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The Beautiful Islands Surrounded By a Lake

“As always happens, fairy tales belong to no one, but belong to the enchanted unconscious of places and of those who live there.”

The lakes, defined since the beginning of time as quiet and melancholic, show all their charm especially in the snow season, when the cold sometimes manages to freeze the surface, immobilizing them. In doing so, winter closes all the lake mysteries under water with a lid, to free them again with the spring thaw.

It is said that this is why the bottom of a lake is not visible. Home of magical creatures, it is black and deep: a shadow, from which lands and rocks sometimes emerge to populate.

And so, the archipelago of the Borromeo Islands was born on Lake Maggiore, consisting of Isola Madre, Isola Bella, Isola dei Pescatori, Isolino San Giovanni and the Malghera rock.

In 1600, Vitaliano VI Borromeo, Marquis of Angera and part of one of the most influential families since 1400, did his utmost to transform his islands (Isola Madre and Isola Bella) into masterpieces of Baroque art. Myth has it that the heart of the craftsman is kept right under the altar of the Church of San Vittore on Isola Bella, as a sign of devotion and an act of love.

The architectural project of Palazzo Borromeo and the botanical gardens full of exotic plants gave the lake such a luster that it became one of the main destinations of the Grand Tour for Italy: that journey of initiation made by literate aristocrats and artists from all over the world to get to know the beauty of our peninsula.

Today it is another, Vitaliano, who in the wake of tradition, like his ancient predecessor, deals with the fate of the islands and its surroundings. As usual in the winter break period, hoteliers and managers take advantage of it to carry out some restoration works. Just this January, Prince Borromeo finalized the purchase of Villa and Parco Pallavicino, a paradise of flora and fauna in the town of Stresa, which is in addition to that of Isola Madre and Villa Taranto in Pallanza. The best time to visit them is from March to September when the mild climate makes the strangest plants bloom and white peacocks and fawns roam free and undisturbed.

But in February, the wonder of Lake Maggiore and its emerged lands remains palpable. In fact, and even more in this pandemic period, the usual tourist activities are suspended, and as in true fairy tales, the islands seem under spell, asleep. There are no crowds of visitors at the departure of the boats, the roads are suddenly clear and nature takes back its spaces.

I can confess: I had the opportunity to see the archipelago as an islander, identifying with a local, who knows how to see its poetry even in difficult months such as those of lockdown. On the Isola dei Pescatori the Christmas lights were still there, welcoming and hopeful, and in the church, there was still the nativity scene, one of a kind, made with coloured fishing nets. Time really seems to have stopped.

I had breakfast with the true characters of the Baveno ticket office, where the boats stop to collect new visitors. I watched the sun go down from the terrace of the Hotel Elvezia, which although unable to accommodate customers, was fortunately open for me at that time for an inspection. There, the lady who welcomed me, while I was waiting for the passage to return to Stresa, talked to me about how she feels, how it is difficult for hoteliers to comply with the regional rules of the zona giallo and zona rossa, why reopen a kitchen on a island? It’s not like opening it on land. She told me the legend of Vitaliano’s heart in the chapel, which I would have found closed at the time, but which I must go back to explore, and she listed the future projects and preparations that would make the island even more beautiful.

In my own way I remembered Isola Madre, temporarily closed to the public, where the gem not to be missed was the collection of puppets and the ancient puppet theater. Inaugurated in 1778, the puppeteer often entertained guests who, like Pinocchi in the land of Toys, they struggled to leave.

I would have liked to enter the Palazzo again, on Isola Bella, past the blue rooms (Il Salone Nuovo) and the panoramic terraces. To view the Berthier Gallery, full of unique works of art in the world and locate the paintings by Raphael, Titian and Correggio, as well as admire the figures of mythical women such as Sofonisba, Lucrezia or Didone del Gianpietrino, a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci — they had struck me so deeply.

But when the evening has come, and my boat has arrived, I discover that I am no longer an islander, but a traveler looking for stories in covid time, who alas, must return to the mainland. So looking at the horizon I pause on the lights in the distance, I see the sleeping island and I see the snow of the Alps shining in the moon.

The following dawn, like every other, the fishermen and the pastry shops of the coast are the first to wake up. On the one hand they untie the nets, on the other they bake the Pan ad Mèi (bread with millet) giving shape to the typical Stresa daisies, simple delights made with vanilla and butter from the valleys. The starch used in the dough makes them so soft that they melt in the mouth. The icing sugar that’s  sprinkled on them recalls the etymology of their name, which in Greek means: pearl (μαργαρίτης).

A Medieval recipe, less sophisticated, but just as tasty, that of fugascine is another successful culinary experiment of the area: crunchy and thin squares of lemon shortcrust pastry, connected to ancient rituals to celebrate the sowing of the fields and Saint Elizabeth. The best way to enjoy them is by walking along the lakefront, breathing in the legends of its inhabitants.

In Stresa, in fact, the bewitching statue of a mermaid in pink granite (a local stone), the work of the sculptor Raffaele Polli, is the most recent testimony of those curious creatures of the lake of which so much has been dreamed of over the years, and a reminder of the Danish little mermaid in Copenhagen, inspired by one of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales.

Not surprisingly, one of the animal symbols of the Borromean Lands is the unicorn, a white horse with magical powers, a symbol of immortality and equipped with a spiral horn on the forehead that was able to heal any poison. This is just one of the many images told by the frescoes and the collections of the fortresses, the numerous castles and the artificial caves around the lake.

As always happens, fairy tales belong to no one, but belong to the enchanted unconscious of places and of those who live there. And when the spell is broken, we can all go back to telling the tales.