Stresa is a picturesque town on the southern shore of Lago Maggiore, the second largest lake in Italy. It’s been a vacation spot for years; Dickens, Stendal, Hemingway spent time here, wrote about its beauty and relaxed lifestyle.
Stresa is only a 45 minute train ride from Milan’s Stazione Centrale, or 2 hours from Cadorna station, ending in Laveno on the other side of Lago Maggiore. From Laveno its a 15 minute ferry crossing to Istra, and another 15 minute ferry to Stresa. It may take longer from Cadorna, but you see more of the Lombardia countryside and get to first see Stresa from the lake, and not the train tracks.
I spent a weekend last October at Stresa and was charmed by its many wonders, especially the embankment and the Borromeo islands off shore that can be reached easily by ferries or boats. The embankment is a wonderful way to experience Lago Maggiore, strolling along stone paths with blooming rose bushes, palm trees, lawns, memorial statues, and rocky beaches. You can relax on benches, sit on stone walls, or sip a cappuccino or a glass of wine at a lakeside restaurant. Gaze across at the Borromeo islands and towns like Laveno, Pallenza, and Baveno.
Continue walking along the embankment outside of Stresa and you’ll discover unexpected delights such as these pillars on a small spit of land. Some years ago, someone reinforced the bluff with cement and erected these pillars which look Romanesque and somewhat mystical. I was curious, why were they built, what was their purpose, how was the site used. But there was no plaque to explain. I haven’t done research yet but probably will. In the meantime, let your imagination fill in the details.
Morning hikes in the hills
Stresa invites you to wander away from the piazzas into the hillsides to see the lake from above. Several small trails will take you to narrow stairways and paths that meander up the hillsides and reward you with splendid views of Lago Maggiore, the mountains, and islands. You can watch ferries crossing the lake, as well as small sailboats and a yacht or two. No cruise ships allowed. Lago Maggiore is almost pollution free with little debris on the shore. The water is deep blue, more intense and serene the higher you climb to admire the lake.
On your hike, you’ll pass beautiful villas with gardens, citrus and palm trees, swimming pools, and a tennis court or two. Oh, what would it cost to live in one of these splendid villas with spectacular views of Lago Maggiore?
Many paths, trails, and lots of stone stairs
To see these splendid views of Stresa and Lago Maggiore, you need a bit of adventurer in your blood. There’s no maps, just wander and keep climbing, crossing narrow, winding roads that connect to smaller villages. Cross a road, and you’ll find a trail or stone stairs up the hillside. The higher you climb, the more rewarding are the views. Part of the fun is seeing how different the trails and paths are; again the mind wanders to when were they constructed, who has climbed over the centuries along the paths, and what stories those earlier Italians could tell.
Climbing up is a bit strenuous; bring water and a piece of fruit. You’ll want to stop several time to enjoy the views. It’s more fun to climb down, knowing your reward is having another cappuccino or glass of wine in the piazza below.
Isole Borromeo offshore are charming and worth a day visit. Ferries stop first at Isola Bella, only ten minutes from the Stresa dock. There’s a villa with a museum, statutes, and gardens, and a few restaurants along the waterfront. If you don’t get off at Isola Bella, the next stop is Isola Superiore or Isola dei Pescatori, island of fishermen. In earlier times, fishermen lived in small stone houses on the island. Each home seems to have been converted into a cafe, coffee shop, restaurant, small hotel, or souvenir shop. You can walk cross Isola dei Pescatori in about a minute and pass two narrow paths about two-meters wide between stone buildings. It takes five minutes to get from one end of the island to the next.
The farthest of the Borromeo Islands is Isola Madre, about 25 minutes from Stresa if you stay on board. The island is a villa with a garden inside stone walls. But you don’t have to pay admission; stroll along a stone path around the island to see flowers, palm trees and beautiful views of Lago Maggiore.
Shopping in Stresa
There’s more to do than hike and take boat trips in Stresa. Shoppers can find interesting local crafts in shops along Stresa’s piazza and narrow streets. Many of the crafts can be purchased and stuffed into handbags, purses, and luggage as gifts for family and friends. Ceramics, soaps, perfumes, pastas, spices are attractive and reasonably priced. You’ll have nice mementos of your visit to Stresa.
Let’s talk about Italian food . . .
No visit to Italy is complete without excellent food in memorable settings. No lack of good places to eat around Stresa. You’ll want to stop for a cappuccino during the day, a glass of wine before dinner, and a delicious pasta, pizza, or seafood in early evening. Italians don’t eat dinner until around 8 PM; many restaurants don’t open until 6 or 7 PM.
Next: Villa Taranto
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