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Italian Lakes

The gardens of Isola Bella dominate the views from the promenade along the shores of Lake Maggiore at Stresa. Photo - Robin Powell

Love on the lake

Glamour and romance are the twin themes of a stay in Stresa. Robin Powell took a room with a view and was enchanted.

The view from my hotel room is captivating. My eye skims over the brilliant border of blood red geraniums blooming in the window box to the great expanse of silvery blue that is Lake Maggiore in the morning. An early ferry pulls a white wake behind it, and the mountains rise from the water in echoing tiers of lilac and grey. I am by no means the first person to find this view magical. Travellers from at least the time of the Ancient Romans have been drawn to the luminous beauty of the Italian lakes.


The gardens at Villa Carlotta look over Lake Como. Photo - Robin Powell


The glamour

Italy’s famous three lakes are Maggiore, Como and Garda. Stresa is the grand dame of the most western of these, Lake Maggiore. The town grew after the Simplon Pass opened in 1806, and really took off a century later when the railway arrived. Stresa became the chic holiday resort for Europe’s nobility. Consequently, the hotels on the waterfront exude a Belle Epoque glamour, with iron curlicues on the balconies, intricate stucco decorations, and chandeliers in the lobbies. Ross Garden travellers stay in the elegant Palace Regina, which was built in the early years of the 20th century. Potted geraniums trim the curved balconies above a balustrade terrace where guests can take breakfast looking over manicured lawns and blooming roses to the shimmering lake. The first-ever Miss Italia beauty pageant was held here in the glamorous Regina hotel in 1946. The pageant goes down in history for having, in its second year, judged Gina Lollobrigida the runner-up!


The view from the hotel over blooming geraniums to Isola Bella. Photo - Robin Powell

Even more grand than the Regina is the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees, which dates to 1861. This hotel was Hemingway’s choice on the Italian lakes and he stayed twice. His suite now offers the most expensive night in Stresa! More affordable than a night in Hemingway’s bed is a drink in Hemingway’s bar. Yet while the gold-trimmed pillars, the marble bar, and the curves on the stools are deliciously decadent, the allure of the lakeside itself might be even stronger. Order a Campari and blood orange juice, or a crisp prosecco, and watch the last ferries picking up passengers from the fariytale gardens of Isola Bella.


The gardens

The walk along Stresa’s lovely promenade is dominated by views of the enchantingly romantic Isola Bella. It rises in wedding cake tiers of terraces to a peak topped by a sculpture guaranteed to make you smile – cupid riding a unicorn. Love is the theme here, borne out by the sculpture, the white peacocks and the sensational planting. Garden-lovers find much to swoon over – the walls of blooming pink and red roses, for instance, which are so perfectly trained that they are completely covered with flowers, making a richly perfumed walk close up, and a ribbon of colour visible even from my hotel room. Lovers holding hands lean on the balustrades of the top terrace looking first towards the snow-capped mountains, then over the arabesques drawn in low box hedges on the lower terrace, back towards Stresa, and then into each other’s eyes.


Isola Bella rises in wedding cake tiers of terraces. Photo - Robin Powell

Walls of blooming pink and red roses. Photo - Robin Powell

Romance is in the air when we visit Villa Carlotta too, a garden in Lake Como, some three hours scenic drive from Stresa. A wedding is about to take place and one of the terraces is set up with a white flowering arch backed by views over the lake. A bridesmaid in pink satin sashays up a hedge-lined alley, the feathers in her headdress swaying like those on the peacocks at Isola Bella.

Where Isola Bella is like some dainty yet intricate bauble that becomes more and more amazing the more closely you look, Villa Carlotta is more like a long string of pearls and precious stones. There is more space here for larger garden gestures – a whole slope mounded with dazzling cushions of azalea, an incredible tunnel of arching citrus hanging with yellow and orange fruit, a cool and serene valley of ferns. Both gardens are Italian jewels, and all the more precious for the setting in the lakes. From Villa Carlotta the view is back to the apricot and peach tones of Bellagio. This town is considered the prettiest of all the Italian lake towns, though judging this claim to fame feels akin to judging the kind of beauties that relegate Gina Lollobrigida to second place!


Bellagio's narrow streets are packed with charming bars and cafes. Photo - Robin Powell


Back on the promenade at Stresa, I sip my Campari as the red rose ribbon tied around Isola Bella fades into the purple dusk, and the mountains become ghostly. The view is no easier to turn my back on now than it was first thing this morning.


Text: Robin Powell 

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Author: Robin Powell