Monday, March 18, 2013

Stresa Travel Notes: 150 Years of the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées

This weekend the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées held a special lunch for over 600 Stresa residents over 65 years old. The occasion? To celebrate 150 years since the hotel first opened its doors in 1863. So I thought I would dedicate a post to the history of the hotel, how it has changed over the years and who are its most famous guests!

Illustration of the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées in its early  Years
The hotel was the idea of the Omarini brothers who already ran a hotel on Isola Bella called the Dauphin (now the Delfino). They saw the future of tourism in Stresa on the mainland and together with architect Antonio Polli the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées was created. Works started in 1861 and were completed in 1863.

Early photo of the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées
Just five years later, in 1868, they were ready for expansion and the wing on the right hand side was added.

The hotel after the extension was added in 1868
In 1872 Antonio Omarini wrote a guide book in French for the hotel's guests. As a sign of the times I find it fascinating to read that features of the hotel were listed as "electricity in all the rooms, modern sanitary facilities and central heating throughout the hotel". Suggested excursions for the guests include donkey and mule rides into the mountains. The hotel also began to be mentioned in travel guides both in Italy and abroad.

Pages from Antonio Omarini's guide book
After the turn of the century plans were afoot for further extension of the hotel and in just 95 days over the winter 1911-1912 three new floors were added along with the domed roofs. Thus the hotel took on the look  we all know today.

Adding three floors and the domed roofs in just 95 days! 1911-1912
The 1st June 1906 was a real turning point for the hotel and tourism in Stresa in general. The Simplon train tunnel opened, the Orient Express came past and Stresa became a main stop on the Grand Tour. This not only meant more guests, but they also stayed for longer.

The lounge as it looked in 1912
In 1907 the Omarini brothers started to sell the majority of shares to the "Anonymous  Partnership Grand Hotels Union" who in 1923 were absorbed by CIGA (Italian Company of Grand Hotels) in Venice. The Omarini brothers still managed the hotel until 1923.

Ernest Hemingway enjoying a boat ride on Lake Maggiore
With the outbreak of World War I the hotel was initially used as a refuge for those who wanted to and could escape the war. In 1917, however, it was requisitioned and became a military hospital. In 1918 Ernest Hemingway spent convalescence time at the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées. He returned in 1948 and signed the guest book as "an old client". The famous Hemingway Suite is named after him and he famously set part of his novel, "A Fairwell to Arms" at the hotel. The suite covers 240 square metres and the terrace covers 160 square metres (you can see the terrace above the front entrance).

One of the Hemingway Suite bedrooms
During the war the hotel was subject to vandalism so when the owners took control again a small army of carpenters, decorators, carpet layers and builders were drafted in. After three months the hotel was transformed and ready to accept paying guests once again.

In 1923 CIGA decided it was time for modernisation so the hotel would appeal to international guests. In 1925 an advert in "Hotel" magazine said the hotel newly-modernised hotel boasted: 300 rooms and 75 ensuite bathrooms, daily concerts, billiards and skating! I couldn't believe the bit about skating until I saw the postcard below.

Postcard showing the lakeside skating rink!
In 1935 Luigi Carnacina was named general manager of the hotel. He was a famous chef and hotel manager of the time and Luca remembers his Gran used to have his cookbook. His first task was to welcome Mussolini and the French and British Prime Ministers for the first Stresa Conference. The actual meetings took place on Isola Bella but the leaders stayed at the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées.

During World War II the hotel was occupied first by German and then American troops who converted it into a convalescence home for injured officials. After a short period between 1945-1946 when it was the municipal casino, it returned to being a hotel. I was amazed that in 1959 a mini-golf course "Garden Golf" was added in the hotel's park. It was later removed.

The mini-golf course at the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées
The hotel boasts a guest book full of famous names which include royalty: King Hussein of Jordan, Prince Ranieri III of Monaco, Princess Margaret (UK) and the Duke and Duchess of Kent to name a few. Celebrities from the world of music and cinema who have stayed at the hotel include Richard Wagner, Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Sylvester Stallone and more recently, George Clooney. Carlo Azeglio Ciampi,  Italian Prime Minister 1993-1994 and Italian President 1999-2006 has also been a guest. Not to mention illustrious business leaders such as Umberto Agnelli (Fiat).

Princess Margaret
In 1990 CIGA was having difficulties and after almost 70 years the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées returned to the ownership of Stresa hoteliers. SIALM (Italian Partenership of Lake Maggiore Hotels) took over the hotel and its new managers were (and still are) Gianluigi Mariani and Marco Padulazzi.

The hotel was refurbished and the Wellness Centre got a complete overhaul. The rooms and bathrooms were modernised and the meeting and function rooms were updated. Architect Statilio Ubiali oversaw the woroks and brought the hotel back to its original 1911 Liberty style. In 1995 the hotel was named the "most beautiful hotel in Italy" by the Touring Club Italiano. Between 1998-2000 attention turned to the hotel's park and the grand fountain, statues and mosaics were added.

Drawings and photos of the entrance and the fountain
In 2013, to celebrate 150 years of the hotel, a new entrance has been added.

The new entrance to celebrate the hotel's 150th birthday
I hope you've enjoyed learning about the history of the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées. It is a beautiful hotel and I love it when I have the opportunity to visit our clients there. Sitting in the sunny, Liberty style lounge at the front of the hotel is always a special experience.

Let us know if you have you stayed at the hotel? What did you enjoy the most?

We'd like to thank the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées for the photographs.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Stresa Travel Notes: Springtime in Stresa

After a beautifully warm day yesterday it really feels like spring is arriving in Stresa. With the Borromean Islands opening this weekend, cafès and bars putting their tables out in the square and shops opening up again, Stresa is awakening after its winter hibernation.

Spring is a wonderful time to visit Stresa and I thought I'd share my favourite reasons why:

Stresa in Bloom - Isola Madre Camellia
1. Stresa in Bloom
Stresa starts to burst with colour in spring. The hotels gardens are filled with blooms from tulips to pansies and the first geraniums spilling out over the balconies. Along the lakefront promenade and on the Borromean Islands camellias, azaleas and rhododendrons come into flower.

The Weather: sitting outside for an aperitivo! Cin cin!
2. The Weather
I'll admit we can get our fair share of rain in the spring (as we always say: "that's why the countryside is so green!") but when the sun is shining the weather is perfect for sightseeing: not too hot and not too humid. It's my perfect climate! Just warm enough to sit outside at the bar for a coffee ... or a prosecco ... and a spot of people watching.

Snow-Capped Mountains: Isola Pescatori in March
3. Snow-Capped Mountains
In spring the mountains surrounding Lake Maggiore still have their peaks covered in snow and it looks so beautiful. The air is usually clearer in spring, with none of the haze we get from the heat in full summer, so views across the lake are simply stunning.

Tulip Week at Villa Taranto
4. Tulip Week at Villa Taranto
Tulip week at Villa Taranto is like an annual pilgrimage for Luca and I. It is a fantastic place for taking photographs as the tulip beds are great blocks of colour. Over 80,000 bulbs have been planted for this year's event and they are due to flower between 18th-25th April.

5. Foodie and Music Events
Even in the spring there are events to enjoy. This year we're looking forward to the first edition of the event for foodies: Il Giusto con Gusto. The foodie fair will include tastings, demonstrations, dinners with Michelin star chefs and masterclasses in cake decoration. For music lovers there is the 23rd Organ Festival with four concerts held in the parish church.

A Woodland Walk: The Chestnut Route
6. A Woodland Walk
After the winter there's nothing like good walk to blow away the cobwebs! The Chestnut Route is lovely in the spring as you can see trees and plants springing to life all along the walk. The route takes you from Stresa to Belgirate and you can then return by train to Stresa.

Have you visited Stresa in the Spring? What was your favourite thing?