|The Borromean Islands: Isola Madre|
Isola Madre is the largest of the Borromean Islands and is home to an elegant villa surrounded by extensive botanic gardens.
The island was originally known as Isola di San Vittore or Isola Renata and in the High Middle Ages it formed part of a defence network for the that encircled the lake. Nowadays, nothing remains of the castle that once stood on the island; just two parchments dating from 846 and 998 attest to its existence. As well as the castle there was also a chapel dedicated to San Vittore and an octagonal baptistery. The grounds were divided into separate plots and olives were cultivated.
In 1501 all this was to change; Count Lancillotto Borromeo bought the island and commenced its transformation. The parish seat and the cemetery were moved to Isola Bella and the Count drew up plans for a large villa with botanical gardens.
After the death of Lancillotto, Renato I Borromeo took charge of Isola Madre and after removing the remains of the old chapel and any old walls in 1585 they were able to finish the majority of the work by the end of the 16th century. After completing the villa, building on the island came to a halt as the Borromean family’s interests switched to Isola Bella.
Fortunately Isola Madre was not neglected completely and over the next few hundred years the family kept the land well cultivated and the production of oranges, lemons and bergamot were exported to Switzerland. Then in 1858 the last major building project was carried out on the island: a sepulchral chapel was erected over six years by Vitaliano IX Borromeo.
Today visitors can admire the beautiful gardens which are well known for the azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias and an ancient wisteria. There are also citrus trees, hibiscus and ginkgo biloba (maidenhair tree). The gardens are less formal than Isola Bella and they are a real pleasure to explore.
Outside the entrance to the villa is the largest example of a Kashmir Cypress in Europe; it is over 200 years old. Unfortunately, in 2006 a freak storm uprooted the Kashmir Cypress and it sustained significant damage. An outstanding effort was made to replant the tree using a crane flown in by helicopter and constructed on the island. The Kashmir Cypress is now back in place and is producing new leaves but it will take a few years to see if it has fully survived.
The villa itself contains a collection of marionettes and scenery used for puppet theatre, valuable 17th century paintings, livery, dolls and porcelain. One room contains stunning trompe d’oeil frescoes of a pergola and trailing flowers which bring the gardens inside.
The villa and gardens of Isola Madre are open from the 18th March 2016 to 23rd October 2016 from 09.00 - 17.30 (last entry). Tickets for 2016 cost € 12.00 for adults, € 6.50 for children (6-15). Children under 6 years and RHS members are free.
Combined on day tickets with Isola Bella are available, costing for 2016 € 20.50 for adults and € 10.00 for children (6-15) which is a good saving if you intend to visit both islands.
Audio -guides are available for Isola Madre at the ticket office and cost € 5.00. They are available in Italian, English, German and French.
Visitors who have walking difficulties or who rely on a wheelchair are advised that there are many steps between the ferry landing stage and the entrance and the main path on the island and therefore it is not considered accessible.
Photos and video for personal use are only permitted in the gardens.
Picnics and dogs are not allowed.
It takes approximately 1¼ hours to visit the palace and gardens.
There is a cafe/restaurant on Isola Madre.
Please note that you cannot access any of the island without paying entry as the whole island is covered by the gardens.
The local ferry service runs frequently to and from Isola Bella and there are also taxi boats available from Stresa, Stresa Lido and Baveno.