Gardening Magazine

Three Go to North Italy – Isola Bella

By Patientgardener @patientgardener

Isola Bella

One of the places I was really looking forward to visiting on our holiday was Isola Bella; one of three islands in the Borromean Bay.  I had seen the garden on Monty Don’s Italian Garden series and was really pleased to discover it was just a short ferry ride from our hotel.

The palace on the island was originally intended to also have a casino, small villa or palace, higher up on the island when it was started by Carlo III Borromeo in 1630. However, it was his sons,Vitaliano VI Borromeo and Cardinal Giberto III Borromeo who dropped the casino idea and concentrated on the introduction of a garden to compliment the palace with the notion that the island should appear to be a ship sailing across the lake.  As you can imagine the Borromeo were, and are, a very wealthy family so why not think grand.


You arrive on the island and enter via the palace.  I was so distracted by visiting the garden, which as a partner RHS garden I got to use my RHS membership card to enter, that I hadn’t really considered what the palace would be like.  As with many Italian palaces and villas particularly in this area the furniture is predominantly dark wood and quite heavy and there is lots of marble which isn’t surprising as there are two large quarry mines on the shores of Lake Maggiore.


But entering this large state-room which was the height of the palace took your breath away.  Not only the size and height but the coolness of the pale blue and white after the darkness of the other rooms.


The ground floor or I suppose basement is taken over by a huge grotto.  The walls and floor are covered in mosaic patterns made up of pebbles of different colours.  It is quite bizarre and I found it a little oppressive.  The palace is still in the Borromeo family’s ownership and they visit in September – bit like royalty. But to the garden.  Having been directed around the palace you exit into a very classical italianesque space.


Up some stairs and then up and round another set with a tightly clipped hedge running on both sides.


Sadly I had missed the flowering of the Agapanthus in these pots but they must look stunning.  Then you are confronted with the extravagance that is the garden of Isola Bella.


It’s like a mad wedding cake on steroids with all the bells and whistles.


As you can see the walls have the same pebble mosaic as the palace grotto and was no doubt completed around the same time.  Unsurprisingly I was more drawn to the ferns at the bottom of the walls than the in your face bedding.


The edifice, I can think of no other word for it, sits at the highest point of the garden and

is surrounded by terraces which accommodate the slope.  Some are quite narrow (as above) and some are large.  This gives a good variety of spaces and atmospheres.  Moving away from the bedazzling centrepiece you find quiet areas of ferns and other shade lovers, huge bamboos and wonderful magnolias. 
There are also white peacock, of course, which strut around demanding food from visitors.

You cannot fault the horticultural standards of the garden, it is immaculate.  On the day we visited there had been high temperatures, for some days, but also winds and then when we were there downpours but there was hardly a leaf on the ground, unlike on the main land, and all the plants looked incredibly healthy.  Whilst this style of garden really isn’t my thing I found it interesting to note how they had used the different aspects of each of the four sides of the edifice to accommodate different plant needs.  So one side was a rose garden, another had citrus fruit, another rubeckias and yet another flowering shrubs.

But all the time you are distracted by the beautiful views across the lake to the mainland and its villages with their picturesque terracotta roofs and the alps in the background.  It was almost as though the planting had to be over the top to keep the attention of the visitor. The planting and statues certainly shout for your attention and personally on a bright sunny day I found it a little too much – even one of my son’s commented that he was surprised I had wanted to visit as he didn’t think it was my sort of garden.


Would I recommend a visit? Absolutely if you are in the area. It is a wonderful and exuberant confection of all things horticulture and brings a smile to your face even on the hottest and humid of days.


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