I’ve already written a background review of the Borromean Islands so this review concentrates on the visit we made to Isola Madre (mother isle) the largest of the three islands open to the public. Although Isola Bella is probably the best known of the Borromean Islands, famed for its Italianate designed garden and sumptuously decorated palace, Isola Madre is larger and more of an English style botanical garden; first open to the public in 1978 it has many rare and exotic plants.
From the entrance we walked anti-clockwise along the path that encircles the lower level of the island, in some places just a low stone wall separated us from the short drop to the lake while other areas had evergreen trees and hedges and bamboo, presumably planted as wind shelter and through which we occasionally caught glimpses of the water with boats taking tourists to the different islands. We soon came across a flat area with bedding plants and small eucalyptus trees and then an amazing collection of ferns, ivys, hostas and banana palms growing in or at the bottom of a low rocky cliff. Our path cut across a long flight of stone steps that led from a landing stage up to a higher terrace, the longer section of steps had statues at the bottom, high walls on either side and flowers of mauve wisteria cascading over the steps but we continued along the bottom path: I discovered later that these steps were the Scala dei Morti (stairs of the dead) as there was once a cemetery on the island. Below us, on the lake side of the garden, we peered into a boat shed housing an old black gondola.
As we got further from the entrance the surroundings were peaceful and we saw nobody else in this area of rhododendrons, camellias, high evergreen hedges lining the path and enormous thickets of bamboo that towered over us – a Chinese golden pheasant walked regally across our path, its plumage a bright contrast to the shade here. We arrived at a point where we could not continue along the bottom path as there was a revolving gate that only opened from the other side; I guess this is the entrance used by the people who pay for private tours. So we climbed the slope where we found the Protea Terrace which had an impressive selection including King Proteas, Grevillea, Leucadendron and many more plus tall Echium and many other plants that thrive in this mild micro-climate. Then, on the lawn near the palazzo we found the Kashmir Cypress tree that has become a symbol of Isola Madre. It was the largest specimen in Europe but in 2006 was blown over when a whirlwind hit the island: complicated engineering techniques and skilled gardening has saved it but its once beautiful shape has been lost. White peacocks roamed across the grass and some perched on the roof of a large aviary that housed smaller birds like budgerigars. At the front and side of the palace were more flower beds and water features; there was a shop with a good, if expensive, selection of stock and a few tables where people were enjoying drinks. As we had been warned by our local walking guide that there is a charge for just sitting on the chairs we did not stay. Next door was a chapel, but we didn’t investigate that as we were short of time. We looked inside some beautiful old greenhouses containing flowering houseplants but although there were no signs forbidding us going inside we were not sure that we were allowed to enter.
The Borromeo Palace is beautiful but it is not sumptuously furnished and decorated like the one on Isola Bella; this is more like a family home – if rather large and grand – with windows giving views over the lake or garden. In the Venetian room glorious trompe l’oeil decorates the walls and mirrors and Murano glass chandeliers and painted furniture complete the look. There are also rooms containing a large collection of stage sets, marionettes and things relating to puppet theatres, once used by the family to entertain their guests.
We could have spent longer on Isola Madre but had to get back to our hotel for dinner at 7.00 pm with our group of fellow HF travellers so we reluctantly returned to the landing stage to catch the ferry back to Stresa via Isola Pescatori and Isola Bella. The weather was still dismal but seeing the flowers and colourful birds had brightened up our day. We’d have been even happier had we discovered in advance that entry is free to members of the Royal Horticultural Society.