Saturday, June 1, 2013

Stresa Travel Notes: Don't Forget Isola Madre!

The Borromean Islands are, without a doubt, our most visited attraction from Stresa. However, not as many people make it to Isola Madre and I think that is a great shame. Isola Bella is the like the famous big sister that gets photographed, filmed and written about the most. Don't get me wrong, Isola Bella is a unique place to visit and the gardens are breathtaking, but in this post I'm going to champion the sometimes overlooked little sister, Isola Madre.

Watching the other boats as we sailed across the Borroman Bay
Last weekend with a few hours to spare on Sunday afternoon Luca and I set off on the ferry at 15.30 and enjoyed the leisurely sail around the Borromean Bay to Isola Madre. The boat stopped off en route at Isola Bella and Isola Pescatori where we enjoyed watching the comings and goings of the private taxi boats.

Approaching Isola Madre
The journey time to Isola Madre took a very enjoyable 35 minutes and as you come in to dock you look up at the charmingly rustic but large villa.

First close-up view from the ferry of the villa and gardens
Once off the ferry the entrance is just up the steps and you enter along "Africa Avenue" which is the sunniest and warmest part of the island. The gravel path leads you along the lakeside past large camellia bushes which flower from as early as January.

Africa Avenue
Close up of tree along Africa Avenue
Just around the corner we saw some beautiful, delicate flowers (photo below). I think it is a type of iris but if anyone knows precisely please let me know!

The beautiful blue iris!
Poppies and view across the lake
Next you'll find yourself passing the bottom of a long flight of steps with a wisteria covered pergola before arriving at the restored boathouse. From here you get lovely views across to Pallanza and Laveno.

Pink daisies by the boathouse
Turning left you reach the "Hunchback's Field" which is dominated by giant Himalayan rhododendrons. You then enter the main avenue that leads from the villa straight down to the lake. This spring there has been a special art installation by artist, Velasco Vitali. I'll be honest. Most of the pieces didn't inspire me but the metal sculptures of dogs along this main avenue and on the "Gynerium Lawn" are fun and each one is really full of character!

Curious dog watching out over the lake!
The Gynerium Lawn and some relaxing canines!!
Next you'll find "Parrot Square" and much of Isola Madre's wildlife! We saw a very beautiful blue peacock reclining on the lawn and then having a strut around! There are also white peacocks, parrots, and pheasants.

The blue peacock strutting his stuff!
Detail of the peacock's beautiful tail feathers
Walking further up the main avenue you arrive at the villa and the crowning glory of Isola Madre: the Kashmir Cypress. The tree originates from Asia and the example here is the biggest in Europe. Its green-blue foliage cascades down over the lawn in front of the villa.

The villa
The villa window detail
The villa door detail
In June 2006 the island was hit by a tornado which uprooted the Kashmir Cypress completely. After a super-human effort and lots of care and attention from the gardeners the tree was replanted. It has special supports and this year, for the first time since the tragedy struck, there is new growth and foliage.

The Kashmir Cypress (photo by Luca)
The villa itself is less imposing than the grand palace on Isola Bella and I just love it! It feels like a real house with its rooms filled with furniture and ornaments. There is an amazing collection of puppets and puppet theatres and then my favourite room of all: the garden room. The trompe d'oeil frescoes of plants and flowers trailing down a wrought iron pergola bring the outside in and are just beautiful. Unfortunately no photos are allowed in the villa so you will have to come and see it for yourselves!

The water-lily pool
Back out in the garden you'll find the Capella Sepolcrale and waterlily pool. There is a cafe with shaded seating for refreshments too.

The lawns outside the villa
Once we exited the gardens we walked past the La Piratera bar/restaurant and Luca enjoyed a very good ice cream! The path lead us back along to the ferry station and back we sailed across the bay to Stresa.

The ferry home
All in all a very relaxing few hours and an island that shouldn't be missed! Here's how to get there:

If you are just planning to visit Isola Madre the return ferry costs €10.00 return (€8.00 for over 65's Monday to Friday). If you are planning to combine it with other visits on the same day have a look at our guide to the ferries and you can see the different ticket options.

Entrance costs €11.00 per person and if you combine it with a visit to Isola Bella on the same day you can get a joint ticket for both islands for €18.50. RHS members enter for free.

Have you visited Isola Madre? What did you enjoy the most?

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