Italian Lakes – Lower Lago Maggiore

IT can be approached from many sides, and so there is at all times a pleasant crisscross of tourists upon its waters. One of the principal tides of travel comes from Milan by rail and touches the lake at Arona, where steamboats are in waiting to make that famous journey up the lake, which is so full of joyous surprises, sudden transitions, and noble prospects. At least the steamboat time-tables begin the trip of lower Lake Maggiore with Arona, and it will not be out of order for us to do the same.


The railroad from Milan traverses a flat and fertile plain, where vineyards, plantations of American corn, and rows of mulberry-trees succeed each other for miles. Presently some poplars fluttering their silver-lined leaves to the breeze betray the presence of the Ticino. The river greets us after its long journey down the length of the lake. The station of Sesto Calende is passed and the lake bursts into view at Arona.

The little town has its big open square, its row of hotels, and its quay planted with shade-trees. Along the lake wall business-like black barges are loading and unloading coal, fishing-nets hang to dry, and white awninged rowboats ride on the wavelets made by the steamboat. Off to the north-east the crenelated castle of Angera, a fief of the family of Borromeo, gives a mediæval aspect to the landscape. Some wooded slopes contrast gently with the open fields.

The position of Arona at the outlet of the lake gave it importance and prestige even during the Roman era. It counts to-day as one of the most populous of the lake towns, and is active, not only in introducing travellers to the grandeur of Lago Maggiore, but also as an industrial centre. A tablet on the walls of the Hotel Reale states that Garibaldi stayed there in the year 1848. Historically speaking, Arona is chiefly noticeable as the original seat of the family of Borromeo, whose ancestral castle, however, was destroyed by the French in 1797.

In a letter to his father in 1858, referring to Turner’s picture, entitled ” Arona, Lago Maggiore,” Ruskin writes:

” I had made up my mind before arriving here to find Mr. Turner’s port a thing of the past, and a beautiful new quay for steamers, with an ` embarcadère’ opposite for the railroad, in its place. I thought myself therefore more fortunate to find the two towers still left, though the whole further side of the port, with its arches, has, just as I expected, been turned into a grand quay for the steamers. The near side of the port with the garden and trees must from the first have been drawn out of Turner’s head, as there are large houses on that side (of the towers) which clearly date from the beginning of the last century. But the terrible roguery is in the hills. No such hills are, or ever were, in sight from Arona. They are gathered together, hill by hill, partly from the Battes of Oleggio, partly from above the town here, partly from half-way up the lake near Baveno, and then all thrown together in one grand imaginary chain.”

Carlo Borromeo (1538 – 84)

On the outskirts of Arona, above the vine-yards and surmounting a slope of green, rises the colossal statue, in bronze, of Cardinal Carlo Borromeo, the most famous member of a family famous in the annals of Milanese territory. The statue with its pedestal is 113 feet in height and was erected in 1697. The figure is turned toward Milan. Carlo Borromeo’s uncle, Cardinal de Medici, became Pope Pius IV., and shortly after the nephew was made Archbishop of Milan. He showed great energy in the administration of his diocese. In accordance with the decrees of the Council of Trent, he set about correcting the ecclesiastical irregularities in existence, first in the city of Milan, then in the country districts, in spite of much opposition on the part of those whose interests he had disturbed. During the plague which swept Milan and its surroundings, he displayed great zeal in visiting the sick, organizing relief, and taking such measures as the knowledge of the times deemed efficacious and necessary. Such acts endeared him to the people and caused his memory to be specially cherished throughout the Italian lakes region.

From Arona to Stresa

There is some scurrying aboard among the passengers, sailors, clad as neatly as those of an Atlantic liner, draw in a few last hawsers, the water churns and foams, and the steamboat leaves Arona on its joyous venture up the lake. The shores immediately rise higher and the slopes are seen to be dotted with hamlets from which Lombard campanili detach themselves. Stray, warm-weather clouds catch upon the hilltops, or trail from them like volcano smoke. The water, which at first looks green and shallow, gains in depth and turns blue. A delightful sense of growing freshness envelops the boat. The travellers on deck now use their field-glasses in order that no item of the expanding scene may escape them.

Whenever the boat stops, there is an interesting coming and going of passengers and sightseers at the landing-places. At every station carabinieri (country policemen) can be seen standing, two by two like twin sentinels, surveying the scene with benevolent watchfulness. They are clad in the full panoply of the law, with cocked hats and red stripes, and, if the day be Sunday, they wear an extra cockade of red and blue, while their coat-tails take on further embroidered gorgeousness. At many places the boat does not dock, but slows down and receives passengers who come alongside in a rowboat with the postman and the bag of mail. There is a rapid exchange of passengers and mail-bags, a flying leap, and a sudden separation.

By degrees the lakeside villages of Meina, Lesa, and Belgirate are left behind, each provided with a tiny harbour and beautified by an array of villas, terraced gardens, trailing vines, loggias, and arbours. There are white houses with green blinds, others tinted yellow, pink, blue, or brick-red, the smallest excuse and the least provocation only being needed to cause these walls to blossom into colour. Once in awhile a ravine comes down to the water’s edge, filled with chestnut-trees and leading the eye back inland to heights, where villages are momentarily revealed, hiding in the pockets of the hills. Lesa was for many years the place of residence of Alessandro Manzoni, author of ” I Promessi Sposi “.

After Belgirate there comes one of those complete changes so characteristic of all lakes lying under the scenic influence of the Alps. It is a change from low hills and vine-clad slopes to the sight of lofty mountains and the perspective of everlasting snows. As the corner is gradually turned, the headland of Castagnola appears with its dark trees setting off white hotels; Sasso del Ferro rears its summit boldly in the east; the great Bay of Pallanza opens wide and fair, with the Borromean Islands strung across it like so many jewels; and Monte Rosa glistens pure white upon the farther horizon. Everything on the way up from Arona seems to have led, by a well-studied crescendo, to this final burst of beauty, where the narrow arm of lower Lago Maggiore becomes in a moment a bay of singular splendour. On the way up, all the paraphernalia of Italian life and its stock properties have been passed in review, as the steamboat has glided in sight of the shore and made its stops, — and all this in order to enhance the effect and herald the glories of the Gulf of Pallanza.

Of the Borromean Islands, lying offshore between Stresa and Baveno, there is so much to say that a special chapter has already been devoted to them in this book.

The town of Stresa stretches alongshore and leans against Monte Motterone for a background. It presents an appearance of much distinction, and outwardly, at least, leads a life full of calm strolling leisure. The grand hotel and the handsome villas are all provided with gardens in which the horticultural marvels of this exceptional region flourish with special success. But Stresa’s principal claim to the attention of the polite public is due to the presence there of the villa of the Duchess of Genoa. This villa ducale is not exceptionally sumptuous nor elaborate in appearance, as ducal villas go, but it conveys the impression of great comfort and elegance, and the good people of Stresa consider themselves fortunate in having so welcome and beloved a guest in their midst.

At Stresa it is possible to make a pleasant sojourn and catch many side glimpses into the life of the people, which are necessarily excluded from a rapid round of the lake.

For example, some fine day you will awaken to find the quay in possession of merrymakers. Little booths have been erected under the carefully trimmed line of shade-trees, and in the open space amusing couples are revolving gaily to the tune of a band. The stately carabinieri are on hand in full feather, and flags fly from the houses facing the water.

Sometimes, indeed, the tramontana wind bears down fiercely upon Stresa, clarifies the atmosphere to crystal purity, produces a veritable and formidable fresh-water surf, and bends the trees on the quay to a dangerous curve. Again, in the midst of the summer season, when those who speak the northern tongues have moved to cooler climes and the Italians of the cities have come to Stresa for their refreshing, an interesting regatta is held similar to the one at Como, in which the oarsmen manage gondola-shells with extraordinary dexterity, standing up and rowing forward.

As the steamboat glides near the Stresa shore, a flock of yellow sheep come pattering along the highway. They are of the long-legged Italian kind, and their shepherd is clad in homespun and carries a staff. The church-bells are ringing, and when the boat draws near, they may be seen performing strange antics in their lofty towers, standing on their heads and tumbling about joyously.

On the hill back of Stresa is a large white building which recalls the name of Antonio Rosmini-Serbati, the founder of the Institute of Charity.

Antonio Rosmini-Serbati (1797 – 1855)

Rosmini, like his friend Manzoni, was of patrician birth. He was from Rovereto in Tyrol, hence, politically speaking, was born on Austrian soil.

There seems to be no question that the founder of the Institute of Charity (better known as the Order of Rosminians) was very precocious as a child. His biographers report that at five years of age he had a fair knowledge of the Bible; that his favourite game was to pretend being a hermit, in order to meditate upon the lives of the saints. Even his nurse seems to have expected him to astonish the world, for she carefully treasured up his baby-clothes, and would surrender them to no one until after Rosmini’s death. Curiously enough, the boy, when sent to school, like Manzoni, showed a surprising degree of stupidity in his lessons; while all the time, at home in his uncle’s library, he read for amusement and inwardly digested the works of Thomas Aquinas and Augustine, thus forming the basis of his future philosophy.

He was sent to the University of Padua. From Padua he retired to Rovereto once more, there to continue his reading of the philosophers in retirement. The classic writers, the Church fathers, the mediæval schoolmen, the modern rationalists and positivists, — all were passed in review, — some 620 authors in all. A complete catalogue of his own works contains ninety-nine numbers. His ” Sistema Filosophico ” alone takes up more than forty volumes, purporting to be ” a veritable encyclopædia of the human knowable, synthetically conjoined.”

From Baveno to Laveno

Baveno has long been a favourite resort with the English. It was there that Queen Victoria spent three weeks in April of the year 1879, in the superb Villa Clara belonging to Mr. Henfrey. Somewhat larger than Stresa, Baveno yet strongly resembles the former place in general appearance, in the style of its dwellings and park-like gardens. It is known to the Italian world more particularly on account of its pink granite quarries, which have provided columns for some of Italy’s greatest structures, and indeed have been in use since the time of the Romans. These quarries, and those of Montorfano, gleam and glare from afar, when the boat rounds the corner at Stresa, and in conjunction with the white houses of Baveno they form an excellent background to throw into relief the islands of Isola Bella and Isola dei Pescatori.

The boat now crosses over to Pallanza, to which place a separate chapter in this book has already been assigned; then, skirting the little island of San Giovanni and rounding the Punta della Castagnola, it reaches Intra, situated upon alluvial deposit between two mountain torrents. Hence the name, intra meaning ” between.”

If Pallanza is notable for its charms as a visitors’ resort, Intra impresses one chiefly as a busy commercial place. It has a little harbour protected by high walls, where the shipping of its particular needs can take shelter when the north wind blows. There are factories belonging mostly to Swiss firms, and much coal is needed, so that Intra may look a trifle grimy in comparison with its neighbours along the lake, but the artistic impulse is not stifled. Intra possesses no less than four public statues, one of Garibaldi, another of Victor Emmanuel, one of Colonel Simonetta to commemorate those who fell in the wars of independence, and another to a famous physician, Restellini. The place is an active and alert centre of thought, and by its energy is helpful in awakening some of the dormant capabilities for world-work among the population of Lago Maggiore. There is good grassland in the neighbourhood; the small landholders and proprietors are also rather more numerous here than near most of the lakeside towns.

In Italy the agricultural land question is at present complicated by a great diversity of contracts between landlords, middlemen, tenants, and agricultural labourers. In the least fruitful or mountainous districts there are many peasant proprietors. The irrigated lands of the plain of Lombardy, which are extraordinarily fertile, are cultivated upon one plan, the vineyards of Piedmont upon another, and so throughout Italy down to Sicily, where the condition of the labourers may be said to leave most to be desired.

The road northward out of Intra, toward Oggebbio, is justly famous for some of the finest villa gardens on the lake, rich in camellias, magnolias, palms, and eucalypti, and the short walk to Pallanza is also especially repaying for the same reason. The many charming villas which have found a resting-place for themselves and their terraced gardens along the rocky shore display the greatest possible individuality. In order to obtain some idea of the skill and the sense of proportion in road-building which is so characteristic of Italian work of this kind, a leisurely stroll along this same road is full of delight. Such solidity, such constant repair, such care in grading, such a conquest of natural obstacles, and such glimpses the while over the lake, lapping the rocks below and stretching over to the farther shore, where Laveno lies expectant at the foot of Sasso del Ferro!

At length the boat touches at Laveno, which must be reckoned as a railroad centre of considerable importance, as things go in the region of the Italian lakes. At this point there is rail connection with Varese, Como, Milan, Novara, Genoa, and with the St. Gothard route into Switzerland. The bay occupies a certain strategic position with reference to the lake which did not escape the Romans and gave it temporary value in modern times to the Austrians, under whom Laveno became a military port and the seat of an arsenal. It was against Laveno that Garibaldi directed an unsuccessful assault in 1859. The fortifications have long since been razed, and today their site serves chiefly as a point of vantage for a superb view over lake and mountains. The china manufactured at Laveno enjoys some reputation in Italy, but for the travelling public the place is chiefly prized as a point of departure, as a through station. From here the excursion up Sasso del Ferro is generally undertaken, also the visit to Santa Caterina del Sasso, a little church perched in a seemingly inaccessible position, high above the lake.

From a scenic point of view this eastern side of Lago Maggiore has the special ad-vantage of facing, not only the great open Gulf of Pallanza with its islands, but also the distant snow slopes of Monte Rosa, so that when the steamboat finally touches at Laveno and leaves us upon the quay, we are tempted to pause before we undertake to see more. There is a desire to draw breath, until the succession of extraordinary beauties which have marked this tour of lower Lago Maggiore can be disentangled one from another, arranged in some kind of order, sorted and labelled, their relative values ascertained, and our special tastes consulted.

In the meantime, there is a sense that joyous memories are being garnered for winter days in distant northern homes, where the sun does not shine as often, nor the water sparkle quite as gaily.