What to see
An outstanding feature of the Lake Maggiore area is its large number of magnificent aristocratic mansion houses, built primarily on the shores of the area’s lakes. A major feature of these villas is their marvellous gardens, many of them world famous. Not to miss a visit to the well-known gardens include those of the Borromean, the spectacular gardens on Isola Bella and Isola Madre, and Brissago Islands, that of the Villa Taranto in Verbania, and the Alpinia botanical garden above Stresa. The enchanting towns Lesa, Belgirate, Baveno, Stresa, Meina, Verbania, Pallanza and islands Isola Bella, Isola Madre.
On the lake shore between Meina and Stresa is the attractive little town of Lesa, which along with its outlying villages has a number of fine villas.
Villa Cavallini: this imposing residence is the result of a fusion of three buildings. The beautiful grounds surrounding it are partly in the Italian, partly in the English style.
Villa Stampa: for over twenty years from 1839, the great novelist Alessandro Manzoni spent summer holidays in this lovely late 18th century villa, owned by his second wife, Teresa Borri, the widow of Count Decio Stampa. Count Gustavo Benso di Cavour, the poets Berchet and Giulio Carcano, the painter Hayez, Antonio Rosmini, the federalist Niccolò Tommaseo, the statesmen Ruggero Bonghi and Massimo d’Azeglio, were just some of the personalities who often met here to talk about literature and philosophy, art and politics.
Other interesting houses are Villa Correnti, built at the end if the 19th century by the statesman Cesare Correnti in a strict Neoclassical style; Castello Florio, built at the beginning of the 19th century by Viotti, whose intention it was to reproduce the idea of the medieval castles of Lesa, and Villa Savio-Sozzani-Tavella, built in castle style by the architect Pietro Bottini.
Belgirate lies in a beautiful situation on the promontory separating the Borromean Gulf from the southern part of Lake Maggiore.
Villa Fontana is one of the oldest mansion houses in Belgirate, built by the historic Beretta family in the 18th century and purchased in 1892 by the famous Milan publisher Emilio Treves, who renamed the house “Villa Maria” in honour of his daughter. It became the setting for meetings between many illustrious people, including Arturo Graf, Giovanni Verga, Guido Gozzano, Arrigo Boito, Gabriele D’Annunzio and Leonardo Bistolfi. The Villa has splendid English-style gardens with a majestic marine palm, beautiful magnolias, camphor trees and huge monkey puzzles.
Villa Carlotta is the true jewel of Beligrate, originally belonging to the Beretta family, was acquired in 1952 by Giuseppe Mugnai, who transformed it into the prestigious hotel it is today, a venue for major congresses and conferences. Mugnai was an enthusiastic amateur flower grower, and in the 60s succeeded in breeding a white, red and orange dahlia, the “Dahlia B.B.”, which he dedicated to Brigitte Bardot, a guest in the hotel.
Villa Bonghi was built between 1858 and 1861 by Ruggero Bonghi, a well-known Neapolitan political and literary figure who had fallen in love with the places and atmosphere of lake Maggiore. The property, which has changed hands a number of times, now has a somewhat severe appearance, quite different from the “rather bizarre” 19th century villa described by the historian De Vit.
Other fine villas are Villa Cairoli, which numbered Giuseppe Garibaldi among its guests; Villa Conelli, of impressive size and style with a huge Italian-style garden extending towards the hillside; Villa Dal Pozzo D’Annone, one of the finest and most prestigious houses on the lake; Villa Fontana-Fedeli, popularly called “the castle” due to its manor house style; and Villa Principessa Mathilde, the lakeside residence of Napoleon’s niece.
The enchanting little lakeside town of Baveno, next to Stresa, is of Roman origin, and is famous for its mineral water springs and its fine pink granite, which has been used for numerous buildings throughout the world. Some of these are the Arch of Peace and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan, the columns of L’Opéra in Paris, the Karlskirche in Vienna, the monument to Christopher Columbus in New York, and the Royal Palace of Bangkok. The fine lakefront promenade offers a superb view of the Borromean Islands.
Villa Henfrey-Branca was built between 1870 and 1872 to plans by the English engineer Charles Henfrey, Villa Henfrey-Branca is one of the most original buildings on Lake Maggiore, and was inspired by English castle architecture. Its exposed red brick, its turrets and spires, marble terraces and magnificent English-style garden give the house a fairytale appearance that attracts the attention of every one who strolls along the lakefront promenade. Of the many eminent people who stayed here over the years, the most notable must be Queen Victoria of Great Britain, who came with her daughter Beatrice in 1879. Today the descendents of the royal families of Europe still visit the Branca family, who acquired the property after the death of Charles Henfrey.
Villa Fedora is a severely elegant residence built in the first half of the 19th century it takes its name from the celebrated opera by the composer Umberto Giordano, who lived here for twenty years (1904-1924).
Villa Barberis, built in the early years of the 20th century, stands out not only because of its dazzling white colour but also because of the exotic appearance of its original design. It was built by the wish of Alberto Barberis, a cosmopolitan traveller from Vercelli who lived for many years in the East. In fact, the style of his villa recalls the exotic atmosphere of the Thousand and One Nights, typified especially by the minaret in the garden, which also contains specimens of tropical plants. There are many interesting decorations such as the high relief depictions of the Dome of San Gaudenzio Church in Novara and the bell tower of Sant’Andrea in Vercelli on the curved tympanum, or the pictures of still-lifes and landscapes which Barberis himself painted on the walls of the top floor six-arched loggia.
Villa Durazzo (Lido Palace Hotel) is an impressive late 19th century mansion, was built by the Marquis Durazzo of Genoa on a prime site on the shore, right opposite the Borromean Gulf. Later on the Mayor of Baveno Gerolamo Rossi made the villa into a luxury Belle Époque hotel which was to welcome a number of famous guests, such as Sir Winston Churchill, who came here on his honeymoon in 1908 and on other occasions.
Villa Brandolini d’Adda, built in the 16th century over a former convent, the villa displays a number of fine architectural and decorations. The garden is the only one of its kind in the world, being divided into four parts: Italian, English, French and Japanese.
Also worth a mention are Villa Carosio, designed by the famous Art Nouveau architect Giuseppe Sommaruga; Villa Claudia, where the celebrated playwright Luigi Illica stayed; Villa Provana di Collegno-Galtrucco, the scene of numerous meetings of major figures in the political history of Piedmont in the later 19th century.
Stresa is famous for its elegant Liberty style villas, many of which now transformed in luxury hotels. Internationally recognised as the jewel of Lake Maggiore, Stresa is one of the most exclusive tourist destinations on Lake Maggiore. The real heart of the town must be this superb lakefront: an elegant promenade with luxurious gardens and colourful flowerbeds, it lies between the incomparable spectacle of the Borromean Gulf on the one side, and the opulent townscape of 19th century villas and Baroque- and Art Nouveau-style luxury hotels on the other, including the splendid Villa Bolongaro. The centre of Stresa, radiating from Piazza Cadorna, is full of shops, cafés and restaurants evoking the atmosphere of the Belle Époque which illustrious travellers like Stendhal, Chateaubriand, Dumas, Dickens and Lord Byron described in their writings.
Villa Pallavicino covers an area of around 20 hectares, with flower-lined avenues, venerable trees and a marvellous botanic garden. Villa Pallavicino is a real natural oasis: sweeping lawns, shady avenues and open spaces planted with roses, oleanders, magnolias, daffodils, azaleas and rhododendrons blend perfectly with the majestic, mature trees of the wooded areas. The zoo is the major visitor attraction; over 40 species of exotic animals, including llamas, kangaroos, zebras, ferrets, beavers, hares and horses, and birds, including flamingos, parrots, pelicans, peacocks, owls and toucans, live uncaged in the park’s ample natural environments.
Villa Aminta is an exclusive luxury holiday complex overlooking the Borromean Gulf.
Villa La Palazzol was built by Count Flaviano Avogadro Casanova, originally stood on an immense estate extending as far as the main Simplon road and the river Roddo. The first stone of the building to be laid was blessed by Rosmini in June 1844.
Casa Bolongaro, an eighteenth-century mansion also known as Villa Ducale, stands on Stresa lakefront in grounds of 13000 sq.mt.The interior is decorated with a number of frescoes on mythological subjects, accessed by a broad imperial staircase with pink granite steps and wrought iron handrails. Painted flower decorations and intarsia floors alternating with mosaic floors are a feature of Villa Ducale, testifying to the opulence of the period. The gardens, originally laid out in the Italian style, have seen the addition over the years of exotic plants, among them a superb Magnolia Grandiflora and an imposing Cedar of Lebanon, also called “the tree of the gods”. Some of the many other villas adding their prestige to Stresa are Villa Amalia Bernocchi, Villa Daisy Capucci Labadini, Villa Dora, Villa Excelsior, Villa Galimberti Bernocchi, Villa Teresita, Villa Vignolo and Villa Zinelli.
The enchanting town of Meina is an attractive holiday resort on Lake Maggiore with several superb Neoclassical 19th century villas.
The most impressive is Villa Faraggiana, outstanding among the villas, famous for its architecture and its art works. An elegant building separated from the street by a great gate guarded by two crouching marble lions, it was built in 1855 as the summer residence of the aristocratic Faraggiana family from Novara. The façade, a perfect reproduction of Neoclassical style, is ornamented with high reliefs depicting the allegorical Roman divinity of Fame; five medallions with the portraits of Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Ariosto and Tasso; and eleven busts of other illustrious Italian figures.
Other beautiful mainsons to see are: Villa Eden, Villa Pasta “La Favorita”, Palazzo Bedone, Villa Bonomi and Villa Faraone.
Known also as the Garden on Lake Maggiore, the town boasts a great number of parks and gardens, all of which enjoy breathtaking views of the lake. One of the finest of these is that belonging to Villa Taranto, in which to observe an incredible variety of botanical plants.
Villa Taranto is one of the most important botanic gardens in the world, with thousands of species of trees and flowers from all over the world, planted harmoniously over an area of around 16 hectares, crossed by 7 km of paths and avenues. The gardens are landscaped in what is essentially the English style, though there is no lack of Italian decorations like statues, fountains, ponds, terraces, waterfalls – in short, all the ornamental elements that add some extra magic to this earthly paradise.
Villa San Remigio on the Castagnola Hill in Pallanza has a marvellous view of Lake Maggiore. It is set in extensive grounds among flowers and antique statues, close to the little Romanesque Church of San Remigio (12th century), which gives its name to the villa. Built at the beginning of the 20th century, the Villa owes its existence to two lovers determined to create their “dream garden”: the Marquis Silvio della Valle di Casanova, a Neapolitan poet and musician, and his wife, the Irish painter Sophia Browne. Flights of steps, avenues and narrow passages, with sudden glimpses of the splendour of the lake, lead to the garden of the Hours, recalling memories of happy times past, the garden of Joy, full of bright colours, the garden of Sadness, a shadowy representation of melancholy, the garden of Memories, symbolising nostalgia for the past, and the garden of Sighs, where the spirit merges with the surroundings. Finally there is the Hortus Conclusus, next to the little Romanesque church of San Remigio, with its intimate atmosphere of meditation. The park is embellished with fine statues and ornamentation that add their beauty to the majestic trees of a variety of species, some of them rare. The house has a complex plan, with spacious rooms and fine furnishings. The façades are in Lombard Baroque style with projecting eaves. The balconies on the north-east and south-east sides of the house, from where there is a marvellous view of the lake, are supported by a stone tunnel with porticoes.
Villa Giulia was built in 1847 by Bernardino Branca, the inventor of Fernet Branca liqueur. The garden was recreated based on English style. The façade was enhanced with loggias and columns on all storeys to culminate into a large circular terrace. This elegance is in harsh contrast with the façade facing the road, which is characterised by austere simplicity.
The Roman origins of the town are shown by a marble votive cippus from the 1st century AD, kept in the Church of Santo Stefano. In the past the town was divided into the two medieval nuclei of “Villa” and “Piazza”. Villa, on the slopes of the lovely Castagnola Hill, from which there are superb views of the lake, is graced by the Villa and the Church of San Remigio. Piazza includes the lower part of the town near the lake. Here the most characteristic buildings are the Church of San Leonardo with its fine, broad flight of shallow steps, the 19th century Town Hall, whose portico is made of 32 pillars in pink Baveno granite, and Villa Giulia, a superb 19th century mansion built in 1847 by Bernardino Branca, the creator of the amaro Fernet-Branca.
Other buildings gracing the town have become important art centres, such as Palazzo Viani-Dugnani, built between the 17th and 18th centuries, Palazzo Biumi-Innocenti, a building of medieval origin.
Isola Madre is the largest and perhaps most characteristic of the three islands in the Borromean Gulf. Its palace displays furnishings from the historic residences of the Borromeo family, and contains some beautiful rooms, such as the Dolls’ Room, the Room of the Seasons and a room devoted to the Puppet Theatre.
The atmosphere of this enchanting place is magical; its immense garden of rare trees and exotic flowers, where peacocks and pheasants wander and budgerigars fly in freedom, has something of the fascination of a tropical land. The English-style garden of Isola Madre, landscaped in the early 19th century in a space of almost eight hectares, displays a flora which is a continual surprise and which is hard to find in other places.
It is famous for the amazing spectacle of its azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias in flower, as well as its pergolas of ancient wisteria. The largest specimen in Europe of Kashmir Cypress, superb lime and lemon trees, a marvellous collection of hibiscus, and a Gingko Biloba, are all found here.
The island has always been one of the favourite visitor attractions of Lake Maggiore, not to be missed if you want unparalleled views of the lake and its surroundings. Isola Bella is dominated by its sumptuous Baroque palace, along with a luxuriant Italian-style garden, which reaches a height of 37 metres and is laid out on ten terraces. The palace has richly furnished rooms and opulent salons embellished with priceless artworks.
The garden is full of flowers and exotic plants of great rarity, which grow thanks to the particularly mild climate of the Borromean Gulf. Everything on the island has been designed to create a scenic effect, including the “Theatre” constructed at the end of the superimposed terraces, dominated by a statue of a Unicorn, the heraldic emblem of the Borromeos, which is flanked by statues representing Nature and Art. The huge, extraordinary garden is further decorated with ponds, fountains and a plethora of statues dating from the second half of the 17th century. The white peacocks that wander over the manicured lawns add their grace to this enchanting spot.
Lake’s Treasures: art and nature
Lake Maggiore or Lago Verbano is a large lake located on the south side of the Alps. It is the second largest lake in Italy. The lake and its shoreline are divided between the Italian regions of Piedmont and Lombardy and the Swiss canton of Ticino.
The treasures of the Lake Maggiore are Art and Nature and the numerous castles and museums recording the history and culture are standing in a beautiful natural setting by the lake or in the nearby mountains and hills. The climate is mild in both summer and winter, producing Mediterranean vegetation, with many gardens growing rare and exotic plants. The Lago Maggiore offers an unforgettable wild and romantic scenery, streams of the purest water, vineyards, chestnut woodlands and villages perched on steep slopes.
Lago Maggiore has four groups of islands:
- The Borromean Islands (three islands and two islets) the most visited: Isola Bella, dominated by the Baroque masterpiece of Palazzo Borromeo and its terraced Italian garden; Isola Madre, the largest of the islands, houses an impressive residence belonging to the Borromeo family; the picturesque Isola dei Pescatori owes its name (Fishermen’s island) to the principal profession of its inhabitants, called also Isola Superiore; Isolino di San Giovanni just in front of Verbania; Scoglio della Malghera, between Isola Bella and Isola Pescatori.
- Brissago Islands (close to Brissago) is the second group of islands and is formed by San Pancrazio (or Grande Isola) andIsolino (or Isola Piccola or Isola di Sant’Apollinare);
- Castelli di Cannero that is formed by three small islands just off the shore from Cannero Riviera;
- Isolino Partegora in the gulf of Angera.
Lake's Treasures Tours
- Discovering Museums: Landscape Museum in Verbania Pallanza, Hat Museum in Ghiffa, Umbrella Museum in Gignese
- Gardens & Flowers: Isola Bella, Villa Taranto, Villa Fontana, Villa Pallavicino, Villa Faraggiana, Villa San Remigio
- Luxury Shopping Time: Belgirate, Stresa, Baveno