It is almost dusk and the fishing boats of Isola dei Pescatori are resting quietly on the shores of the small Italian island known to locals as the Island of the Fishermen.
A woman walks past carrying an armful of yellow blooms. A young man is chopping wood and stacking a cart with logs and twigs that will be used to fire a wood-burning pizza oven. A small dog scampers down an empty street chasing after a black cat.
On a quiet autumn evening, life on the island seems to be much as it was in decades past when Ernest Hemmingway first visited this part of Italy.
Hemmingway described beautiful Lake Maggiore in his classic novel A Farewell to Arms. The protagonist in the novel, a soldier named Frederick Henry, escapes to the idyllic town of Stresa on the shores of Lake Maggiore in northern Italy with his lover, the English nurse Catherine Barclay.
A November rain greets the lovers upon their arrival and hints to the reader that their visit in this lovely spot will be a short one.
When the Italian army comes looking for the deserter Henry, the hotel barman warns the couple and helps them slip out of the hotel and into a boat.
He then explains how they must row past the Island of Fishermen to the north end of the lake to reach the safety of neutral Switzerland.
As our bus arrives to this area, it somehow seems fitting to be greeted by the same misty November rain Hemmingway so aptly described. Like the characters in Hemmingway’s novel, my visit to this area will be brief.
At about 66-km in length, Lake Maggiore is Italy’s second largest lake. Its winding banks are surrounded by mountains with the western side in the Piedmont region of the country and the eastern side in Lombardy. The most northerly section of the lake extends 13 km into Switzerland, where it is the lowest point above sea level in that entire country.
In Hemmingway’s day, this region of Italy was a stop on the typical aristocrat’s grand tour of Europe and he spent many days wandering through the villages that dot the lakeshore, fishing from a boat, and visiting the islands. Magnificent old hotels and mansions line the shores of the lake and it is easy to see why Lake Maggiore has captivated and entranced so many visitors in times past.
A cool breeze drifts up from the shore as I wander down to the docks to enjoy a boat tour of Upper Lake Maggiore.
There are three islands visible from the town of Stesa — Isola dei Pescatori (Island of Fishermen), Isola Bella, and Isola Madre. The three islands are the jewels of the lake.
As the boat begins its journey, our guide explains that in 1400, the Borromeo family, powerful feudal lords, became the owners of the islands. Today the family still owns Isola Bella and Isola Madre. The Island of Fishermen is the only island that is publicly owned and inhabited on a permanent basis.
Our tour boat drives slowly around Isola Bella, which is entirely occupied by Palazzo Borromeo and its beautiful gardens.
Built by the Borromeo family in the 17th century, the impressive palace once played host to kings and queens including Napolean Bonaparte and Caroline of Brunswick, the Princess of Wales. During the summer months, tour boats make stops at Isola Bella and visitors can get out and explore the palace and its gardens. Inside the castle, you can see the bed Napolean slept in. Unfortunately, the private island and its castle are closed during the fall and winter months and our boat is unable to stop there.
From the boat, we catch glimpses of the gardens. The garden has 10 terraces studded with grottoes that are perched on the edge of the residence above the sea. The Garden of Love is said to have been a favourite Naploean and Jospehine Bonaparte. Our guide explains that the climate along Lake Maggiore allows for the growth of a great variety of Mediterranean plants that cannot be cultivated in other nearby regions of Italy and the Palazzo is just one of several stunning botanical gardens in the area.
After a good look at Isola Bella, our boat pulls up to the shores of the Island of Fishermen and allows passengers to disembark for a short tour. I follow our tour guide and the rest of the group for the first part of the tour, but eventually venture out on my own to wander down the quiet streets of the village and explore its hidden nooks and crannies. It is often far more rewarding to walk quietly along and see what unfolds before you than to hear a pre-planned monologue about a place.
It is still raining lightly as we board the boat to return to the docks on the lakeshore. Our plan for the evening is to enjoy dinner at the Grand Hotel Des Iles Borromees, the favourite haunt of Hemmingway during his visits to this part of Italy and the very place the two characters from the novel stayed. This region of Italy is no longer the popular tourist destination it was during Hemmingway’s time, but it is not fading into the past either.
As I step off the boat docks and wander along the lakefront walkway known as the percoso vita, I realize that a visit to Lake Maggiore region is a little like taking a trip down memory lane to a place you have never been but have always imagined. No matter the era, there will always be something magical to be found on the shores of Lake Maggiore.
If you go:
• Arona, Stresa, and Verbania are the most important towns on Lake Maggiore. The easiest way to get there is to fly into Milan or into Turin and catch the train from there. These towns are located on the Sempione train line that links northern Italy and Switzerland. You can also reach the area by car or bus.
• We stayed at the Grand Hotel Dino in Verbania. Be sure to ask for a room with a balcony that looks over the lake. Rates start at 155 Euros per night during the fall and include breakfast. For more information, visit www.zacherahotels.com
• If you want to stay in the same hotel Hemmingway frequented and the one he wrote about in A Farewell to Arms, consider a stay at the Grand Hotel Des Iles Borromes. During the fall, rates start at 157 Euros per night, including breakfast. You can enjoy dinner there from a Table d’hôte menu for 40 Euros per person. For more information, visit www.borromees.it
• For more information on Lake Maggiore, visit www.italiantourism.com/lakes2.html. For package prices on the Piemonte region of Italy, including Lake Maggiore, visit http://piemontenow.com
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, T4R 1M9.