Among the many beauties of the Piedmont region, its lakes certainly occupy a prominent place. Among these is Lake Maggiore, one of the most important Italian lakes. Lake Maggiore is the second largest lake in Italy by surface (the first one is Lake Garda). Located at a height of about 193 meters above sea level, Lake Maggiore has 80% of its surface in Italian territory, between Piedmont and Lombardy, and the remaining 20% of the surface is located in Swiss territory.
Things to do in Lake Maggiore
Stresa is the undisputed queen of Lake Maggiore. From its privileged position on the slopes of Mount Mottarone, it allows you to enjoy a breathtaking view. Its lakefront is always well maintained, with flower beds full of flowers. The town is a collection of villas, parks, and elegant hotels with panoramic views of the Borromean Islands and mountains, which make it a truly extraordinary experience in every season.
In the middle of Lake Maggiore, in front of Stresa, are the famous Borromean Islands. Among these is Isola Bella (Beautiful Island), the smallest of the Borromean Islands. On this enchanting island, you can admire the splendid botanical gardens full of plants, flowers and statues and the elegant Baroque palace built between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, with beautiful halls full of tapestries, paintings, furniture and much more. The Royal Palace is an ancient structure, as well as a splendid example of Baroque art, with 10 terraces that make up a magical and luxuriant garden that drops sheer to the sea. Isola Bella is today an enchanting and unique place to visit.
Isola Madre (Mother Island), also known in ancient times as Isola Maggiore, is the largest of the islands of the Borromeo Islands. On this island you can visit the Borromeo Palace, built in the 16th century, full of magnificent furnishings and beautiful rooms such as the Venetian living room decorated with floral paintings in the trompe l’oeil style. Its collection of porcelain dolls and that of ancient puppet theaters are also very fascinating. On the island there are also a chapel and a beautiful English garden with flowers and plants; from here is possible to enjoy an amazing view of Lake Maggiore.
Isola dei Pescatori
Isola dei Pescatori (fishermen’s island) is the smallest of the Borromean Islands and is also the only one to be inhabited throughout the year. The islet is home to a village with a small square enclosed by narrow alleys that lead to the promenade on the northern tip of the island. In the numerous lakeside trattorias you can taste the local gastronomy. Among the various festivals that take place annually, the Ferragosto one with the procession of boats on the waters of the lake deserves a mention. A show within a show. To visit the islands it is possible to use a ferry service from Stresa. You can go up and down as many times as you want to admire the splendor of these islands.
Alpinia Garden, on Lake Maggiore, is one of the largest botanical parks in the Alps. It is located in Alpino, in the Municipality of Stresa, at an altitude of 800 meters; the park is accessible by cable car. From the garden you can enjoy a beautiful panoramic view of Lake Maggiore: a real natural balcony where you can relax while enjoying a wonderful landscape of the lake and the Borromean Islands.
On the slope that connects Belgirate to Stresa, a few kilometers from the Borromean Islands, is Villa Pallavicino. Inside the villa, right in front of Lake Maggiore, there is a garden with a zoo of about 20 hectares populated by many species of animals, including mammals and tropical birds. The residence was built in 1855 by the Neapolitan statesman and scholar Ruggiero Bonghi and was then purchased a few years later by the Marquis Ludovico Pallavicino of Genoa, from whom the villa takes its name, who transformed it into a nineteenth-century villa in neoclassical style. The villa cannot be visited, but from the outside you can admire its splendid architecture with its elegant and sober facade and its symmetrical architectural layout. The villa is spread over three floors with side stairs that lead from the garden to the terrace overlooked by the rooms on the ground floor. It was the descendants of the ancient and powerful Genoese family who transformed the garden into a wildlife museum open to the public where you can find local animals, but also more exotic species. The park was then enriched with flowers, plants, centuries-old trees and flower-filled avenues to further embellish these 18 hectares overlooking the beautiful lake. Today Villa Pallavicino hosts a zoological park with over 50 species of animals that have found a home here and a refuge where to reproduce. Among the guests of the villa there are fallow deer, Tibetan goats, llamas and hares that live in freedom. In the area of the Antica Cascina there are zebras, kangaroos and ferrets. Inside the zoological park there is also a pond, which over the years has become the home of turtles and beavers. The peculiarity of the park is to let visitors get close to the animals and, in some cases, to be able to even touch them. Since 2017, the villa has been part of the Borromean Islands complex together with Isola Bella, Isola Madre and the Rocca di Angera. An incredible heritage of art, architecture and history with breathtaking views of gardens and palaces overlooking one of the most beautiful and largest lakes in Italy.
Rocca Borromea di Angera
On the southern end of Lake Maggiore is the Rocca Borromea di Angera, a beautiful castle resulting from five different buildings built between the 11th and 17th centuries: the Scaligera Wing, the Viscontea Wing, the Torre di Giovanni Visconti Wing and the Borromeo Wing. Inside it houses the Doll and Toy Museum which traces the history of the game from the 18th century to the present day. The Historical Rooms, on the other hand, house precious frescoes, ancient paintings and splendid decorations. Outside, however, the Medieval Garden allows you to take a trip back in time.
Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso
The Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso is a monastery that rises overhanging the eastern shore of Lake Maggiore, in the municipality of Leggiuno, in the province of Varese. Built starting from the second half of the 12th century, the Hermitage of Santa Caterina is certainly one of the most particular places to see on Lake Maggiore. Rich in artistic and historical beauties, the Hermitage also offers a splendid view of the lake.
Colossus of San Carlo Borromeo
In the southern part of Lake Maggiore, on the Piedmontese shore, is Arona, a town in the province of Novara where the first human settlements in the region were found, dating back to prehistoric times. Here is the famous Colossus of San Carlo Borromeo, an imposing statue of 35 meters high. The “Sancarlone”, as it is nicknamed, was for about 2 centuries the tallest statue in the world. Its peculiarity lies in the fact that it is possible to climb inside via a staircase that will take you up to the head where you can enjoy a magnificent view of the lake through the holes of the eyes, nostrils and ears. Inaugurated in 1698, the statue for about two centuries remained the tallest in the world, until in 1886 it was surpassed by the Statue of Liberty in New York, with its 46 meters in height (excluding the base). The French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who built the large statue located in the port of New York with the help of Gustave Eiffel, stayed right in the city of Arona in order to study the structure of the famous Colossus of San Carlo for his project of the Statue of Liberty. In fact, it seems that the Sancarlone, together with the Colossus of Rhodes, the mythical Greek statue placed in ancient times at the entrance to the port of Rhodes, were the models that inspired the French sculptor for his great work. In particular, the Piedmontese statue served as a model for the internal structure that allows access to the top, as is the case with the famous statue in New York.
The statue is made up of hammered copper plates and joined through the use of nails and iron boards. The sculptors who created it were Siro Zanella and Bernardo Falconi, adapting to the design of Giovanni Battista Crespi. The work was commissioned by Saint Carlo’s cousin, Federico Borromeo, and its construction was so complex that it required 84 years of work.
The statue that dominates the territory of Arona was built in honor of the Milanese archbishop Carlo Borromeo, to celebrate and above all remember the greatness of his actions. It represents him in the act of giving a blessing as if through the construction he could continue to transmit his benevolence to the locals and to those who visit it. The figure of San Carlo Borromeo is in fact one of the most important in Arona: there are several places in the area that still remember the saint, from the place where he was born, which today has been transformed into a beautiful park that can be visited, to the church of his baptism and the Church of the Holy Martyrs where he celebrated his last mass.
The “Sancarlone” is certainly the most impressive and particular of these tributes to the Milanese archbishop: it is in fact possible to climb inside to reach its summit and enjoy the view from above of the surrounding Park of the Statue of San Carlo and of Lake Maggiore.
Among the towns on Lake Maggiore, Cannobio, a few kilometers from the border with Switzerland, is certainly one of the best known, especially for the quality of its waters and beaches and for its artistic, historical and naturalistic beauties but also for the quality of the tourist services offered. It is worth wandering through the ancient streets to discover its numerous churches, characteristic fountains, villas and palaces that tell an ancient story.
Villa Taranto Botanical Gardens
Finally, in the northwest part of the Castagnola promontory, on the western shores of Lake Maggiore, between Pallanza and Intra, there are the gardens of Villa Taranto, certainly one of the most beautiful attractions in Piedmont. The garden is a real work of art with thousands of plants and flowers from all over the world. Some specimens are very rare and embellish this “botanical art gallery” which, every spring and summer, offers a unique and evocative spectacle. In 2014, Villa Taranto was elected by the Buzzfeed site as the most beautiful garden in the world.
With the arrival of spring, these terraced gardens, which cover an area of 16 hectares, blossom and reopen to the public to be admired in all their splendor.
The history of these wonderful gardens and his villa is linked to the figure of Neil Boyd Watson McEacharn, a captain of Scottish origin, a lover of botany and Italy. In 1931, Captain McEacharn decided to buy the property from the Marquise of Sant’Elia to transform it into an English garden, located in a part of Italy that reminded him of his homeland, Scotland. McEacharn turned the garden into a real work of art with thousands of plants and flowers from all over the world. Some specimens are very rare and embellish the garden. The name “Villa Taranto” was given by the same captain in honor of his ancestor, Étienne Jacques Joseph Alexandre Macdonald, appointed Duke of Taranto by Napoleon. Inside the gardens, there is a villa, built-in 1875 to a design by the Ticino architect Augusto Guidin. Unfortunately, the villa cannot be visited as it has been the seat, since 1996, of the prefecture of the province of Verbano Cusio Ossola. Instead, you can visit the beautiful building of the Herbarium, the former concierge with an eclectic taste. Absolutely not to be missed, during the visit to Villa Taranto, the Viale delle Conifere (suggestive compact sequence of specimens of very rare conifers from all over the world), the Fontana dei Putti (fountain named for the sculptures that adorn it and which in spring is surrounded by splendid blooms), the Labyrinth of Dahlie (with over 1700 plants in bloom), the Mausoleum (where the captain is buried, by his wish) and then again the greenhouses, the terraced gardens with their games of water and much more.
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