One of the main attractions on Isola Bella are the White Peacocks. And don't worry that you won't see any while you are there because they are all over the place. On the day we visited there were several student groups visiting the Borromean Islands and they were probably driving the White Peacocks crazy.
Like most peacocks I've ever seen in zoos they do strut around quite a bit and you don't have to wait very long before you hear their very loud squawking voices or see them fan their tail feathers to their full glory.
They are actually quite quick and can hop the small fences around the grounds with ease. They are not penned in and can literally be found on several spots on this small island.
The palazzo, or palace, is the most important attraction on Isola Bella. You can already see it when you arrive on the boat, and it does indeed look very impressive. I could not wait to visit it! However, when we arrived in the courtyard, I was quite disappointed because there was a loooong queue. Well, it couldn't be helped, we took our place in the queue, waited and waited, bought a ticket, and finally went into the palace.
Fortunately, the palace is so large that it is not crowded at all even if there are a lot of visitors - everybody has their own pace of exploring, and therefore people quickly disperse once inside the building.
When Carlo III Borromeo decided to build a palace on Isola Bella, he wanted to have a casino on the highest point of the island, but his sons changed these plans and decided for the palace there is today. The construction of this palace was basically finished in 1670, although work according to the original plans still continued until the last century!
The palace was much bigger than I had expected when I saw it from the outside. Room after room you walk through luxury and opulence... It certainly is very impressive and beautiful. However, I also found it a little lifeless, as there is not much furniture left, and there are not many explanations. You can hire an audio guide, but we did not do so because we expected a few information signs. There were none, though, and so the only information we had was the name of the rooms... It was still interesting, because there really are so many rooms that it is unbelievable. The most stunning are probably the grottoes in the basement of the palace which were created to offer a cool place to be on hot summer days - and I am happy to report that it still works! :-) The walls are made of tuff, marble and lava, and the rooms are decorated with statues of antique gods and goddesses.
Most impressive is the Grand Hall, a huge, round hall with fantastic stucco works and a very high ceiling. You can just imagine the gentry having balls and parties here many years ago... You can also see the rooms where Napoleon stayed when he visited here after his Italian campaign.
Unfortunately it is not allowed to take pictures within the palace.
Admission fee: 13,30€ adults, 5,50€ children - Combination ticket with Isola Madre: 18,00€ adults, 8,00€ children
Opening times: End of March to end of October, 09.30 to 17.30 - check current dates before your visit!
A little further from the palace, there is a large park that occupies the biggest part of the island. It is not a baroque garden like on Isola Bella, but more of an English style, with lawns and trees, and a lot of nature that looks grown a little wild, not ordered in flower beds. In the middle there is something like a little piazza where some corn is scattered, so the birds come to feed there, and there is a table and chairs to have a pick nick. After we had done so, we wandered around the park, and because it is so big, we got lost at one time and just continued strolling around until we ended up at the castle again.
The area around the palace has been transformed into wonderful gardens. They are very well cared for and display the most beautiful flowers in many different colours. There are also palm trees, and a very big Kashmir cypress which is the largest of its species in Europe.
There are benches where you can have a rest and it is a joy to wander around and enjoy the flowers and the views across Lago Maggiore, especially when it is a little later in the afternoon and the crowds have left. This was the case when the 17.00 boat had left and we, who had decided to take the 17.30 one, still had some time to walk around and relax in these beautiful surroundings. Unfortunately the weather was very grey and windy, but although this spoils the photos, it did not spoil our enjoyment!
The palace on Isola Madre is a bit different to the one of Isola Bella. It is not as opulent and splendid, but I liked it the better for it. It seemed a lot more personal because there is furniture in every room, and there were also a few information signs. A highlight is the collection of historical puppets and sceneries of old puppet theaters. These sceneries were very big and I just loved them. They were fantastic, showing amazing scenes like people imagined them a few centuries ago, for example wild, exotic landscapes, elegant palaces, mountains and deserts, oriental castles... If there is still a child in you, this child will love these sceneries! The puppets were equally interesting, some very large, and showing many different figures like princesses, soldiers, grandmothers, and even dogs.
The palace itself was built from 1585, which reflects in the somewhat plainer style of the building. As said above, I preferred this palace to the other one because although plainer and smaller, it felt livelier and not as static. You can see a lot of furniture and many pictures from past periods. The highlight is the Venetian Drawing Room with its lovely filigree paintings of plants and flowers that cover the ceiling, thus making the rooms looking like an extension of the garden.
Admission fee: 11,00€ adults, 5,50€ children - Combination ticket with Isola Bella: 18,00€ adults, 8,00€ children
Opening times: End of March to end of October, 09.00 to 17.30 - check current dates!
Belonging to the palace, and included in the entrance fee you pay, there are large and beautiful gardens. You get there in the end of your tour of the palace, and they are just huge and impressive. Unfortunately we did not visit much of them because I had some circulatory problems due to the weather (fortunately this got better later on Isola Pescatori after the thunderstorm that was approaching had passed). We really missed a big part of it, but the part we saw was great nonetheless.
In the main picture you see the first part of the garden, but the bigger part only begins behind this "barrier" - you need to climb the steps in order to get there. It is possible to see that part from the boat, though, and even from the coast, as you can see in picture 2 - no doubt, this baroque part is the most stunning and impressive part of the gardens!
Picture 3 shows a part of the entrance area to the gardens, just after you leave the palace, while picture 4 and 5 were taken in the part we visited.
Isola Pescatori's church is the oldest of the three churches on the islands. It is called San Vittore just as the church on Isola Bella, but it is more than five hundred years older - it dates back to the 11th century! It is the most interesting of the churches and can be seen from afar, towering above the small village on the island. When you explore Isola Pescatori, it is not so easy to find it, because it is hidden among the many small alleys and houses. Thus, it is not possible to take a complete picture of it.
The church is of Romanesque style, but the interior is largely baroque. There are also some frecoes which look quite old to me, but unfortunately I was not able to find out more!
I found this church very beautiful, and a restful and quiet stop during my exploration of the islands. Absolutely worth a visit if you go to Isola Pescatori!
Outside of the palace, on the opposide of the small courtyard, there is the small sepulchral chapel of the Borromeo family. It is the youngest addition of the palace and was constructed in 1858. You cannot enter, but are allowed to have a look through a metal screen.
The chapel is very pretty, both the exterior and the interior. Adjacent to the chapel, probably in previous rooms that belonged it, are the shop and café on the right and the toilets on the left.
Isola Pescatori's harbour is very picturesque and one of my favourite places on the three islands. What I found most fascinating was the statue of the Virgin Mary which was placed on one of the harbour walls. I did not see something like this before although I imagine it might be common in catholic countries. I myself am not catholic, but I loved this statue - standing guard on the old wall above the lake, it just conveyed an atmosphere of security and kindness and looked so beautiful.
Although Isola Pescatori was originally a fishing village, there are now no fishing boats in the harbour, but there are many small pleasure and rowing boats that looked as if owned by locals.
Borromeo palace and gardens are open from the end of March till the end of October. Visit in the palace lasts about 45 minutes, in the garden you can spend from 20 minutes till hours if you enjoy just relaxing in a beautiful nature. But I would not plan more than 3-4 hours to spend in Isola Bella. You can take an individual tour or a guided one. Although it is extremely nice, it is not so big. The opening hours: everyday from 9.00 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. I would sincerely recommend to visit this island and the palace, especially gardens. This is probably very suitable for those looking for romantic places :) The entrance to Isola Bella palace and gardens in 2006 costs 10 euros, Isola Madre palace and gardens 9 euros, both isole in one day 15. There are discounts for groups and children.
Actually Isola Bella is at Piedmont, not Lombarty as VT says. It is located on Lake Maggiore...
You must see a Castle on the island. Tour is very nice, it is given by the family who has been serving this island for many generations. The servant is very funny, and once the tour is over he opens the exit door just a little bit and will not let you out until you pay him a nice tip.
About the statuary in the gardens, Vitaliano's intention was to order statues that would celebrate the family's ancestors and their achievements. So much for the family's motto "Humilitas"! However, his brother convinced him to change his mind and to decorate the garden with allegories of the seasons, the months of the year etc.
In the picture you see the statue of Summer.
The statues that decorated gardens in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were never meant just as ornaments. They always had symbolic meanings. Here in the Teatro Massimo, for instance, the unicorn at the top is a symbol of purity, and at its sides there are statues representing Art and Nature.
We must also remember that gardens like these were the background for courteous life, for sets of people who had learned from young age to dance, to walk gracefully, to speak softly, and also the plants and flowers of their gardens were taught good manners.
The Isola Madre has more exotic birds than Isola Bella, but on both islands you will find the impossibly beautiful white peacocks. Their colours make them stand out, whatever the colour of the background. Their tails look so much like the lace of a bride's gown that one almost forgets that these are the males of the species.