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Sunday, Sep 03, 2006


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.

Picturesque location: Lake Maggiore 

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.

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 statel
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.

Can get serious, too
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. 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. 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.

Distractions in heaven
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. 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 taken
 around 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!

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