Updated: Nov 5
Just 90 minutes from Milan, is the idyllic Italian Lakes Region. Nestled in the foothills of the Alps, on the border of Italy and Switzerland, sits Lake Maggorie, the largest of the Italian lakes. Lake Maggiore and the towns along its shores have long been the playground and inspiration for artists, authors, politicians and celebrities. This alpine lake area is temperate year round, allowing for lush gardens and landscape. We were only able to spend 24 hours soaking all this area has to offer. We wished we planned for a longer stay.
First Stop, Arona
On the southeastern end of Lake Maggiore is the little town of Arona. We stopped mid-day on a beautiful fall Thursday to get our first glimpses of the lake. As is true with most parts of Italy, these towns are best explored on foot. With fountains, statues and scenic vistas, it is a beautiful place for wandering. A word of caution, most people visit Lake Maggiore in the summer months or on the weekends. It is a bit quiet and some shops and restaurants can be closed or have limited hours during the week in the other seasons.
Where We Ate in Arona
There are multiple cafes, osterias and ristorantes in Arona and many of them overlook Lake Maggiore. If you are visiting in the summer or on the weekends, I would highly recommend that you get a reservation. We visited in the fall and did not make a prior reservation, which was not needed this time of year. Our lunch on the porch of Giardino Arona Ristorante Pizzeria was delightful.
Their menu is seasonal and based on fresh ingredients. After sharing a salad, CaptK had the pasta with clams. I choose the Duck Ragu over pasta. As you will notice from the photos, neither pasta dish had a tomato based sauce. It is most common in Northern Italy to find pasta with an olive oil based sauce rather than a tomato based sauce. There is a unique and very regional difference in Italian cooking.
We finished our meal with a walk down the street to the gelato shop. I love that you get two mini scoops, each a separate flavor.
Next Stop Sancarlone
One of my main reasons for wanting to visit Arona was to stop and see Sancarlone, or the Colossus of San Carlo Borromeo. First, I was interested to see the statue that inspired the craftmenship of the Statue of Liberty. Second I was interested in the man, St. Charles Borromeo who is the namesake of the church where our children made their first Communion and Confirmation. In the 16th century the Borromeo Family owned all of the land surrounding Lake Maggiore and its islands. Charles Borromeo was the third child of six children. His father was the Count of Arona and is mother part of the Medici Family. In 1559, his uncle on his mother's side was named Pope Pius IV. Borromeo went to Rome to work with him. He rose quickly through the ranks and was ultimately named Archbishop of Milan. He earned his sainthood by his work and dedication to the Counter-Reformation. This 35 meter high, copper statue, overlooking Lake Maggiore was built between 1614 and 1698 in his honor. In 1869, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi spent several months studying the statue and used it as the basis for the Statue of Liberty.
Where We Stayed in Stresa
There are numerous accommodations in Stresa, from high end luxury resorts to quaint budget friendly Inns. We choice the Regina Palace because of its Art Deco beauty and lakefront balconies. After World War I, this area saw a boom in tourism and several stately hotels were built in the flamboyant Art Deco style. As you can see from the photographs, the Regina Palace embraces those roots.
The main entrance and lobby take you back to the peacetime frivolity of the early 20th century in Europe.The rooms have king size beds and deep marble soaking tubs. The view of Lake Maggiore from the rooms on the front side of the hotel is spectacular. To find out more information about the Regina Palace and other accommodations in Stresa, click on theinks below.
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Walking in the Steps of Hemingway
Stesa has long welcomed artists, authors, and celebrities to her shores. Charles Dickens wrote part of the Tale of Two Cities, here in the mid 1800's. Winston Churchill honeymooned here in 1908. Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway wrote "A Farewell to Arms" at the Grand Hotel in Stresa. Whether that is true or not, he did visit Stresa multiple times and set part of "A Farewell to Arms" in Stresa. On a rainy evening, we walked over to the Grand Hotel to see if we could feel the spirit of Ernest Hemingway.
We went directly to the Hemingway Bar, an ornate Art Deco bar, in the front lobby of the hotel. I am a big Hemingway fan. How could I not love an author that lived in Paris, Cuba, Key West and Wyoming. I ordered a Hemingway Daiquiri, rum and fresh lime juice, sweetened with Maraschino Liquor, shaken and served up. As the rained drummed on the window pains, I thought about Henry and Catherine, the main characters in "A Farewell to Arms" rowing almost 40 miles from Stresa to Switzerland to escape the War in Italy, in treacherous weather. Their desperation to live together and raise their unborn child in peace became very real to me in that moment.
Where We Ate in Stresa
We choice the stylishly decorated LaStresa for dinner, a few blocks from the lake, in the old town of Stresa. The menu offered some unique items, blending the flavors of Italy and Switzerland. I had the Black Fettuccine with Shrimp and CaptK had the Rack of Lamb with Red Cabbage and Coarse Mustard. We shared the Mini Desert Sampler. After all that deliciousness, I was glad for the walk back to the hotel, even with the rain.
What We Did in Stresa
Touring the Borromeo Islands by boat, gives you a sense of what makes Lake Maggiore special. The views of the soaring Alps, the crystal clear and remarkably warm water of the lake, and the lush gardens of the summer homes of the Borromeo Family beckon you. We purchased a 15 euro ticket to see all three islands. Viator Three Island Boat Tour What we did not realize was that there is an additional entrance fee for the summer homes and gardens. It is 15 euro to visit Isola Madre Palazzo and Gardens and 25 euro to visit the Palazzos and Gardens on both Isola Madre and Isola Bella.
Isola Madre is the original, Lake Maggiore summer home of the Borromeo Family. Built is the 16th century, walking through this Palazzo gives you a sense of how Aristocrats lived in that time. With puppet stages, children's toys, musical instruments, and an extensive library, you can see that this was a place to enjoy life. The gardens are vast and welcoming, with Albino Peacocks to greet you. The Borromeos were horticulture collectors and the plants thrived in the temperate environment created by the deep lake and soaring mountains. There is also a restaurant and coffee shop on the island, with beautiful views of the shoreline.
Our second stop was the medieval fisherman's village on Isola Pescatori. This island has been inhabited since the 700's. There are currently about 25 families who live on the island year round, many working as fishermen in Lake Maggiore. This is the most commercial of the three islands with quaint shops and restaurants.
The houses are built three and four stories high to maximize the small space. The alleyways are narrow, with lovely views at the end of each one. It is a pleasure to wander around the island.
We enjoyed a lunch of local fresh fish, with a panoramic view of Stresa and the mountains at Trattoria Imbarcadero. This restaurant opened in 1899 and is run by the 5th generation of family members. This was my first time trying fried sardines, you eat them whole, bones and all. I have to say, I liked them. I had my favorite mid day desert, affogato. Vanilla gelato with a shot of espresso poured over it. The Trattoria Imbarcadero version was topped with a large quantity of freshly whipped cream.
Isola Bella is the crown jewel of the Borrmeo Islands. The magnificent Italian Baroque Palazzo took 400 years to build. It is full of gilded framed 16th and 17th century art. The 10 terrace Baroque Gardens was a work in process for centuries. It was not completed until 1948 when the final wall was put into place.
Taking time to explore the Palazzo and Gardens is a walk through the Italian Baroque grandeur at its opulent best. There is also a restaurant, cafe and several shops on the island.
Sadly our time at Lake Maggiore ended way to soon. I think I could spend three or four more days exploring the lush gardens, elegant shops and challenging hiking trails around Stresa.
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