Il Bel Paese… De-Stressing in Stresa

Famous for its delicious cuisine, Italy is also known for its trendy fashion, luxury sports cars and diverse regional cultures, as well as for its beautiful coast, alpine lakes and mountain ranges. No wonder it is often nicknamed the Bel Paese, the Beautiful Country.

One would think that after staying awake all night on a flight from Miami to Milan you would be exhausted. Well, it was quite the contrary, as soon as the wheels touched down at Milan’s Malpensa Airport; we were wide-awake and hit the road running. After renting a BMW 100 series manual transmission car we begin our Italian journey in search of the town of Stresa. With about 5,000 residents, Stresa lays on the shores of Lake Maggiore in in the Gulf of Borromeo, where it overlooks the eponymous islands, the main attraction in the Piedmont region. As the second largest lake in Italy, Lake Maggiore is situated in the northwest corner surrounded by beautiful mountain ranges.

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Stresa offers the perfect blend of relaxation and culture in an enchanting setting that evokes the atmosphere of the belle époque with its well-preserved architecture and old-fashioned characteristics.. The weather was glorious as we took a tranquil stroll along the elegant waterfront with unforgettable views, until we reached the boats to take us to The Borromean Islands. Easy to reach and a must-see destination, the three Borromean Islands are steeped in artistic, historical and botanical appeal. Isola Bella is the most admired destination on Lake Maggiore and derives its fame from the stunning Baroque palace and elaborate Italian gardens. It was the crowning glory of a group of famous Italian architects in the 17th century who, thanks to the generosity from the Borromeo family, were able to create a unique masterpiece. A step back in time, the Isola Bella and Isola Madre are sumptuous palaces with rare plant gardens where peacocks, parrots and pheasants roam wild against an exotic backdrop reminiscent of faraway lands. Isola Madre, the largest of the islands boasts a 20-acre park that is considered one of the most impressive and well preserved in Italy.

The rare plants and exotic flowers in these English-style botanical gardens have been enchanting visitors for over a century. In contrast, the Isola dei Pescatori, regarded as one of the most picturesque locations on Lake Maggiore is characteristic of an old village that has been a fishing community for centuries and is still home to around fifty people, some of whom preserve their traditional way of life though the narrow streets and simple buildings recall the spartan but animated lives of local fishermen. The tiny, traditional shops and fish restaurants enhance the life of the village, which is a popular destination for day-trippers.

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However, it is in the evenings, when silence falls and the lights are reflected in the waters of the lake, that the island is at its most evocative. Staying at one of the island’s two hotels is the best way to soak up the atmosphere. As well as being a fine example of a mid-nineteenth century palace, Villa Pallavicino boasts a zoo in its huge, 50-acre park; here, among the ancient trees and flower-lined avenues, live more than 40 different species of mammals and birds.

With many opulent Art Nouveau hotels lining the lakeside, we stayed at the spectacular Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees, built in 1861 and the first of many hotels that sprung up around the lake. Driving through the gates of this majestic property, a favorite of Ernest Hemmingway, depicts a time gone by, with lavish drapes, marble floors, warm, rich colors, and Murano chandeliers enhancing the authenticity of the hotel. The picture perfect lush manicured gardens with dazzling fountains directly facing the treasured Borromean Islands embodies a truly romantic Maggiore setting.

After a short walk we discovered the beautiful quaint piazza of Stresa full of wonderful tastes and smells. With music playing and lights strung across like glistening stars, we thoroughly enjoyed amazing pizza and homemade pastas with the locals. The fragrance of fresh breads and flowers floated through the air as we meandered through the narrow streets of this magical town while devouring gelato.

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For an extra special treat, we had the pleasure of dining at Piccolo Lago, a 2 Star Michelin restaurant on the enchanting Lake Mergozzo in Verbania. With Chefs Marco Sacco and Paolo Griffa at the helm, we shared their creations as they told the history of the area though an irresistible culinary journey.

Walking is definitely one of the best ways to see some of the hidden treasures around Stresa. After a few unbelievable days, were off to the big city of Milan for many more adventures. As for Stresa, definitely a very special place, not to be missed. Ciao bella…