By the time we had arrived on Isola Bella on Lake Maggiore, I had been peppered with questions for over two hours from the only people younger than me on tour, two girls from Singapore. We had met over dinner a night or so before in a local restaurant where one of them had mistakenly ordered a carafe of wine, tried to return it, got lost in a round of Mandarin-English-Italian translation, and was then rescued by an Englishman named Amos who happily drank her carafe of wine plus four more for good measure. Over the course of the meal and the following days, they had spent every available moment asking about America and its customs. “Is it not true that the weather varies quite a bit from region to region? Is it not also true that it is possible to drive from say, Washington D.C. to Alaska? And the climate would be quite different? What is the average temperature in New York City right now? And is it not also true that there are large immigrant populations in certain areas? Is it true that these areas are called ____?”
They were wonderfully nice and earnest and I wished that I could answer their answers with more than just a feeble “Yes. It is but would take a long time. Probably? I’m not sure. There are. No, they’re not called ____ or _____. It’s just Chinatown.” Two hours of America Q & A is quite a lot and being that I’m typically a super homebody introvert (and that I’d been sharing space with 40 people for days) I was thrilled when we were politely, firmly told to zip it and pop in some earbuds for an embarrassing touristy tour of Isola Bella.
Why is it embarrassing? Because I generally dislike announcing to the world that I’m on a tour with a giant, modified walkie talkie blaring in my ear. It looks old. It looks dorky. It probably advertises to the world that I’m old and dorky. Nevertheless, the earbuds were in as we marched around the island grounds. We turned a corner near on of the docks in a small courtyard. As everyone fiddled with their receivers I eyeballed a watercolorist on the wall. He was in his eighties with a propped open briefcase, working on a view of the nearby island Isola Superiore. He hummed to himself in his flatcap and brown courderoy jacket. I made a mental note to return afterwards to check his progress.
Both Isola Superiore and Isola Bella – the Borromean Islands – were home to fishing villages until Carlo III took over Isola Bella to create a residence in honor of his wife, Isabella D’Adda. Building began in the 1630s and essentially continued up until the 1960s in the form of finalized docks and formal gardens. It was “borrowed” by Napoleon and later used for wartime negotiations during WWII.
We travelled through room after ornate room of portraiture, oceanic plasterwork, faux detailing, enormous ballrooms- all glittering with chandeliers, lake views, and gorgeous marble terrazzo floors (which is sort of obsessed over).
After viewing a state room jam-packed with Murano glass goblets and tableware, we came into a painting room. A member of the Borromean family was quite keen on painting and had received a mosaic table as a gift from Pope Leo VII. It was used by artists to study still life paintings in the Dutch style. This was highly symbolic (not only because you know, he got it from The Pope) as Dutch still life paintings used the transient beauty of fruits, flowers, and other ephemera as a means of explaining the passing joy of life. It’s one part YOLO with a dose of temperance for the afterlife. This would have had several intended impressions for the recipient- 1. the recognition of an important alliance and 2. a reminder against the excesses of an exceptionally wealthy lifestyle (i.e. be good but also don’t forget to tithe!). Does that sound cynical? any case, as beautiful as the rest of the house absolutely was, this was one of the pieces that I lollygagged around for. It was just so, so exquisitely beautiful.
Down a spiral staircase were a series of grottos featuring the family’s string puppets, a very old canoe, and some other fancy schmancy odds and ends. This particular area was just a little bit bizarre. Apparently the family spent loads of time in the grotto during the summer as the rooms were about 20 degrees cooler but they were also just a little bit…dismal. For some flair, the rooms were plastered and then coated not with mosaics but with lava rock in red and black. The result was a sort of gloomy, weird basement that they must have really been into because the whole lower floor– room after room- was covered in lava mosaic turtles, shells, and swirls.
We passed an optical illusion in the form of a tapestry (which I think was vaguely about reproduction?) that I failed to photograph due to an enormous swarm of people, instead opting to dart outside into the gardens.
One of our fellow travelers was a horticulturist visiting from Taiwan. He carefully wove between garden beds inspecting citrus trees and red puff ball shrubs, jotting notes in a little journal as his wife snapped pictures.
We wound up a staircase to a large terrace with sweeping views of Lake Maggiore, the Borromean Islands, and Stresa. A large hedge hummed. Everyone seemed to turn slowly at once, peering into the hedge as though in a horror movie. It moved and glittered and kept on humming. I squinted and took a step forward. Honey bees. Thousands of them. Thousands and thousands of them buzzing away, collecting nectar from the little yellow blossoms hidden in the neatly trimmed branches. A woman next to me made an uneasy sound and tiptoed past the bush as the odd bee flitted in and out of it.
On the lower level was a rose garden, an aviary, an orangery, a collection of peacocks roaming about, and enormous hydrangeas.
Nothing about this photo does it justice. Elephant ears wider than my arm span. Hydrangeas taller than my 5’4″ frame looming over me with flowers bigger than my face. It was gobsmacking. Through the gift shop and towards town (there’s actually a little town and marketplace on the island), there was an enormous wall of citrus trees. Some of them I could identify. Others were producing fruits that were the size of a toddler’s head.
Back at the docks, we once again began rummaging through the debris and pebbles, settling on a few choice pieces of old tile and pottery.
The watercolorist was still at his little wall, painting Stresa in the distance. His rendition of Isola Superiore had been completed and after a brief chat, I had it in hand as we made our way over to Stresa.
In Stresa we grabbed lunch at a little bistro (“Limoncello is a digestivo!” the waitress shouted as my mom tried to order it with lunch instead of after). We wandered about town, grabbing some little cookies in a local bakery. Across the way was a store selling balsamics, olive oils, and liqueurs. We loaded up on the local favorites- a special olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dad’s present and a series of liqueurs for us. Our favorite was the pistachio crema (as the owner predicted- it was her favorite too) but we also grabbed the melon, strawberry, and hazelnut for good measure (these we later used on our last night, realizing we were out of liquid space for carry-ons, as a celebratory drink/weird bedtime knockout).
Up next: Verona!