martedì 14 luglio 2009


Mum came to Italy with one wish: to see the Italian lakes. Our walk on Thursday was lovely but we weren't high enough in up in the mountains to actually catch a glimpse of the sparkling waters of Lake Como, so on Saturday we went to Stresa for the weekend.

Stresa, like Como, is only about an hour from Milan on the train, but the trains aren't all that frequent, so we had to get up early on Saturday morning. When we arrived, the first thing we needed to do was find a hotel. After walking along the lakefront and admiring the Astoria, the Regina Palace, and the impossibly beautiful Grand Hotel des Iles Borrmomées, we eventually settled for the Hotel Elena on Piazza Cadorna in the centre of town. It didn't have a swimming pool or live music and dancing on the terrace in the evening, but we had a balcony, the staff were friendly, and who needs a swimming pool with Lake Maggiore on their doorstep?

In the afternoon, we went to see an example of luxury that surpassed even the Regina Palace Hotel: the villa on the Isola Bella. The Isola Bella is one of three islands that are only a short boat trip from Stresa (and if you go with one of the unofficial ferry companies, it can be a short and exciting trip as you bounce along the waves created by the much larger official boats). On the island is a huge villa built by a member of the Borromeo family in the 17th century. The scale of the baroque architecture would put many churches to shame and as well as the (at least relatively) tastefully decorated rooms upstairs, there is a spectacularly hideous series of artificial underground grottoes on the lower floor of the villa which house everything from a collection of marionettes to a canoe dug out of a nearby peat bog.

My favourite bit of the villa, however, was the gardens. A series of terraces stacked up from the lake level and populated with specially imported white peacocks leads to an enormous centrepiece decorated with statues and fountains. While some of it verges on being over the top, the flowers, the sunshine and the way that the land is shaped to take best advantage of its position in the middle of the lake are beautiful and if I were a 17th century countess, I certainly wouldn't be offended if my husband built me a garden like that.

On Sunday, we got the cable car from the Lido in Stesa to Mottorone, a mountain behind the town. At the top, you get amazing views over the lake, across the mountains, and down to the Lago d'Orta on the other side. There are several waymarked hiking trails, of which we did one lasting about 2 hours, or you can go to the small dry ski centre or just have a picnic. About half way up the mountain, at one of the cable car stops, there is an alpine garden. There weren't many flowers out when we were there but it might have been more interesting at a different time of year.

Both nights in Stresa, we ate at the Osteria degli Amici, which is not far from Piazza Cadorna. The first night I had grilled trout from the lake and an amaretto mousse for pudding and the second night we both had pasta with saffron, bacon, courgettes and prawns. I left my umbrella under the table on the first night and not only did they remember me and give it back on the second night, they reminded me to take it away again when we left the second time. So different from the Milanese and their umbrella-stealing ways!

On Monday, we walked along the lake front to the gardens and zoo just outside of town. The zoo wasn't very big, but it had some very cute little goats and deer, some llamas, a zebra and an aviary. Most of the zoo was nice enough, but seeing this toucan with his bright colours in a dull empty cage made me feel a little bit sad.

We sat in the gardens for a couple of hours, mostly because I was in the middle of reading The Savage Garden, which is a mystery novel set in a villa with a large garden in Italy, and I couldn't have found a more appropriate setting to finish it in. After that, we walked back into Stresa and had a swim in the lake before catching the train back to Milan.

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