn’t think so.  Out of curiosity, when I got home I looked up the exchange rate and the good feeling I’d had about the place was confirmed.  The rate was 1 CHF to .93 €.


Waiting to be served at the station of Il Ristorante La Cittadella.

I headed over to the Manifestazione gastronomica to see what I could get with my 15 francs.  There were a couple of options.  Ten restaurants were participating in the festival. For 44 francs you could indulge in all ten stations.  Too much food – and wine – for me.  Or you  could buy single tickets.  I thought three would be nice – two ‘mains’ and one dessert – but the single tickets were 8 CHF and I only had 15.  I explained my predicament.  Again, no problem.  If I gave the ticket seller all my Swiss francs and an additional 10 euros he would give me three tickets.  In light of the limited time I had and the convenience of this banking operation, it struck me as a deal worth doing.

I went up and down the alleys looking at the various stations.  Finally I chose one that offered what I considered typical Swiss fare – meat, potatoes and another vegetable and a terrific red wine.  It was delicious, but even better for my tastes, was what the chef of the Ristorante Cittadella had prepared for his station – which, by the way, the people at the first station, showing what struck me as great camaraderie, had encouraged me to try.


Fried calamari, smoked salmon and a fish salad. And a glass of the local white wine. Absolutely delicious.

I took my plate and glass of wine and sat down on the church steps opposite the Cittadella station. While I sat there enjoying the food and watching the goings-on I overheard one of the station attendants muttering something about ‘Peggio di Genova.’  (Worse than Genova.)  Genova was hundreds of miles to the south.  In Italy.  What was this Swiss fellow talking about?  Abandoning my usual Canadian reserve – something that  is astonishingly easy to do in Italian – I stopped him as he went by me carrying a tray full of dirty dishes.  Scusi… He gave me a startled look – admittedly it was not the kind of question one would usually expect from a tourist – and then burst out laughing.  The turnout and the amount of money people were spending, he explained, had not been as good as they had hoped and the genovesi had a reputation for being notorious tight-wads.  Maybe the ties to Italy in this part of Switzerland weren’t just linguistic.


I used my third ticket at the Pasticceria Marnin, Locarno’s award-winning pastry shop.  I was given a tray on which a trio of decadent mousses and a glass of Prosecco in a real, long-stemmed glass were elegantly, but precariously balanced.

The extraordinary lunch more than made up for the disappointing train ride.  Now I was looking forward to the boat ride back to Stresa.  The views were sure to be at least as enchanting as those I’d seen on the short ferry rides between Isola Bella and Isola Madre.  And they probably are.  If you can see them.


Looking north from the landing in Locarno. The last of the clear blue skies and fluffy white clouds.

It started to drizzle as we boarded the boat.  I took a few photos, but when it started to pour I put my camera away and joined the rest of the downcast passengers inside the cabin.  I thought about all the hard-working, energetic people hosting the festival.  They were probably feeling pretty downcast too.



A moment of sunshine and a faint double rainbow.

By the time we reached Verbania, the last stop before Stresa the rain had stopped. But the rough waters made getting off the boat treacherous, especially for some of the older passengers.


As we passed by Isola Bella, only the unicorn and a few statues on the ‘prow’ were still visible in the fading light.


Although I didn’t get to see Villa Taranto on this trip, I thought it might be worthwhile to give you an idea of what the gardens are like.  Così (coh-zee), which is a kind of drawn-out ‘So-o-o’ – with some reservations – here are the few photos I have, all taken on an old camera and before I really got into visiting gardens.  Just keep in mind that there is a lot more to the garden. And one more thing – if you want to see more and decide to have a look at the website, don’t be put off by the English page, where the world-wide ‘notoriety’ of the plants is extolled and ‘hasty’ visitors are not ‘exonerated’ from spending less than a couple of years exploring the gardens.  It really is a lovely garden.


On the way to the landing at Villa Taranto, glimpses of enchanting villas along the shore. 

In 1931  a Scotsman, Capt. Neil McEacharn, was on the train heading home from his annual sojourn in Venice – he was obviously a rather wealthy Scotsman –  saw an ad in the real estate section of The Times.  A villa on Lake Maggiore was for sale.   I doubt few of us haven’t whiled away an hour or so drooling over real estate ads for villas in exotic places and dreamed of the life we would lead in such places.  Unlike us, the Captain didn’t waste dreaming of such a life.  He just jumped off the train at Pallanza, the nearest station to the villa, put in an offer and began to create his dream garden.  When completed in 1940 – shortly before Italy entered World War II – it was not only beautiful, but at 16 hectares, also enormous. (1 hectare = approx. 2.5 acres)


His praise of the small garden notwithstanding, there was nothing small about what McEacharn intended to do.  Not unlike the designers of the 16th Renaissance gardens, he proceeded to transform the landscape.  Who knows what the labourers he hired – all local – thought as he had some of them build terraces, while others dug out a valley and still others put down kilometres and kilometres of irrigation tubing?  Or when he had over 2000 trees cut down?  No way he would get away with that nowadays.  And then the plants started arriving.  Thousands of them, many never before seen, let alone grown in Italy.  And as often as he could, McEacharn, who was glowingly described by his colleagues as that rare breed – ‘a gardener among botanists and a botanist among gardeners’ – would join the expeditions to far-flung places in search of more rare, exotic beauties.

My favourite plant was in the greenhouse – Victoria cruziana.  Ironically these gigantic water lilies, native to the Amazon, were grown from seeds that came to Villa Taranto via the Botanical Gardens of Stockholm.


The leaves of the Victoria cruziana can reach 2 metres in diameter and support 10 kilos – the weight of a baby.  Not something I would like to try.


I found a leaf discarded on the sidewalk next to the greenhouse. This might have been my first ‘shoe shot’.  Those shoes wore out a long time ago.

The property had always been known as La Crocetta (Little Cross), but McEacharn changed the name to Villa Taranto in honour of one of his ancestors who had been proclaimed Duke of Taranto by Napoleon.  This might seem to smack of cultural arrogance or at least insensitivity, but the Scotsman so won over the hearts of the locals, they didn’t object to his tampering with their cultural heritage.

Like many people,  McEacharn didn’t care for the classic Italian gardens – all green, no colour.  (a notion that recent studies of Renaissance gardens near Florence have shown to be historically incorrect, but that’s another story.)  In any event, apart from a nod here and there to Italy’s Renaissance gardens, he made sure there was lots of colour in the rest of his garden.


The classic , formal symmetry of the Italian Renaissance garden.

If you come in spring over 80,000 tulips, rhodos, magnolias and azaleas will be in bloom.  In fall it’s the Dahlias’ turn – over 1700 of them – 300 different types – planted beguilingly along meandering paths.


The Dahlia Maze.

Unlike some of Italy’s boxwood mazes, you won’t really get lost in the Dahlia maze, but you might lose track of the time. Just when you think you’ve seen the most beautiful one of all, you’ll catch a glimpse of another one around the bend up ahead and you’ll just have to have a closer look.


I was pretty upset at having ‘wasted’ a morning of sunshine on the train instead of going back to Villa Taranto.  On the other hand, as the congenial owner of the little hotel I stayed in one year on Capri remarked when I didn’t have time for a sunset dinner at the island’s lighthouse restaurant, the missed visit provided ‘Un ottimo motive per ritornare’.  An excellent reason to return.  In spring perhaps, when the tulips and rhododendrons and azaleas and maybe even the astonishing ‘Handerchief Tree’ are in bloom.


Isola Bella‘s grand galleon at night.

Next –  Italy’s dreamy Ligurian coast


The Mother Island

It’s a short ferry ride from Isola Bella to Isola Madre.  It hasn’t always been called the Mother Island.  Neither for that matter has Isola Bella (last week’s post) always been called the ‘Beautiful Island’ .  Before the count with his lovely wife Isabella came along, it was known as Isola Inferiore, a name which is even more bizarre when you consider that the tiny fishermen’s island next to it was called, at the time, as it is now, Isola Superiore dei Pescatori.  The only thing I can think of is that the early settlers must have believed the tiny island lay a bit to the north of the other – much like the way Lake Superior, which although, as all Canadians who have made it through Grade 4 know (or at least at one time knew) is the largest body of fresh water in the world, wasn’t named for its size, but rather for its location. (If you don’t like the etymology, blame the French – they were the ones who christened it lac supérieur, the ‘upper’ lake.)


Approaching the landing on Isola Madre.

As we got closer to the landing, I heaved a sigh of relief.  My eyes weren’t going.  Those really were palm trees and a Eucalyptus.  Isola Madre is at 46° N.  That’s two whole latitude degrees north of Toronto, where there is going to have to be a lot more global warming before we’ll be able to plant any of these trees in our gardens.


Like the ancient Romans, at the beginning of the 16th century, the first of a long line of Borromeo’s was drawn to the island’s mild climate.  They immediately recognized the potential for transforming the island into  a luxurious, private refuge.  But there was one problem.   On the island, which was then known as Isola di San Vittore, there was a chapel dedicated to the saint, and the byzantine church laws of the time didn’t allow for both a chapel and a pleasure palace to co-exist on the island.  Lancellotto Borromeo must have been very persuasive, because it wasn’t long before the Curia gave the go-ahead for the chapel to be disassembled and rebuilt on Isola Bella (where presumably it wouldn’t be a hindrance to future Borromeo ambitions.)


With only time for a quick glance as you make your way along the narrow plank, it looks as if this Agave has gone wild and started sending out rogue Bougainvillea shoots

From the landing a walkway leads to the right along the Viale Africa, the hottest part of the island.  Right away my plant ID skills were challenged.


This looked like something I might have drawn in my crayon days.

I took a photo of a plaque near the base of the tree.  I’d look it up when I got home.


But when I eventually looked it up, something was wrong. I had seen quite a few carob trees in my travels around Italy – including an especially gorgeous one just a few months earlier in Sicily.  Its distinctive seed pods make it easy to identify.


In May the seed pods on this tree near Siracusa in south-eastern Sicily were a light green. As they ripen they will turn dark brown.

I didn’t recall seeing a single seed pod on the tree on Isola Madre.  I checked my photos again.  Whew! Memory still good.  Not a seed pod in sight.  The planting around the base of the tree was pretty thick.  Maybe the label was for another plant.  Maybe it was a Redbud, the only tree I know that has flowery things growing out of the bark.  But I couldn’t find any images of Redbud showing anything even vaguely similar.  Of course!  Apart from spring, when it looks spectacular, it isn’t really much to look at.  I decided to have a closer look at my photo, only this time I’d try to ignore the intriguing bits coming out of the bark and concentrate on the leaves.  And then, well aware that the definition of stupidity is to do the same thing again and expect different results,  I decided to have another look at the images of the Carob tree.  And guess what!  It was a carob.  There were no seed pods because it turns out that while a few carob trees are hermaphrodites, most of them are dioecious – had to look that one up too – either male or female.


A pod-free, male Carob tree.

By the time you reach the Viale delle Camelie, it’s clear that what is going on here is worlds apart – horticulturally speaking – from the Baroque extravaganza nearby.


Eucalyptus, Lantana, Brugmansia. As if we’ve been transported to an island in the tropics.

For some reason, even though the Borromeos were obviously big fans of the Baroque style in all its (brash) splendour, and even though they took great pleasure and pride, no doubt, in throwing lavish parties on Isola Bella for their many illustrious and powerful guests, they never seemed to have had any interest in what modern day developers would consider an obvious, not to-be missed opportunity to turn Isola Madre into an Isola Bella II.  Instead, they left Isola Madre in a bit of a time warp, as a place where the restrained elegance of the Renaissance endured.  A place where the glories of nature – rare and exotic plants, brought back by friends and horticultural explorers from all over the world – replaced those of man.   A kind of 17th century detox retreat where they would go to restore themselves after all the festivities were over.


Even though they had long finished blooming, these plants had a strange beauty. The dead petals hanging from the flower stalk made a kind of cobweb-like fountain. What were they?

Part of Isola Madre‘s extraordinarily mild climate – it is even warmer than Isola Bella – is due to a quirk of geography.  By mid-afternoon in winter the mountains along the lake’s south shore begin to cast their long shadows over Isola Bella, while Isola Madre basks in full sunshine all day throughout the year.


A week later I saw the plant again, in full bloom, in a wonderful garden close to the Austrian border.  It’s Kahili Ginger.


Why do we bother with big, expensive pots when obviously all Arum needs is an oversized saucer?

Once the chapel was gone, the island’s old name obviously had to go too.  One of the counts, Renato Borromeo, wanted to call it Isola Renata.  Maybe he wasn’t very popular.  Maybe naming an island after your wife was OK, but before the era of vanity plates and people naming towers after themselves, naming an island after yourself was pushing the self-glorification just a bit too much.  In any event Isola Renata didn’t take and by the early 1700’s people started calling it Isola Madre.  Some say it was in honour of the historical importance of the island – the first to be settled.  Others prefer to think it was in honour of the count’s mother who, perhaps unlike her son, was of a benevola disposizione and loved by all.


From the north shore of Isola Madre, a view of the town of Pallanza on the mainland. Around the tip of the peninsula, lies the third garden on Lake Maggiore – Villa Taranto.


In a grassy area on the west side of the island tree roots create a spooky effect.


On my previous trip a peacock had been poking around the bamboo. Was the mesh to protect tender shoots?

This time there were no peacocks in sight and I was fiddling with my camera, trying to capture a clump of black bamboo without overexposing the ‘normal’ green bamboo in full sunlight further along the path, when I was distracted by a commotion behind me.


Phyllostachys nigra. Black bamboo and an (over-exposed) clump of the more common, green variety.


The bamboo was no competition for this flashy creature and since I couldn’t very well smash my way through the thick hedge it disappeared under, I rushed along the walkway until I reached a cross-path which opened onto the Piazzale dei Pappagalli.


There were two of them!

It’s called the Piazzale of the Parrots, but there was a full menagerie of plumed creatures, some wandering around in complete freedom and others in cages.


I watched, incredulous, as this Chinese Golden Pheasant – I had to look it up of course – displayed its remarkable ‘cape’.


Nearby, the peacock, as if disdainful of the swollen-headed antics of the pheasants, gazed haughtily off into the distance.


But when one of the pheasants proceeded to walk through the crowd of adoring fans, it was apparently too much for the peacock…


.. who decided to do a little showing off of its own.

It was well past lunch time, but there was still more of the island to see.  I dragged myself away from the birds and headed towards the villa.

You don’t have to be a gardener to know that Nature can be cruel.  On June 30, 2006, at 2 a.m. a violent tromba d’aria (trumpet of air) ripped through Isola Madre, essentially destroying the western part of the island.  But the most devastating loss of all occurred just metres from the villa, which apart from a few broken windows, was left intact.  Which brings to mind a word Italian weather forecasters sometimes use when they get tired of the same old words for storms – burrasca, temporale, tempesta.  Instead they refer to brutto tempo as il fortunale.   Derived from fortuna, it seems an odd word for ‘ugly’ weather, but then again, perhaps it, more than all the other words, captures the capricious nature of these storms.

Prior to the tornado, the well-loved symbol of Isola Madre had been a Kashmir Cypress which towered over the loggia next to the villa.  Planted from a packet of seeds brought back from the Himalayas in the 1880’s, it had grown into the largest and oldest Kashmir Cypress in Europe.  Despite its enormous size – the trunk is over 25 feet in diameter – the violent winds lifted the tree, roots and all, into the air and then let it crash to the ground.  Garden experts from all Italy and from abroad rushed to the site and with the aid of helicopters and other heavy machinery did the impossibile to save the tree.

A quick scan through my photos was all it took to find the one I had taken of the cypress on my last trip.  Even in thumbnail format, the bedraggled tree was easy to spot. But when I enlarged it, I saw something I didn’t expect to see and didn’t remember seeing at the time.  Crocus – fall crocus – at the base of the tree.  Now it just so happens that while I’ve been working on this post, among the pile of books I have been reading is one with the eyebrow-raising title, ‘How to Fly a Horse’.  Not the kind of title that would normally lead me to even pick up a book, but I had turned on the radio one day mid-way into one of those fabulous CBC author interviews.  A fellow  was talking about how we create things.  How we really create things and what he was saying had a lot to do with hard, painstaking work and very little with flashes of genius bestowed upon a chosen few.  I borrowed a copy from the library and then liked it so much I bought it.  And what does all this have to do with the crocus blooming around the base of the Kashmir Cypress?  Cognitive dissonance, which, according to Kevin Ashton, is a big hurdle to creativity. It comes up whenever ‘what we know contradicts what we believe’.  This, unfortunately, occurs quite frequently and when it does, thanks to our very flexible and very resourceful brains, we apparently go one of two ways.  We either change our beliefs to fit the facts, or, more often, we yield to a primitive and surprisingly strong urge for self-preservation and change the facts to fit our beliefs.  Until I saw those crocuses, I was convinced the last trip I had taken to northern Italy had been in the spring.  Now I was faced with either accepting the reality of those fall blooms, which meant also accepting the unpleasant fact that I had somehow forgotten an entire trip, or I could change the reality to suit my beliefs and not worry about incipient cognitive decline.  Maybe they weren’t crocus.  Maybe they were…


The Kashmir Cypress, September, 2010. Looking a bit bedraggled and held upright by guy wires, but just four years after the tornado, with all that new, lush foliage, its future looked promising.

(While the book of course has nothing to do with flying horses, it does have a lot to do with man learning to fly something else, the clue to which is conveniently provided on the cover of the book just below the title.  But if you’re like me, you’re going to be well into the book before you figure that out.)

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A plaque describes what happened that terrible night.

As I climbed the stairs to the Loggia del Cashmir I got my first look at the tree.  There was a bare area on one side, but there was also a lot of very healthy-looking foliage.


And as I continued around the base of the tree it became clear that all the rescuers’ hard work had paid off.



September 2015. View from the first floor of the villa, the same spot I had taken a photo five years earlier.  There was no longer any doubt that Isola Madre‘s Kashmir Cypress was going to make it.

A staircase off the east side of the villa (which is private, so no photos allowed), overlooks  the Piazzale della Cappella (chapel).


As I explained in some of my earliest posts, the Renaissance was all about emulating the ancient Romans.  And since all the best gardens of ancient Rome had a nymphaeum aka grotto, no Renaissance garden of any repute was without its own ‘playground of the nymphs’.


Two cherubs stand watch over the small, but charming grotto hidden below the ivy-covered staircase.


The chapel is a fairly recent addition as things in Italy go.  It was commissioned in the mid 19th century by the then residing Borromeo Count, who decided it would be nice to have a family chapel on the island.  Save them the trip to Isola Bella.  He wanted something that evoked ‘il linguaggio Bramantesco o anche Bizantino’.  Given the limited space and the linguaggio – which usually refers to ‘language’ but in this context refers to style – of everything else on the island, fortunately the architect managed to tone down the count’s original aspirations.


The Family chapel.  A toned-down amalgam of Bramante and Byzantine influences.


View from the grotto to Stresa on the far shore.


On the way back to the landing. Just imagine what this path will look like next spring when the wisteria is in bloom!


The peacock strolling along the Viale delle Palme fits right in with the colourful border along the south wall of the villa.


On the ferry to Isola dei Pescatori, the ‘snow’ has finally lifted from the mountains.


Finalmente.  Approaching Isola dei Pescatori – and lunch.


One of the benefits of arriving really late for lunch – a water-side table vacated by previous diners on a tighter schedule than mine.


Antipasto Misto, Fisherman’s Style. Delizioso!

Next – One Man’s Dream Garden





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.