Par­adise found: The Eden of Italy

On Lago Mag­giore, three very dif­fer­ent botan­i­cal sanc­tu­ar­ies bring the di­vine to earth

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY ANNE CALCAGNO Spe­cial to The Washington Post

When I was grow­ing up in Italy, it was nearly a man­date for well­heeled north­ern­ers to sum­mer on the sun­warmed lakes at the foot of the Alps. Boats would dock at is­land gar­dens and peo­ple took prom­e­nades along the shore and a leisurely Sun­day meal on the leafy ve­randa of, say, Al­bergo Ver­bano, where Ar­turo Toscanini, Ge­orge Bernard Shaw and Ernest Hem­ing­way, to name no­table guests, once stayed. The lakes’ legacy goes back to the an­cient Ro­mans and con­tin­ues to­day. And nearly as old is the ri­valry among these lakes — Como, Garda and Mag­giore — for first place in the beauty pageant. All boast a Mediter­ranean mi­cro­cli­mate cra­dled by soar­ing, snow crusted Alps. But in the 17th cen­tury, the prom­i­nent Bor­romeo fam­ily trans­formed a mi­nus­cule rocky is­land on Lago Mag­giore into a baroque botan­i­cal mas­ter­piece. This is­land, Isola Bella, and its ma­jes­tic gar­dens rose to in­ter­na­tional Grand Tour des­ti­na­tion fame. Isola Bella, in north­ern Italy’s Lake Mag­giore, has hosted Napoleon and Diana, Princess of Wales. The vi­sion of noted hor­ti­cul­tur­ist Gian­franco Giustina, which in­cludes geo­met­ric hedges, ter­races cov­ered in mag­no­lia and roses per­fum­ing the air, bring this baroque gar­den — easy to see in a day trip — to life.

A short train ride from Mi­lan to Stresa makes Lago Mag­giore an easy week­end re­treat. To avoid crowds and hu­mid­ity, I rec­om­mend vis­it­ing in spring or early fall.

It’s an early morn­ing in May, and I’m stand­ing on the ve­randa of the ven­er­a­ble Grand Ho­tel des Iles Bor­romees, fac­ing the Alps, which ap­pear in smooth blue-pur­ple uni­son. Be­hind me is Mount Mot­tarone, fa­mous for its stun­ning 360-de­gree panora­mas, and well worth a visit. In front of me, boats crisscross the Bor­romean Gulf. Be­sot­ted am­a­teur gar­dener that I am, I’m here for the gulf’s botan­i­cal sanc­tu­ar­ies: Isola Bella, Isola Madre and Villa Taranto.

The Bor­romeo fam­ily name is in­escapable, be­cause they own mul­ti­ple prop­er­ties and re­main the dar­lings of high-so­ci­ety pa­pers. My sights are set on their head hor­ti­cul­tur­ist, Gian­franco Giustina, who over­sees Isola Bella’s and Isola Madre’s gar­dens. In 2014, he was awarded the Bri­tish Royal Hor­ti­cul­tural Veitch Me­mo­rial Medal, for per­sons “who have made an out­stand­ing con­tri­bu­tion to the ad­vance­ment of the art, science or prac­tice of hor­ti­cul­ture.” The Royal Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety is driven by “the belief that gar­den­ers make the world a bet­ter place,” its Web site states.

On Isola Bella, Guistina saun­ters past squeal­ing school­child­ren and me­an­der­ing tourists. Tall and spry, he scans the man­i­cured walk­ways in or­der to re­move any er­rant fallen leaves as he ex­plains the dif­fer­ence be­tween Isola Bella’s 17th-cen­tury baroque gar­dens, in which “man’s ge­nius for ar­chi­tec­ture is in im­por­tant col­lab­o­ra­tion with for­mal gar­den struc­tures,” and Isola Madre’s 19th-cen­tury English gar­dens, which “make plants the pro­tag­o­nists in a feat of nat­u­ral land­scap­ing.” And “a feat” both gar­dens are, em­ploy­ing 23 full-time gar­den­ers, plus 10 part-timers, for the kind of off-sea­son work that re­quires barges of soil, he­li­copter trans­ports, topiary sculpt­ing and tree trim­ming. “Italy was ever the gar­den of Europe,” he says, “but we al­most for­got this in fa­vor of in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion.”

It is also easy to for­get, ac­cus­tomed as one is to­day to mul­ti­ple com­pet­ing plant cat­a­logues and gar­den­ing cen­ters, that Isola Bella’s am­bi­tions pre­ceded both Lin­naeus’s botan­i­cal nomen­cla­ture as well as his stud­ies of plant re­pro­duc­tion, let alone the 20th cen­tury’s har­di­ness zone maps. To get the full pic­ture, travel back four cen­turies and sail across the treach­er­ous Pa­cific, At­lantic and In­dian oceans with the ec­cen­tric “plant hun­ters” who risked health and life to trans­plant the finicky seeds they found. Aza­leas! Rhodo­den­drons! Magnolias! Camel­lias!

I’m a new­bie walk­ing the hal­lowed ground of Isola Bella. Mon­tesquieu, Ed­ward Gib­bon, Stend­hal, Napoleon and Josephine, Wag­ner, Jean Cocteau, Dick­ens, Hem­ing­way, the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana all strolled these metic­u­lously main­tained gar­dens. The same as to­day, they would have ap­proached by boat, gain­ing the full im­pres­sion of this “galleon float­ing on the blue wa­ter,” as the pro­mo­tional ma­te­rial puts it. Be­cause that’s what the is­land looks like — a ship.

Ten ter­races, mim­ick­ing a ship’s decks, el­e­gantly dis­play a wealth of rar­i­ties and ex­cit­ing hy­brids. In­tox­i­cat­ing scents and rare blos­soms abound. The Cam­phor ter­race is fa­mous for its an­cient tree, once a new species Marco Polo wrote home about. The mad stat­u­ary of Mi­lanese Carlo Si­mon­etta’s Am­phithe­ater, hold­ing Bor­romean crest sym­bols aloft, over­looks the in­tri­cate geo­met­ric hedges of the Gar­den of Love. Roses and es­paliered cit­rus per­fume the air. I learn that horses once pow­ered the ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem.

Giustina’s philo­soph­i­cal bent emerges: “I see the is­land gar­dens as a Noah’s Ark, where I tend to two each of the most beau­ti­ful species. They’re a la­bor willed by man, but we can never for­get it’s cre­ated with tem­po­ral liv­ing be­ings. Oh, plants don’t like to be dom­i­nated. But I like to think we’ve needed each other to carry the botan­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion for­ward this far.”

For the first time this year, visi­tors to Isola Bella can also see an art ex­hibit, “The En­chanted Is­lands: The Grand Tour and Land­scape Paint­ing,” which in­cludes ev­ery­thing from sublime land­scapes to putti play­ing in a pas­toral arcadia to por­tray­als of pret­tily bon­neted Bor­romeos. The show comes down Oct. 25.

If Isola Bella is per­fectly coiffed, Isola Madre lets her hair down. Giustina con­firms the nat­u­ral look’s art of de­cep­tion isn’t much eas­ier to achieve. Isola Bella is a grand public per­for­mance, but Isola Madre is de­signed to feel mag­i­cally pri­vate. Shaded arches of wis­te­ria lead into wind­ing paths bor­dered by soar­ing 20-foot hedges. These lush green walls of lau­rel, myr­tle and camel­lia cre­ate hide-and­seek turns, out of which pop Chi­nese pheas­ants, long-tailed red and yel­low par­rots, and white and blue-green pea­cocks, cre­at­ing a busy or­nitho­log­i­cal sound­scape. The sun­nier lake ex­po­sures boast the Africa road, av­enue of palms and cit­rus tree walk.

I shop at the Orangerie for lo­cally sourced gifts: teas, soaps, can­dles and the most fas­ci­nat­ing il­lus­trated “botan­i­cal uses” map for $1.70. It walks me past the pep­pertree from which a poi­son, a hal­lu­cino­gen or a coro­nary di­lut­ing sub­stance can be culled. It shows me the can­dle­berry, which yields scented wax. And who knew the seeds of the carob tree, which lent their name to the carat, were once used as a unit of weight for gold and dia- monds?

Pre­serv­ing these ven­er­a­ble gar­dens is no easy mat­ter. In 2006, a tor­nado up­rooted Isola Madre’s mas­sive rare Kash­mir Cy­press planted in 1862. The en­su­ing strug­gle to save the now re­in­stated tree is cred­ited as a ma­jor suc­cess for Giustina, who worked with a cadre of botanists, engi­neers and tech­ni­cians. In 2012, a tor­nado felled over 300 trees on Villa Taranto. It’s my next stop, in Pal­lanza, across the Bor­romean Gulf.

I wave good-bye to the Bri­tish cou­ple I over­heard amus­ing each other with a game of one-up­man­ship to name each plant. Here to celebrate their 50th wed­ding an­niver­sary, they con­tinue a legacy of vis­its ini­ti­ated by so many Bri­tish ro­man­tics and Vic­to­ri­ans, in­clud­ing the epony­mous queen her­self. To John Ruskin’s crit­i­cal eye, Lago Mag­giore was the “Eden of Italy . . . purest air, rich­est earth, loveli­est wave.”

Scots­man and avid botanist Cap­tain Neil McEacharn did more than visit. He set­tled into Villa Taranto and, in 1931, be­gan his life’s “oc­cu­pa­tion and ad­ven­ture,” trans­form­ing its 16 wooded hectares into a glo­ri­ous park with mul­ti­ple mi­cro­cli­mates. To­day, his legacy is over­seen by the pa­tient and in­tent hor­ti­cul­tur­ist Franco Caretti.

Visi­tors re­ceive a cal­en­dar of monthly flow­er­ings, which I’m car­ry­ing. Caretti sees this and smiles wryly, eye­brows tip­ping up: “Truth be told, na­ture’s just as likely to set its own sched­ule.” The 24,000 spring tulips have bloomed and are be­ing un­earthed and wheeled off. Other gar­den­ers are lin­ing 1,700 dahlia tu­bers up on the ground, a curv­ing row of ex­pec­tant brown stars sched­uled to flower July to Oc­to­ber.

Villa Taranto’s parklike gar­dens as­cend nearly 330 feet of hill­side shaded by enor­mous conifers. Along the paths, peo­ple pause bliss­fully to take in, al­ter­nately, the sparkling putti foun­tain, a mo­saic of Ital­ianate rec­tan­gu­lar

ter­races, cool­ing mag­no­lia woods, mossy sunken fern val­leys, or the hand-wav­ing Ja­panese maples (in­clud­ing one “Acer pal­ma­tum Cap. McEacharn”). Caretti, whose fa­ther worked here be­fore him, speaks ofMcEacharn with de­vo­tion: “He brought plants here that had never be­fore flow­ered out­side their county of ori­gin. He ac­cli­mated highly ten­u­ous species.” McEacharn’s rep­u­ta­tion as a “liv­ing en­cy­clo­pe­dia of hor­ti­cul­ture” grew into a global mis­sion he un­der­took with se­ri­ous re­spon­si­bil­ity. In 1959 alone, McEacharn shipped 11,484 pack­ets of seeds from Villa Taranto to 250 gar­dens in 40 coun­tries.

Caretti points to fa­vorite suc­cesses: a flour­ish­ing dawn red­wood long thought ex­tinct, the shy-to-flower Man Yang tree, which re­sists cul­ti­va­tion yet sud­denly bloomed in 1971, and the mag­nif­i­cent, huge Santa Cruz (or wa­ter plat­ter) waterlily, ap­par­ently uti­lized as float­ing cra­dles by Paraguayan moth­ers do­ing laun­dry. “The baby we tested it on wasn’t a fan,” Caretti says with a grin. “But here’s a story. When the tor­nado hit we never got to pol­li­nat­ing it, yet some­how it flow­ered. In na­ture, there’s al­ways the in­ex­pli­ca­ble.”

The evening boat picks up its last strag­glers. Sunset rip­ples over Lago­Mag­giore, and the Alps turn dark green-pur­ple. It’s a night’s rest for the Eden of Italy. A mes­mer­ized cou­ple blurts: “It’s our first trip to Italy. We’ve seen Mi­lan andVenice. Hadwe known, we’d have headed here straight off.”

PHOTOS BY CHRISTO­PHER KOLLER

CHRISTO­PHER KOLLER

The gar­dens of Isola Bella, above, fea­ture stat­ues and ar­chi­tec­tural dec­o­ra­tions. The prom­i­nent Bor­romeo fam­ily took an in­ter­est in beau­ti­fy­ing the is­land in the 1600s. Along with Isola Bella, visi­tors to Mi­lan can make a week­end re­treat of Iso­laMadre, which

show­cases 19th-cen­tury land­scap­ing, and the park of Villa Taranto. Be­low, Lago

Mag­giore at dusk.

ANNE CALCAGNO FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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