Tucked between the mountains of northern Italy, Lake Maggiore is sprinkled with bustling towns and sleepy fishing villages – all wrapped up in beautiful natural scenery. The jewels in the crown are the three Borromean Islands, Maggiore’s most popular and most breathtaking must-dos. Though collectively named after the noble Borromeo family, each one is unique.
‘Mother island’, the largest of the three at eight hectares, is an Eden. The ornate villa at its heart is impressive but the English-style botanical gardens are the real wonder. Plants from all over the world thrive here, thanks to the island’s rare microclimate. Palm trees, maple trees and banana trees live side by side with Australian eucalyptus and Asian camellias. The result is a riot of colour and a blissfully serene ambience. An ancient cypress tree of Kashmir sways in front of the villa, shielded by a bamboo grove to guard against a repeat of 2006, when the tree was ripped up by a tornado. And while the Borromeo family no longer live on the island, it’s now home to over a hundred feathered residents. Iridescent peacocks and scarlet and silver pheasants from India and Namibia wander around freely, happy to share their haven with admiring visitors.
One glimpse and you’ll instantly appreciate why this one’s called ‘beautiful island’. Proudly over the top, Bella incorporates a Baroque palace and elaborate gardens. The Borromeo family maintain private apartments here, but much of the palace is open to the public. And a tour will have your jaw dropping as you step from towering ballrooms to lavish bedrooms, and through the underground grottoes decorated from floor to ceiling with individually placed stones and shells. Outside, the highlight is the theatre – a magnificent stone monument draped with flowers and topped with a unicorn, the symbol of the family. From there, the gardens flow down ten tiers. Manicured flowerbeds are filled with a rich variety of plants, and the strolling white peacocks add a final flourish to the scene.
The only one of the trio never actually owned by the Borromeos, ‘fisherman’s island’ is also the only one that houses a living community. Around thirty people reside there permanently, though this cluster of colourful restaurants and shops is an irresistible draw for anyone staying on Maggiore. A two-metre-wide street forms the spine of the fish-shaped island, branching off into narrow alleys and tiny courtyards. You can visit the one-room fishing museum, which used to be the school, and see the intricate interior of the Church of San Vittore, whose spire towers over the village’s terracotta roofs. And of course no visit here would be complete without a meal of fresh fish and seafood, accompanied by the sound of lapping waves.