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La Dolce Vita

In 1817 the famous French writer Stendahl wrote, “What can one say of Lake Maggiore and the Borromean Islands…except to pity people who do not go mad over them.” Ernest Hemingway agreed, as well as a notable procession of famous others-Napoleon, Mussolini, Charles Dickens and English poets, William Wordsworth and Lord Byron.

The Borromean Islands

All fell under the spell of the Italian Lake District’s spectacular beauty. Deep blue water reflecting the snow-capped mountains of Swiss and Italian Alps. The warm Mediterranean climate and the ever-blooming tropical flora of palm trees, magnolias, roses and camellias. My husband, David, and I discovered Lake Maggiore on a chance visit years ago. Now we return every summer with our daughter, Claudia, to Stresa, our favorite of the magical villages that dot the lake shore.

We stay at Hotel La Palma, a family-run hotel that has become like a second home to us. When we arrive, I’m glad to see the familiar faces of charming Stephano Panetta, the owner’s son, and his lovely mother at the front desk. After explaining why we’re arriving without luggage (Alitalia  lost all of our bags) we’re led to our room, a corner suite with a large balcony overlooking Lake Maggiore and the Borromean Islands.

We unpack our carry-ons then stroll into town along the broad, lakefront promenade built by Napoleon, past abandoned estates and luxury hotels.  A continuous park, planted with an endless variety of trees, flowers and shrubs hugs the walled shoreline. Pink and purple hydrangeas are in full bloom, as well as roses of every color. Gardeners keep the conifers trimmed into unusual shapes and have coaxed climbing red roses up the trunks of palm trees.  A playground and carousel entertain children at one end of the park, fountains and statues provide a peaceful spot for relaxing at the other.

Gelato’s anyone?

At dusk, a crowd gathers along the lake to watch the sun set across the water. As the last glimmer of sunlight dips below the Alps, cheers and clapping erupts. We turn inward towards the village, dodge a speeding Ferrari as we cross the street, then wander down narrow, lantern-lit alleys perusing restaurant menus. After much deliberation, we decide on Pappagallos, a favorite of the locals for brick-oven baked buffalino pizza.

La Palma Hotel

It’s unusually hot for early June (African winds we’re told), and we dine outside on the patio under a roof of gnarled grape vines stretched over wrought-iron trellises. The stern Italian men never smile as they dash from table to table pouring carafes of red wine and handing out enormous platters of seafood pasta. Though the restaurant is packed with hungry diners, the sole cook suddenly decides it’s time for a break. He rips off his apron, stomps out of the kitchen and goes next door to smoke a cigarette with the women in the gelato shop.  My husband looks at me, shrugs and orders another carafe of wine. We know the cook will eventually return and cook our pizza…but it may be awhile. Over the years we’ve learned the secret to enjoying Italy is understanding things do get done-just not always in our rushed American style. 

After dinner, we stop next door for a gelato. The vast array of luscious flavors makes the decision difficult. Pistachio? Hazelnut? Lemoncello? My daughter orders strawberry and the artistic clerk  transforms the simple ice cream cone into a beautiful rose before handing it over.
The walk back to our hotel in the dark is even more beautiful than in the daytime. Stresa’s older hotels, the Regina Palace and the Grand Hotel des Lles Borromees, glow brightly at night, giving the resort town an elegant look. In the middle of the lake, lanterns from the Borromean Islands glitter like jewels in the starlight.

Back at our hotel, we find a wedding reception going on full swing, with guests dancing on the lawn. The crowd disperses at midnight and the band winds down. From my balcony, I can see a lone man gently swaying to the last song. I wonder if he’s indulged in one too many grappas, but a closer look reveals a toddler daughter sleeping in his arms.

The next day, we quickly fall back into our old routine. For a brief week each year, we pretend to be Italian. David rises early and goes out to pick up our lunch of pastries, prosciuto, cheese and melon. In past years, we’ve always felt the need to dash off every morning, exploring Switzerland, mystical Lake Orta or the Cannero Riviera, but this time we don’t want to drive anywhere. Instead, we loll away the mornings drinking coffee on our balcony and watching the sun burn off the thick haze hovering over the lake.

We do eventually walk down to the Piazza Marconi and take the ferry boat to the top sight-seeing destinations in the area, the Borromean Islands. The first stop is sleepy Isola Pescatori, a mostly residential fishing island with a couple of seafood restaurants. Good for a short lunch break accompanied by serenading accordionists, but not much more.
Next we visit, Isola Bella, named by the 16th century count Carlo Borromeo for his wife, Isabella. The island showcases a palatial villa filled with stuccoes, frescoes, tapestries and crystal chandeliers. Rare and unusual plants such as tea, coffee, lotus flowers and Egyptian papyrus thrive in the 10-tiered terraced garden rising up from the water like a Mayan temple. Snow-white peacocks and pheasants patrol the elaborate grounds. The island even boasts a place in history as the location of a meeting in 1935 between Mussolini and British and French diplomats. Unfortunately, the meeting failed in its attempt to scare Germany out of starting World War II.

Pappagallos Restaurant

On the third island, Isola Madre, natural elements dominate those made by man. The whole island forms one great garden filled with parrots and colorful parakeets. We were lucky to visit in June with the garden’s azaleas and rhododendrons were in full bloom.
As always, the time passed much too quickly and soon it was time to pack for home. A few days before, our lost suitcases had arrived without explanation one night at 11 pm, shredded to pieces and wrapped in clear plastic. We bought new luggage and loaded our carry-ons full of treasures-Murano glass figurines, vases and picture frames, lemoncello in hand-painted bottles, walnut sauce, grappa and a new purse.

Our hearts are heavy as we check-out and say our goodbyes. “Will we see you next year?” the elegant white-tuxedo clad owner asks.

We smile and nod. Oh yes, we’ll most definitely be coming back.
Hotel La Palma
Lungo Lago Umberto I, 33
28049-Stresa, Italy
Phone-(39)0323 933906
[email protected]
Rates for a double room range from $150-$270 per night, including breakfast buffet and parking.

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