Lake Maggiore is not that far from Milan. It’s to the north and is one of the Big Three lakes. We’ve been to Lake Como (and loved it), we have yet to go to Lake Garda and now we’ve been to Lake Maggiore. Mind you, it was a lot to pack into a day. While we left the hotel at 11am-ish, we didn’t get back till 11pm-ish. In that time we travelled on two trains, two ferries and a taxi. And Shank’s pony, of course.
But let me start from the beginning.
When we found out we were being forced to go to Milan, Mirinda insisted that I work out a day on the lake (I’m going to call it ‘the lake’ from now on just to save having to type Maggiore every time).
I read through screeds of stuff, warnings about the lakeside boat owners who wear captain’s hats and charge at least twice as much as the public ferry for very little extra in exchange. I found out a very little about the Isole Borromee – three islands that were owned and built on by the Borromee family back in the day – and how they were a definite must to visit. And I found out about the trains. The trains were possibly the most important.
More by luck than design, our hotel is situated a short walk from the Milano Porta Garibaldi railway station which has a direct train to Stresa, a town ideally situated on the lake to afford trips to the islands and up and down the lake generally. And so, armed with little more than phones and a guide book, we set off for the station.
We found it quite easily though getting the tickets was not so easy. In fact not only did I have problems getting our tickets but I also had problems helping out a young lady who also wanted one but couldn’t work out the machine. Still, eventually I changed to a better machine (in the actual ticket office) and I soon had our tickets in my hot little hands and we then had to search for the punch machine that validates all tickets in Italy.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m happy enough to follow whatever crazy rules a country has when it comes to public transport but the validating thing in Italy is just a pain in the arse. Especially when they hide the punch machines conveniently behind columns. It means that whatever buffer you may have allowed in your timings gets rapidly whittled away (especially if you factor in Mirinda’s need to use all toilets that may or may not appear) until you are suddenly wheezing up the platform with bare moments to spare between getting on the train and being sliced in two by the doors.
We managed to make it with a few minutes in hand which enabled us to keep walking through the train until Mirinda was happy with our seats. Unfortunately we were sat in the ‘Please Disturb Us’ carriage as with each stop we collected more bored teenagers who with whistles and bluetooth drum and bass machines were slowly driving us crazy. Then there was the giant gang of girls who almost all managed to get onto the train at one point – two in completely matching dresses – giggling, chattering and generally being all far too excited than is healthy in a young girl.
Mind you, all of them, bored boys and giggly girls, left the train a few stops before we did so we had a bit of calm before alighting at Stresa.
Stresa, according to our guide, was once a sleepy little fishing village (weren’t they all) before the likes of Byron, Stendahl and Dickens told everyone about it. Hordes then descended and turned sleepy little Stresa into a wide awake stretch of lakeside palazzi and hotels. Of course that’s all brilliant these days because it is now a gateway to so much beauty it’s hard to put into words though I wonder how many people actually manage to stay in Stresa for any length of time rather than moving on.
We managed to stay in Stresa for the length of time it takes to drink a red wine and a beer. We stopped at a delightful little cafe on the shores of the lake and watched the comings and goings of various boats as the weather closed in and the spots began to fall. This was when Mirinda became an expert in opening the big umbrellas that sheltered the occasional table. Not that it rained that much but enough to chase a family from Birmingham under the shelter.
By the time we left the cafe, the rain had gone on to some other Italian town, leaving us happy to walk to the ferry terminal. Naturally we ignored the chaps in white captain hats and bought our return tickets to Isola Bella.
(I have to confess to falling over on the way to the ferry. It’s the first time I’ve fallen over in about two years so I’m quite proud of that though falling over and being helped up by a man who looked older than me was a bit of a kick in the metaphorical teeth. I bled through the rest of the day but I’m not going to mention anything else about it.)
And so, onto the ferry which we found purely by accident when a group I’d overheard buying a ticket to the same place we were headed, headed for the ferry we hadn’t noticed just round the corner. We quickly followed them and boarded the ferry for the short hop to the island.
And so we arrived on Isole Bella or Isobella’s Island and every part of it is a pleasure to behold. From the enormous palace and garden to the tiny little shops and houses, the place is like a fairy tale come to life. Well, apart from the tourists I guess. And the beer. There’s plenty of beer. And ice cream.
I must confess at this point that we did indulge in more ice cream on the island. And it was fantastic. But enough of that…the highlight of the island was the palace that the Borromee built. While being huge and magnificent it somehow remains approachable. Perhaps it’s the colours or the lack of rococo swirly gigs or simply the good taste of the architect.
Whatever it is, the place is a joy to walk through (though I could have done without quite so many grottoes) with more and more magnificence the further you walk.
And it’s not just beauty that sets the place apart. It is also historically significant. For instance, Napoleon stayed here one night before heading further up the lake and destroying the Borromee Fortress and then the axis powers met in the palace in an ineffectual effort to avoid World War Two.
Possibly the weirdest bit is the display of scary looking marionettes down in the depths before the grottoes. Some of them look downright demonic. I think these soldiers were part of Napoleon’s lot.
And then there’s the garden which is simply extraordinary. Nothing prepares you for the first glimpse as you leave the palace by the automatic door.
Things get even more amazing when the inhabitants manage to put on a bit of a show for you.
So, all in all, our visit to Isola Bella was a huge success. And we concluded our visit with a long ferry ride all the way to Arona where we hoped to catch the train back to Milan. As it turned out we missed the 19:11 by almost half an hour but had time to get the 20:06 except, as we reached the station, it was cancelled. We then decided to risk everything and catch the 19:35 which went to Milan Central rather than Garibaldi. It actually took half an hour less and was fine except for the annoying family behind us.
What is it with parents? They get a child and decided it can entertain itself with some really, really annoying computer game with the volume set to 11. It’s like the parents have forgotten how annoying it can be for people without kids…or people who managed to entertain their kids without irritating everyone else on the train with a gazillion verses to the Wheels on the Bus. Seriously, people! Think of everyone else and not just yourselves…and whatever that is in Italian.
Anyway, at Milan central we had to get a taxi to our dinner stop which was a small deli cum restaurant called Quack. It specialises in goose and also does duck. It is not a place for vegetarians. It is for people who love trying something different that just tantalises the taste buds. Mind you, we were a bit cautious after our last foray into goose eating – a Christmas with Karen and Nigel that saw all of us quite ill the next day. There was nothing to fear.
Quack is a delight and the chap who runs it sure knows his goose. We had plates of the stuff in all manner of ways. It was a superbly quirky end to a magnificent day.
Now when can we go back to Lake Maggiore?