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Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 09/3/06 3:11 PM

Travel: Stresa, Italy

Sojourn in Stresa
Discover a delightful resort town by the splendid Lake Maggiore.
Every corner I turn affords me yet another glimpse of the lovely lake, brisk moisture-laden winds playing on its surface.
I AM looking at a landscape in blue.
In fact, I am in a landscape of blue, the blue used by Tiepolo rather than Vermeer. The huge body of water that is the Lago Maggiore sparkles an obsidian ultramarine.
The majestic Borromean islands seem to be suspended above the light grey mist which seems to be shot with the palest of Prussian and which hangs in a slightly uncertain fashion above the waters; and Hotel Borromees, (full name, the Grand Hotel des les Borromees), Papa Hemingway’s one-time haunt, is a sombre gleam of teal across the waters from where I stand.

Blue on blue
I’m in Stresa in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy and all around me, a shocking jolt of colour in the blue canvas, are azaleas in summer bloom: red, pink, violet and white.
The flowers are everywhere; in wooden pots marking the boundaries of little cafes, spilling from balconies, springing from heavily scrolled cement planters in the gardens of stately villas set back some distance from iron gates.
And, a little distance away from me is a faded fresco on the front of a church, another work in blue. It is of Jesus as the Good Shepherd… in a shepherd`’s cape and tights! Indeed, a lovely way for God to go to man.

Photo: Sheila Kumar.

Stresa isn’t all play, at least it wasn’t. In 1932, a conference of 15 European nations on economic collaboration was held at Stresa.

Three years on, another conference was held here when Britain, France and Italy took, but never implemented, a decision to maintain a common posture toward Germany, which had begun to re-arm in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. Then, some years further on, the Swish set “discovered” Stresa.
Popular with the rich and famous
Today, while it is not one of the top haute spots for the playboys and playgirls of the Western world, it still features as a very popular retreat for the rich and famous, and of course, for the inevitable droves of tourists. Not surprising. This resort, all 33 square kilometres of it, spread lazily on the western curve of Lake Maggiore, is extremely picturesque.
If Stresa is picturesque, the clear, glacial lake of Maggiore is nothing short of beautiful. It has been called just that, “the most beautiful of lakes” by Samuel Butler, and Stendhal has compared it to the stunning Gulf of Naples.
At 636 feet above sea level, the lake is 40 miles long and goes down a jaw-dropping 1,220 feet at its deepest spot. With an immediate ring of modest-sized hills, the Alps looming on the far horizon, some of the peaks covered with snow, Lake Maggiore stretches between Piedmont and Lombardy and eventually, heads north to Switzerland.
The river Ticino, and a whole host of streams and water courses run down the hills and into the valleys that surround this lake.

Some of the well-known towns that hug the shorelines of the lake are Arona, Meina, Lesa, Baveno, Verbania, Ghiffa, Oggebbio and Cannobio.
The weekday markets of these towns, one day for each of them, is very popular with little shops and stalls with gaily striped awnings stocking anything and everything, from food to clothes, from antiques to souvenirs.
 As I gaze across the waters, palm trees wave their fronds on the other bank and the islands of Bella, Madre and Pescatori stand like three sentinels on the rippling waters.
La Isola Bella
The Isola Bella houses the summer villa of the Borromeo family (they owned pretty much both banks of the lake); Pescatori is the fisherman’s island and Madre has a stately villa full of antiques and a garden full of exotic plants. Celts, Romans, Barbarians have all lived on the shores of the lake.

Photo: Sheila Kumar.

It has been more than 10 days into my Italy tour and already I’m realising the importance of food and drink.
Which is why I take myself to one of the many outdoor cafes to fill up, as it were, before taking in the sights of Stresa. My meal is arancino, risotto balls, deep fried pancotto, which is cooked bread, all washed down with some light sparkling table wine.
There is a fat tabby sunning herself on the cobbles beside me; two tables away, a little boy is entertaining his grandmother and mother with a series of off-tune ditties. This is heaven.
The only fly in the ointment is the loud penetrating voice in a distinct American twang, complaining about having to pay 0.20 Euros to use the toilet. Ah well, into  every heaven, some rain must fall.
By the time I am done with my meal, some rain is, indeed, falling and now the lake looks vast,
impenetrable, mysterious, even threatening.

The Borromeo residence
I take a motor launch across the lake to the Isola Bella where the villa of the Borromeos are open to rubber-neckers such as myself. The Borromeo clan were nobles who have made this island their home from the Middle Ages and can even boast of a saint, Santa Carlo Borromeo, in the family line-up.
Our little group is takenaround the palace by a witty guide (they do a neat line in witty guides, in Europe), shown around ornately appointed rooms with wainscoting, scrolled pilasters, sconces and balusters, where exquisite Murano and rock crystal chandeliers hang, past many paintings of Christ, and the Borromeo family portrait gallery, down into the nine grotto rooms. By now, a chill wind has started to whip the surface of the lake and to wrap itself around the island, and I’m not too warm despite sturdy woollens.

Money, old and new
I find myself at a large mullioned window and gaze out at the far shore, where beautiful old villas
stand lined up. This is the place of old money, lineage, European royalty; and of course, new money, too, lots of it; some of these deluxe stone villas are hired out in season, at rates that defy belief.
The gardens of the villa are breathtaking, with pavilions, statuary, white peacocks, and of course, a riotous celebration of Mediterranean flora, blooms and plants, everywhere.

And every corner I turn affords me yet another glimpse of the lovely lake, brisk moisture-laden winds playing on its surface.

By the time I am done trawling the gardens, browsing the little markets for gifts and tee shirts, taking a hundred photographs from a hundred different angles, eating a mint gelato,the weather has cleared.
And when I look out at Lago Maggiore, it’s back to the composition of blues, clear blues, deep blues, smoky blues… now, these are the blues I could get addicted to!
This ran in THE HINDU of 3 Sept 2006.
Related Links:


Borromean islandsHotel BorromeesItalyLago MaggioreStresa

Sheila Kumar • September 3, 2006

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