When I was growing up in Italy, it was a nearly a mandate for well-heeled northerners to summer on the sun-warmed lakes at the foot of the Alps. Boats would dock at island gardens, people took slow promenades along the shore followed by a leisurely Sunday meal on the leafy veranda of, say, Albergo Verbano, where Arturo Toscanini, George Bernard Shaw and Ernest Hemingway, to name notable guests, once stayed. The lakes’ legacy goes back to the ancient Romans and continues today.
And nearly as old is the rivalry among these lakes — Como, Garda, and Maggiore — for first place in the beauty pageant. All boast a Mediterranean microclimate cradled by soaring snow-crusted Alps. But in the 17th century, the prominent Borromeo family transformed a minuscule rocky island on Lago Maggiore into a baroque botanical masterpiece. This island, called Isola Bella, and its majestic gardens rose to international Grand Tour destination fame.
A short train ride from Milan to Stresa makes Lago Maggiore an easy weekend retreat. To avoid crowds and humidity, I recommend visiting in spring or early fall.
It’s an early morning in May, and I’m standing on the veranda of the venerable Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees, facing the Alps, which appear in smooth blue-purple unison. Behind me is Mount Mottarone, famous for its stunning 360-degree panoramas, and well worth a visit. In front of me, boats crisscross the Borromean Gulf. Besotted amateur gardener that I am, I’m here for the gulf’s botanical sanctuaries: Isola Bella, Isola Madre and Villa Taranto.
The Borromeo family name is inescapable, because they own multiple properties and remain the darlings of high-society papers. My sights are set on their head horticulturist, Gianfranco Giustina, who oversees Isola Bella’s and Isola Madre’s gardens. In 2014, he was awarded the British Royal Horticultural Veitch Memorial Medal, for persons “who have made an outstanding contribution to the advancement of the art, science or practice of horticulture.” The Royal Horticultural Society is driven by “the belief that gardeners make the world a better place,” its Web site states.
On Isola Bella, Guistina saunters past squealing schoolchildren and meandering tourists. Tall and spry, he scans the manicured walkways in order to remove any errant fallen leaves as he explains the difference between Isola Bella’s 17th-century baroque gardens, in which “man’s genius for architecture is in important collaboration with formal garden structures,” and Isola Madre’s 19th-century English gardens, which “make plants the protagonists in a feat of natural landscaping.” And “a feat” both gardens are, employing 23 full-time gardeners, plus 10 part-timers, for the kind of off-season work that requires barges of soil, helicopter transports, topiary sculpting and tree trimming. “Italy was ever the garden of Europe,” he says, “but we almost forgot this in favor of industrialization.”
It is also easy to forget, accustomed as one is today to multiple competing plant catalogues and gardening centers, that Isola Bella’s ambitions preceded both Linnaeus’s botanical nomenclature as well as his studies of plant reproduction, let alone the 20th century’s hardiness zone maps. To get the full picture, travel back four centuries and sail across the treacherous Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans with the eccentric “plant hunters” who risked health and life to transplant the finicky seeds they found. Azaleas! Rhododendrons! Magnolias! Camellias!
I’m a newbie walking the hallowed ground of Isola Bella. Montesquieu, Edward Gibbon, Stendhal, Napoleon and Josephine, Wagner, Jean Cocteau, Dickens, Hemingway, the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana all strolled these meticulously maintained gardens. The same as today, they would have approached by boat, gaining the full impression of this “galleon floating on the blue water,” as the promotional material puts it. Because that’s what the island looks like — a ship.
Ten terraces, mimicking a ship’s decks, elegantly display a wealth of rarities and exciting hybrids. Intoxicating scents and rare blossoms abound. The Camphor terrace is famous for its ancient tree, once a new species Marco Polo wrote home about. The mad statuary of Milanese Carlo Simonetta’s Amphitheater, holding Borromean crest symbols aloft, overlooks the intricate geometric hedges of the Garden of Love. Roses and espaliered citrus perfume the air. I learn that horses once powered the irrigation system.
Giustina’s philosophical bent emerges: “I see the island gardens as a Noah’s Ark, where I tend to two each of the most beautiful species. They’re a labor willed by man, but we can never forget it’s created with temporal living beings. Oh, plants don’t like to be dominated. But I like to think we’ve needed each other to carry the botanical conversation forward this far.”
For the first time this year, visitors to Isola Bella can also see an art exhibit, “The Enchanted Islands: The Grand Tour and Landscape Painting,” which includes everything from sublime landscapes to putti playing in a pastoral arcadia to portrayals of prettily bonneted Borromeos. The show comes down Oct. 25.
If Isola Bella is perfectly coiffed, Isola Madre lets her hair down. Giustina confirms the natural look’s art of deception isn’t much easier to achieve. Isola Bella is a grand public performance, but Isola Madre is designed to feel magically private. Shaded arches of wisteria lead into winding paths bordered by soaring 20-foot hedges. These lush green walls of laurel, myrtle and camellia create hide-and-seek turns, out of which pop Chinese pheasants, long-tailed red and yellow parrots, and white and blue-green peacocks, creating a busy ornithological soundscape. The sunnier lake exposures boast the Africa road, avenue of palms and citrus tree walk.
I shop at the Orangerie for locally sourced gifts: teas, soaps, candles and the most fascinating illustrated “botanical uses” map for $1.70. It walks me past the peppertree from which a poison, a hallucinogen or a coronary diluting substance can be culled. It shows me the candleberry, which yields scented wax. And who knew the seeds of the carob tree, which lent their name to the carat, were once used as a unit of weight for gold and diamonds?
Preserving these venerable gardens is no easy matter. In 2006, a tornado uprooted Isola Madre’s massive rare Kashmir Cypress planted in 1862. The ensuing struggle to save the now reinstated tree is credited as a major success for Giustina, who worked with a cadre of botanists, engineers and technicians. In 2012, a tornado felled over 300 trees on Villa Taranto. It’s my next stop, in Pallanza, across the Borromean Gulf.
I wave good-bye to the British couple I overheard amusing each other with a game of one-upmanship to name each plant. Here to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, they continue a legacy of visits initiated by so many British romantics and Victorians, including the eponymous queen herself. To John Ruskin’s critical eye, Lago Maggiore was the “Eden of Italy . . . purest air, richest earth, loveliest wave.”
Scotsman and avid botanist Captain Neil McEacharn did more than visit. He settled into Villa Taranto and, in 1931, began his life’s “occupation and adventure,” transforming its 16 wooded hectares into a glorious park with multiple microclimates. Today, his legacy is overseen by the patient and intent horticulturist Franco Caretti.
Visitors receive a calendar of monthly flowerings, which I’m carrying. Caretti sees this and smiles wryly, eyebrows tipping up: “Truth be told, nature’s just as likely to set its own schedule.” The 24,000 spring tulips have bloomed and are being unearthed and wheeled off. Other gardeners are lining 1,700 dahlia tubers up on the ground, a curving row of expectant brown stars scheduled to flower July to October.
Villa Taranto’s parklike gardens ascend nearly 330 feet of hillside shaded by enormous conifers. Along the paths, people pause blissfully to take in, alternately, the sparkling putti fountain, a mosaic of Italianate rectangular terraces, cooling magnolia woods, mossy sunken fern valleys, or the hand-waving Japanese maples (including one “Acer palmatum Cap. McEacharn”). Caretti, whose father worked here before him, speaks of McEacharn with devotion: “He brought plants here that had never before flowered outside their county of origin. He acclimated highly tenuous species.” McEacharn’s reputation as a “living encyclopedia of horticulture” grew into a global mission he undertook with serious responsibility. In 1959 alone, McEacharn shipped 11,484 packets of seeds from Villa Taranto to 250 gardens in 40 countries.
Caretti points to favorite successes: a flourishing dawn redwood long thought extinct, the shy-to-flower Man Yang tree, which resists cultivation yet suddenly bloomed in 1971, and the magnificent, huge Santa Cruz (or water platter) waterlily, apparently utilized as floating cradles by Paraguayan mothers doing laundry. “The baby we tested it on wasn’t a fan,” Caretti says with a grin. “But here’s a story. When the tornado hit we never got to pollinating it, yet somehow it flowered. In nature, there’s always the inexplicable.”
The evening boat picks up its last stragglers. Sunset ripples over Lago Maggiore, and the Alps turn dark green-purple. It’s a night’s rest for the Eden of Italy. A mesmerized couple blurts: “It’s our first trip to Italy. We’ve seen Milan and Venice. Had we known, we’d have headed here straight off.”
Calcagno is the editor of “Travelers’ Tales Italy: True Stories.”
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Isola Bella & Isola Madre’s Palace Gardens
Open late March – late October from 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Combined daily admission fee, including “Enchanted Islands” exhibit, is about $23. Regular day pass about $19; discount for kids. Boat schedules at www.navlaghi.it/eng/index.asp .
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