Battleaxe visits Lake Maggiore – Stresa and beyond

My last post was all about the first part of our holiday, our trip to Milan. This is about the second half, visiting Lake Maggiore. We stayed in Stresa

View from our balcony


     Readers may know that Battleaxe and Philosopher like historic, slightly faded grand hotels. Any Tripadviser reviews that talk about ‘grand old ladies that have seen better days’ will attract me immediately. I chose Stresa because it is easy to reach from Milan by train, and had two such hotels, the Regina Palace and the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees.
     I felt, visitng Lake Maggiore, one had to have a lakeview room in a traditional grand hotel, sipping a negroni on one’s balcony, watching the pleasure steamers chug up and down in front of us etc.

     I went for the Regina Palace. It was a bit cheaper, nearer the station, boat terminus and town. I expected, as usual in such establishments, to be sleeping in the rooms of exiled Russian aristocracy, Prussian Grand duchesses, the Prince of Wales and Mrs Keppel, Edward and Wallis, the Churchills, Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Princess Margaret, Sophia Loren, Maria Callas and such-like types who never seemed to be at home.  Turns out they all stayed up the road at the Borromees… Hemingway had a suite there where he wrote most of  ‘A Farewell to Arms’.  Churchill spent his honeymoon at yet another grand hotel, the Lido Palace in Baveno, the next town along the lake….
     So what of the history of the Regina Palace? It is slightly newer, 1908, but turns out George Bernard Shaw, Princess Margaret, Gina Lollobrigida and a variety of exiled royals did stay there, and it hosted the finals of the Miss Italy competition in the 1940s and 50s (wow)…. and aargh I read Ivana Trump and Silvio Berlusconi also stayed there. However, any atmosphere or sense of history had been purged out of it by over-excessive ‘restoration’.  The public rooms were a garish riot of reproduction art nouveau, drapes, swags, spindly French Empire furniture, huge Murano chandeliers, coloured glass and so much gilt paint it must have exhausted all suppliers in Western Europe.

     A proper grand hotel combines opulence and architectural magnificence with comfort and intimacy. The Regina Palace was opulent, and in its over-the-top way magnificant. Ivana Trump would have felt well at home. But intimacy? Comfort? No. Did we relax on a comfy sofa in the bar as the sun dropped below the yard-arm, joshing with a friendly barman who plied us with Campari Sodas and nibbles? No. The hotel was either heaving with wedding guests, conference delegates and tour groups or as empty as the grave.
     However, it was OK – except we had been spoilt by our wonderful hotel in Milan. Mini-bar in Milan? Free. In Stresa – 5 euros for a little bottle of water. And we were paying over twice as much for the room. Yes, we had an excellent lake view, yes we had a nice balcony. We had a whirlpool bath as well as a walk-in shower…… We had a Murano chandelier above the bed, but it did flicker a bit… Breakfast? Tinned fruit instead of fresh. Runny scrambled egg. And forgive me, but give me a mug and a boiling water machine rather than a silver-plated teapot the handle of which got so hot you had to hold it with the trailing edge of the tablecloth….
    We didn’t fancy the cavernous hotel dining hall (or its prices) so went out to nearby restaurants for dinner. We ate in three bad ones…. too touristy, bad value for money, too rushed, poor service and nasty food – we had it all… and then found a little enoteca/wine bar restaurant called Al Buscion, which served tapas-style Italian salads, meats, fish and cheeses with an incredible selection of alcohol. We went there for the reminder of our stay. I had a liquorice grappa – interesting….

Liquirice grappa – ugh

     As you can imagine, Stresa is a tourist trap. The town seemed devoid of historical interest and short on atmosphere. Philosopher and I discovered that we prefer Southern Italy…. geranium-hung balconies, sun-warmed peeling stucco. Old ladies in black pegging out their washing. Cats snoozing on the harbour-side, waiting for the fishing boats to return. We saw none of that. The lakes are much more Alpine – and a bit Swiss/Austrian – lots of big men in checked shirts. We saw a load of them, with feathers in their hats, roasting chestnuts on the lake side…

    Oddly, a number of the big turn-of-the-century lakeside villas were empty and derelict. Why?

Derelict villa

    But the big attraction was the lake, and for us, of course, the Iles Borromees with their famous gardens. We did two of those on the first day. It was pleasant, cruising up and down the lake, and the boat station was very near.

    First, the best known, the Italian Baroque garden of Isola Bella. We were a bit grizzled because they make you walk miles through a palace (another over-gilded riot) before reaching the garden, and it was all a bit hilly for Philosopher. But, we managed. The bottom floor of the palace was all shell and tufa grotto rooms. Battleaxe always likes a grotto.

Isola Bella
Grotto rooms in the palace

      The garden was absolutely heaving with tourists photographing the picturesque statues etc.  The Italians love a bright garden, and at this time of year, all the formal planting beds were full of garish begonias….

      Then we caught the boat across to Isola Madre – another garden, but very different. Much quieter, greener, and very beautiful. Very romantic views through the trees to the lake. Lots of different birds – and greedy white peacocks – wandering freely.

      There was yet another island – the Ile de Pescatori – but we didn’t bother landing on it. It looked too busy and touristy.
      Another day we took the boat right across the lake to the garden of the Villa Taranto. It was excellent – a real gardener’s botanical garden, with all the plants and trees labelled. They had the most amazing display of dahlias – eat your heart out Sarah Raven, these were just extraordinary.

  Philosopher photographed this little frog, blowing out its chest and croaking fit to bust. He said it was his favourite thing on the whole trip….

      Yet another day we walked along the front to the Mount Mottorone Cable Car. On the way, we called into the Hotel des Iles Borromees to see what, if anything we were missing. To our surprise, it looked quite similar. Slightly less garish, but they must have employed the same firm of decorators – even the wall-paper was the same….

Walk along the lake shore

    The cable car is fabulous fun It goes up the mountain in three stages – two cable cars and then a chair-lift to the summit at 4895′ –  a ski resort.  Apparently, in January 1935 the first ever giant slalom race took place on the Mottarone ski runs. The weather was quite misty, and got chillier and murkier once we were on the top, but we still had good views, including of distant show-capped Alpine peaks.
    It reminded me of my first ever foreign holiday – I went with my school friend Sue to Diano Marino, near Genoa. I remember staring blearily out of the window of our Cosmos carter flight from Luton and seeing the blue of the Mediterranean – but we also met some Italian boys who drove us up to Monesi, at the very bottom edge of the Italian Alps. We went up on a chair lift – it was so silent – I think I remember cow bells but I am probably imagining that – and we glided above drifts of wild flowers in the alpine meadows.  The Mottarone chair lift was not so silent, and the flowers had departed for the season, but the general idea was the same.

    Our final big outing was a long boat journey right up Lake Maggiore to Locarno, with a trip across the Alpine foothills on a Swiss mountain train to Domodossola, where we changed back to the ordinary train to Stresa.  It was a lovely sunny day and the lake views were good – but not that good – it got a bit samey after the first hour or so.  I’d never been to Switzerland beore – it was interesting to cross the border. The towns instantly looked more prosperous – ranks of modern, high-end lake view apartments.

Cruising up the lake
Hoisting the Swiss flag

    Locarno was not very interesting, despite its romantic name and image. Question – why are so many British dance-halls, cinemas etc. called ‘Locarno’? We stopped long enough for a horribly expensive gelato before going to the station.

Locarno – not that interesting

   The train ride (Centovalli railway) was very winding and mountainy. The little train hauled itself upwards along the sides of deep gorges, rattled across hairy bridges, and passed many Alpine meadows – you expected to see Steve McQueen roar into view on his motor-bike. I could not take any photos – the sun was coming in the window. Here are two off the internet.

   Last thing I forgot to mention – about the hotel. One thing I really loved was the indoor swimming pool and spa complex. It was unbelievably kitsch – false grotto effects illuminated in different colours – my photos show it in pink. The pool was very large – and gloriously empty. In various grotto-ey alcoves you could press buttons in the wall and it turned into a whirlpool, or emitted a sudden waterfall. The bottom of the pool was covered in sea-creatures embedded in resin. All great fun. I don’t mind ridiculous kitsch when it comes to swimming pools. Had a good sauna and steam room as well.

Phew – this is a long post, but all done now….. back to Hastings life.  Here’s the view of the lake early on our last morning…


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