Isola Madre and Isola Bella are apart of the Borromean islands on Lago Maggiore in Northern Italy. Originally created for the Borromeo family, the islands along with much of the tourist attractions in the Gulf of Borromeo are owned to this day by the family.
Originally rocky outposts, over the course of nearly five centuries the family transformed the lake islands into veritable botanical gardens, building impressive palaces and an even more impressive ecology in this beautiful but overlooked corner of Lombardia.
There’s a lot to know about the Isole Borromee, but the proof is in the pudding. The gardens are absolutely gorgeous and a visit to one or the other means a day spent immersed in beauty. So you choose: read all the information below for more background on the place or simply scroll through the pictures, the unique landscape can speak for itself!
The Borromeo family bought Isola Madre in 1502, after moving to the area from Florence. The family had been run out of town when their plot to overthrow the rulers of Florence failed, making Lago Maggiore their refuge in more ways than one. Buying up land in the area, Isola Madre became their own private Eden.
Originally known as San Vittore, the island’s name was changed after construction began on the palace in the mid 1500s to Isola Madre, in honor of the Renato I Borromeo’s mother.
It took nearly 40 years until the island resembled a garden, but by 1542 there were grapevines, chestnut trees, a veritable fruit orchard as well as olive and citrus trees. The family brought in rare plants from around the world and even created a greenhouse to grow pineapple, the first of their kind in Italy. It’s said that Queen Margherita tried the exotic fruits for the first time during a visit.
Compared to the palace on Bella, the villa on Isola Madre is little more than a cabin, but that’s only because of the immense size of Isola Bella’s palace. The intricate wood ceilings, enormous dining tables and gorgeous vistas and terraces of Isola Madre’s palace are plenty plush for a secret island getaway home.
Whereas Isola Bella is a true Italian garden with orderly flowerbeds and pathways and statues galore, Isola Madre is a true nature park, styled after typical English gardens. The biggest of the Borromean islands, it has aviaries stocked with parakeets and lovebirds, peacocks that roam free and the impressive Kashmir cypress, the biggest cyprus tree in Europe.
It’s a testament to ecology that the tree still exists today. In 2006 the tree was completely torn down by a storm, but a fleet of engineers and gardeners were able not only to lift the 25-ton tree, but to effectively save it from dying. Today there are still iron cords attached to the tree, but it seemed perfectly dense and healthy, not to mention enormous! Here you can see photos of the tree’s recovery over the years.
Before the Borromeo family arrived in the 1600s, Isola Bella wasn’t actually so bella.
Named after the countess Isabella Borromeo, Isola Bella was originally just a barren island in the middle of a lake. It wasn’t until 1630 when the Borromeo family finally purchased the island and began plans on their opulent palace and gardens that the scraggy rock was transformed into a veritable paradise.
That said, it took 400 years and more than 200 gardeners, architects, carpenters and engineers to create the magnificent palace and Baroque gardens that exist today. They brought in tons and tons of soil to create the terraced gardens and planted flowers, bushes and trees from all over the world.
The villa on Isola Madre seemed to live in symbiosis with the surrounding park. It was large yet unobtrusive, fitting in perfectly with the island’s flora. The palace on Isola Bella, however, is a massive structure that seems to cover nearly half of the island. Here, you can’t see the gardens without first following a prescribed path through the entire palace. I’d have preferred the option to skip the palace, but I imagine the designated path is for crowd control. We went the last weekend of September and found the islands breathable but still quite full of visitors. I can’t imagine the traffic jams in August!
The entrance of the garden is announced by a two-hundred-year-old camphor tree. I don’t know what a camphor tree is, but I was duly impressed by its size and age. The real star of the garden, however is the striking Teatro Massimo, an outdoor theater space dripping with Italian statues and perfectly pruned bushes.
The terraces create different vantage points to enjoy the view of the lake, the house and even other bits of the garden. Everything has been considered. Without a doubt the most striking panorama comes from the highest terrace of the island, a large space with views out over the lake as well as the house itself. The website describes it as being “sprinkled with statues, obelisks, ageless stone stairs and balustrades.”
I imagine an enormous hand delicately sprinkling massive stone statues and things across the island. In this case, that heavy hand was absolutely generational wealth, but you can’t help but enjoy the beauty.
For international visitors, Isola Bella and Isola Madre are a bit out-of-the-way, a bit secondary to be considered on a first trip. But for those willing to take a day trip from Milan or interested in seeing beyond the typical Lake Como loop, a visit to these paradisiacal islands is well-worth the trip. A testament to Italian’s love and simple pleasure in beauty, what better way to soak in the Italian culture than a stroll through two of its most famous and most beautiful gardens?
Want to go?
Here’s everything you need to know to plan a visit the Borromean Islands.