Visit Isola Bella
Isola Bella is the most southerly of the Borromean Islands, the group of islands in Lake Maggiore near the town of Stresa.
Exploring Isola Bella
Italy This Way comment: Isola Bella is a remarkable place that you will want to visit if you are nearby, although we found the palace and gardens just a bit 'extreme' and preferred the relative tranquility of the other islands in the group.
Isola Bella is the most extraordinary of the Borromean Islands: apart from a small village the whole island is covered by the large Palazzo Borromeo and its extensive gardens. Both the gardens and the palace are excessive in all respects, in an effort to be as flamboyant and extreme as possible.
Start your visit to Isola Bella with a stroll around the small village and harbour. The narrow village streets and the quiet waterfront (although the cannons suggest that the island might be attacked at any moment...) give little clue to the palace and gardens just behind the village. The entrance to the palace is here in the village.
Work by Count Vitaliano on converting Isola Bella started in the middle of the 17th century when he declared that he would construct a 'Palace of Delights' here, although the work extended long after his death and into the following generations.
As soon as you enter the Palazzo Borromeo you are surrounded by large rooms filled with artworks, statues, plaster mouldings and painted ceilings.
The rooms get larger and more elaborate, until in the centre of the house you are in a grand triple-height room with a domed ceiling, followed soon after by an enormous room surrounded by corinthian columns, statues and beautifully decorated walls and ceilings. Not at all the kind of place you would want to live but beautiful to visit!
After seeing the Throne Room, the Queens Room and Napoleon's Room, among others, you descend to a lower floor which is just as an impressive undertaking although much smaller in scale.
This is a series of six rooms with all the walls and ceilings covered with rocks, pebbles, and marble decorations. These rooms are rather gloomy compared to the rooms above, but were designed to allow the house a place to escape from the heat of summer.
After leaving the house you walk up a long flight of stairs to reach the gardens, and are immediately confronted by the centre piece of the garden. This is an enormous structure in the shape of a pyramid with towers, lots of terrasses, and statues including a large unicorn, in the classical tradition and called the Teatro Massimo.
Behind and to the side of the Teatro there are formal gardens, meticulously maintained and very beautiful - much more attractive than the flamboyant Teatro, in my opinion! The view across the gardens from beyond the teatro is perhaps the best. Beyond the gardens the Lake Maggiore is a perfect background.
Among the gardens you will also find collections of plants such as camellias, rhododendrons and roses. You also have one last surprise just as you leave: a large greenhouse with columns along the walls and filled with plants such as ferns and banana palms.
The island is the most visited of the Borromean Islands, because tour groups all come here, if not to the other islands. When we visited in May the palace was extremely crowded and it was difficult to get through the smaller rooms because of the number of tour groups. If the Palazzo Borromeo could limit the number of visitors at one time the experience would be much more enjoyable!
You can find more local travel ideas in the Piedmont guide.