I love visiting gardens so when I had the chance to visit the palace and gardens on Isola Bella during my Trafalgar Tour, I grabbed the opportunity. The tour included a one night stay at Bavena near Stresa, right alongside Lake Maggiore which borders both Switzerland and Italy.
The optional tour offered by Trafalgar included a boat ride to Isola Bella with a private guided tour of the palace and the chance to wander around the gardens, so off we set from Stresa in our boat.
As soon as the island came into view I was blown away. I'd read a bit about it and heard that some of the statuary was a bit over the top and that is definitely true, but the formal gardens were beautiful and when you learn that once upon a time the soil on the island was too poor to grow anything, it makes it even more impressive.
The history of Isola Bella as it is today started around 1630 when one of the Borromean Counts who owned the island and two others nearby, decided to transform it from the fishing settlement it was into a pleasure garden. Boatloads of soil were transported to the 20 hectare island and the Count had his architect build a 10-terraced garden, based on the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which looks out over the lake. The statues definitely aren't to everyone's liking, and there are LOTS of them, but I was impressed enough by the formal gardens, the topiary and roses, to overlook the excess of statues.
The Count then had a huge palazzo built in the baroque style and a private tour offers you a look at some of the palatially decorated rooms including the Napolean Room, where Napolean and Josephine are said to have slept in August 1797. (No photos are allowed to be taken inside the palazzo.) He named the island after his wife Isabella but the name was soon shortened from Isola Isabella to Isola Bella, which also translates as 'beautiful island'. The guided tour of the palazzo was well worthwhile - our guide was extremely knowledgeable and very passionate about the history of the palace and gardens.
If you happen to be visiting Lake Maggiore, I highly recommend you take a boat ride out to Isola Bella. As well as the palazzo and the gardens, you'll find a gift shop and coffee shop as well as a number of 'market-type' stalls alongside the lake selling everything from souvenirs to clothing. There are also plenty of restuarants and bars which make a great spot to sit and relax whilst watching the traffic on the lake.
Need to know
- I visited Isola Bella on an optional excursion offered by Trafalgar Tours but regular ferries depart Stresa, on the western shore of Lake Maggiore, for the island, as well as water taxis which leave from Stresa, Stresa Lido and Baveno.
- Entry to the palace and gardens costs around €13 per adult (2013 prices). Audio guides are available for €2.50 per person for 1.5 hours and would be very handy if you're not taking a private tour (additional charge).
- The gardens and palace are open each year from mid-March to early November.
- You should allow at least 1.5 hours to visit the palazzo and gardens.
What do you think of the statues at Isola Bella? Would you, or have you, visited the island? Please share your comments below.