We Return to Italy: Stresa on Lago Maggiore

Stresa, Lago Maggiore, Lombardia, Italia — Our fourth visit to Italy begins here on the edge of Lago Maggiore, “the greater lake,” just west of our old friend, Lago di Como, in the Lombardia region of northern Italy. We’ve learned from experience the advantage of selecting the first place to stay after crossing the Atlantic to be a place to pause and get your bearings in a new country, without having any immediate time pressures and without a lot of stunning places that you ‘must see.’ In our case, we have already spend one night in New York before the longer flight from JFK airport to Malpensa Airport (MXP) in Milano. After our flight arrived nearly on time at 8:30 am, a driver took us by car from Malpensa right to the middle of this lakeside town. The next three days would be for exploring the islands in front of us; but today is for finding some red wine and good food, putting our feet up, and staring at the lake.

Crossing the Pond in ‘The Age of the Volcano’

So we’ve got this volcano closing airports all over Europe, JFK airport in NYC closed its most heavily used runway for repairs causing delays every day, and, oh yes, tornadoes have sprouted up all over the plains states. So we were having a hard tine expecting a smooth trip.  For the past three days we’ve been tracking departure and arrival times, finding flight 16 from SFO to JFK has been running 2.5 hours late all week;. Flight 198, JFK to Malpensa airport in Milan, has been arriving 3.5 hours late this week except for Saturday, when it was canceled altogether. So, as the planner, my mental list of things that could go wrong, and contingency plans, was long.
However, for us, the taxi picked us up at home right on time, got to the terminal in an hour, boarded flight #16, and it departed on time!  first lap: check. An hour before landing it was warm chocolate chip cookies and milk. Oh, and one more thing: we landed thirty minutes early.

So much for the hassles of air travel in  the age of ‘The Volcano.’ A forty minute taxi ride brought us to Stresa, a beautiful touristy resort on Lago Maggiore.

Stresa and The Borromean Islands

Directly across the lake from our hotel are three islands — The Borromean Islands — that have been owned by the fabulously wealthy Borromeo banking family since Giberto Borromeo ‘The First’ bought the three islands during the first decade of the 16th century.
This purchase completed the Borromeo family’s control of the land all around Lago di Maggiore, known as “The Borromeo State” from the middle of the 15th century. The tremendous power and wealth of the Borromeo family — and its relatives, the Medici of Florence — culminated in the rise in the church of one of their sons, Carlo Borromeo, now know as St. Charles Borromeo. Charles was appointed archbishop of Milan shortly after the death of his uncle Gian Angelo de Medici (also known as Pope Pius IV) in 1565.
After a couple of decades establishing seminaries and defending the church against the Protestant Reformation, Carlo passed away, leaving his cousin Federico to carry on the family’s leadership in the church. Federico promptly mounted a 21st-century-style marketing campaign to get his cousin canonized, which would surely maximize Borromean power throughout Europe.
A contemperary wrote of the campaign: “the tomb of ‘the prince’ was offered as a center of devoted worship. Printed images and paintings of him, edifying tracts, biographies, rumors of miracles and apparitions, and the distribution of relics were not long on spreading his fame beyond the confines of the peninsula as well as recourse to his powers of intercession.” His campaign was successful — Charles was quickly declared a saint on November 1, 1610. As it turned out, the fame that went with the campaign didn’t do cousin Federico any harm either — along the way he got himself appointed to succeed his cousin as Archbishop of Milan and became a Cardinal in 1595, helping the family to consolidate influence and wealth from both sides of the altar. Meanwhile the rest of the family was building the magnificent Borromeo Palace that we visited yesterday — it occupies ALL of Isola Bella across the water from here (on the postcard above). I give them credit — they didn’t just build buildings — they surrounded themselves with well kept natural beauty, plants, art, and exotic animals from all over the world, still in evidence today, right down to the stunning white Chinese peacocks visible all over the island.
A more recent historical note about the palace — in 1935, BenIto Mussolini met in this palace with the leaders of England and France to sign a treaty intended to frighten the Germans sufficiently to deter them from starting World War II. The treaty, displayed on the wall in a room we visited, fizzled when Mussolini went home, allied himself with Hitler, and invaded Ethiopia.
So much for detterence.

Stresa was an excellent choice to get settled after flying across the Atlantic, a place to get over jet lag. It has a spectacular lakefull of historic islands that show off the tremendous opulence of the wealthy and influential families that built Europe on a Rennaisance foundation during the centuries from the 16th through the 19th. For that, we enjoyed our three days here immensely.
We met a French couple — from Alsace — at one of the mediocre restaurants in Stresa. It turns out that they too have returned often to both Varenna on Lago di Como and here at Stresa on Lago Maggiore. After sharing our experiences, the gentleman agreed with my summary:  Stresa and Lago Maggiore are beautuful; but Varenna and Lago di Como are magic.

So today the train Is taking us back to Varenna where we will stay at our favorite ‘home’ — Albergo Milano — for seven days. Perhaps we’ll see you there.

2 Responses “We Return to Italy: Stresa on Lago Maggiore”

  1. Tom says:

    I’m definitely jealous (and Rick Steves would be too if he were following ConVivio). With red wine in hand, I toast you, and await the next dispatch.

  2. Andrea says:

    So wonderful to be able to “keep in touch” while you take an amazing vacation. Can’t wait to read about Venice (and see some handmade postcards). Looking forward to dinner at your fave restaurant in the city to hear about the trip.