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Golden Day Fifty-Four: Dreaming of Stresa on Lago Maggiore

May 28, 2011

I began dreaming about Stresa, a jewel of a town on Lago Maggiore, in high school when I read Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms. At the end of the story he deserts the army and heads to Stresa, to the arms of the British nurse he’s crazy about. I fell into romantic imaginings about Henry and Catherine at the Hotel des Iles Borromees… More recently, I’ve discovered Stresa Sights, a beautiful blog written by Dana Kaplan (a New York native), who now lives part time in Stresa and fills her posts with gorgeous photos and great up to date info for travelers to discover the beauty, foods, and wines of the area.

I’m so grateful Dana’s come along to share her Golden Day in Stresa, where you can indulge in the delights of the lake and the snow-capped Alps…

Let’s start with the lake. We’ll walk along the Lungolago, the pink paved path that runs along Stresa’s lakefront. On the other side of the path are Stresa’s famous old hotels, like the Hotel des Iles Borromees and the Regina Palace.

Let’s stop for a cappuccino and a brioche at Gigi Bar (Corso Italia 30), across from the ferry. The Liberty-style bar has been here serving cappuccinos since the 1800s, and they still bake their own brioche on the premises.

Then we’ll take a quick 10-minute ride on one of the Navigazione Laghi ferries to Isola Bella, one of the three Borromean Islands here in the Golfo Borromeo. (Click here for schedules).

The island is only 400 meters off the shore from Stresa, and home to the Palazzo Borromeo. The whole island was reshaped in the 1600s by the Borromeo family to resemble a large ship, with the imposing palace being at the front of the bow.

Inside, one of the highlights is the Shell Grotto, which is a passageway leading from the palace to the gardens. Its cavernous spaces are covered in shells and small stones. Outside, we’ll discover a monumental wall of sculptures. The top is crowned with a large stone unicorn, the Borromeo family emblem, who watches over the gardens while his rider, Love, holds on to his back.

White peacocks roam everywhere in the garden, free and tame. The garden has ten tiers, each set back from each other, adorned with statues that wave at you from the terraces.

Now let’s wander a bit through the alleys of the medieval village that hugs the sides of the palace. Centuries ago, these stone buildings were inhabited by palace workers and craftsmen; today we find shops and restaurants.

A good place to stop for lunch is Ristorante Elvezia (Lungolago Vittorio Emanuele 18, 032 33043). We can sit upstairs, on a terrace shaded with grape vines. Specialties of the house include fresh fish from the lake, such as persico or coregone. Or try their pasta sampler, which will give you a few small servings of different dishes all prepared with their homemade pasta.

Back to the ferry, but we’ll take it to the other Stresa imbarcadero this time, the one called Carciano. First stop when we disembark is an after-lunch espresso. I recommend L’Idrovolante (Piazzale Lido 6, 0323 31384), the bar and restaurant that overhangs the lake, or Loco Beach Club (Piazzale Lido Carciano, 0323 934740), which overlooks Stresa’s small sand beach.

From either place, look up at the cables running up the mountain over our heads. After our espresso we’ll take a gondola up this cableway, rising almost 5000 feet in 18 minutes, to the top of Mt. Mottarone. (Click here for schedule). Now we have 360° views of seven lakes and even the golden statue atop the Duomo in Milan. Up here it can be much chillier than down below at the lake. So let’s take refuge in rustic Casa della Neve (0323 923516), one of the mountain restaurants. The traditional drink is the fil da fer, which is served hot. It’s a tummy-warming mixture of whiskey rye, milk, sugar, egg yolks, marsala, and a hint of vanilla.



We’ll go back down the cableway to Stresa for dinner in Piazza Cadorna, the heart of town. The tables are filling up. Waiters scurry back and forth carrying plates under the wide umbrellas. As the sun sets the small lights on the umbrellas blink on. I recommend Café Torino (Piazza Cadorna 23, 0323 30652). They make good simple fare such as Vitello Tonno, the Milanese specialty of thin slices of veal covered with a chilled tuna and caper sauce. Other favorites are their Insalata di Polpo con Patate and the Ravioli con Brie e Speck.

And after, we need to walk only a few more feet to Fior di Gelato. Let’s take our gelato, sit on a bench, and listen to the jazz band that’s playing on the other side of the piazza.

Lake, mountain, gelato and jazz. It’s been a good day in Stresa.

Grazie for the dreamy day, Dana!

*Note that the Stresa season runs the first weekend in March until the end of October–that’s when the Palace and Gardens are open, there are music festivals, etc. Check out Stresa Sights for ALL the info you’ll need.

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