Staff Review

Milan and Lake Maggiore


21 Mar 2014

by The Kirker Team

Kirker Holidays

Racing through the morning rush hour traffic to Milan Centrale station you are quickly reminded that the Milanese are far too fashionable to rush for a whole hour. No sooner have they quickened their pace to get to their desks in time for a morning coffee than they have straightened their Armani ties and rediscovered their cool. The laid-back veneer of Milan life is a definitely refreshing change from London but belies a vast array of attractions and sightseeing opportunities.

Our short stay in Milan had started with taking the lift to the top of the Duomo (my favourite building in Italy) to stroll among the gothic spires. We meandered through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II admiring the world’s oldest shopping arcade, all 19th century steel and glass, and now home to designer boutiques and elegant cafés – as well as a museum devoted to Leonardo da Vinci. Then we continued past La Scala, quite simply the most sought after address in the world for opera, and strutted along Via Montenapoleone and the flagship stores of all of the high fashion houses. The most important daytime appointment is to view Leonardo’s ‘The Last Supper’ at the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Bookings must be made well in advance through the Kirker Concierge, as spaces are very limited. But Milan is not just about one picture, and art lovers should definitely find time for the Pinacoteca di Brera with fine Italianate architecture and an array of spectacular Old Master paintings.

The concierge's services are also required in the evenings, as Milan has an ever-expanding array of fine restaurants – the Michelin guide have added Antonio Guida’s Seta restaurant at the equally stylish, brand new Mandarin Oriental hotel to their list of star attractions. The locals will also share with you one of Milan’s best inventions, the aperitivo. So much more than a pre-dinner drink, this can be the ideal start to the evening – or even a meal in itself if you are so inclined. Happy hour in many bars in town involves paying twice the normal drinks price but enjoying a buffet of fresh pasta, pizza and often more.

Finally it was time to bid farewell to Milan: the early morning train to Stresa awaited. We were surprised that Lake Maggiore is so often overlooked as it is easily reached from Milan – just 45 minutes from Malpensa airport and less than an hour on the very comfortable Frecciarossa train we took from Milan Centrale station to Stresa.

Stresa turned quickly from a sleepy fishing village to a popular resort town at the beginning of the 19th century when Napoleon decided to build as straight a road as possible between his capital in Paris and the outpost in Milan. The road running along the lake shore at Stresa is still in place and connects the Regina Palace and Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees, both built in the town’s 19th century heyday and still offering comfortable rooms and fine dining surrounded by classic art, to the restaurants and shops of the town centre. The ferry terminal for connections on to the beautiful Borromeo Islands is at the heart of the town. Named for the noble Borromeo family, owners of large swathes of property in Milan and beyond, the islands punctuate Lake Maggiore half way up its length between Stresa and the onetime rival town of Pallanza. Due to its position on a small promontory with no rail connection, Pallanza might have lost the battle for fame, but has become a quiet and delightful town which has retained its historic charm. The Grand Hotel Majestic sits quietly in beautiful gardens a short walk from town and offers excellent views of the islands and the lake. The ferry from Stresa to Pallanza takes just 45 minutes, stopping at the islands en route. Any of the hotels we recommend can arrange a private launch which would halve the journey time.

The largest and most visited of the Borromeo islands is Isola Bella, also the closest to Stresa. The 17th century villa and “English” gardens played host to Napoleon himself among other dignitaries and the antique-filled ballrooms are now popular with visitors. The gardens contain a wider variety of lotus flowers and citrus trees than I have ever seen in England… Isola Madre, closer to Pallanza, also plays home to an impressive villa with more exotic and orderly gardens. Booking ferry tickets is very straightforward and a day ticket allows you to ‘hop-on and hop-off’ between the islands.

Our favourite island of all was Isola Superiore dei Pescatori – inhabited largely by fishermen. The lake front terraces adjacent to the ferry arrival are mostly occupied by small restaurants serving up the day’s catch, primarily perch and trout, and it makes a wonderful lunch stop with views of the water. The island is worth exploring before or after lunch, with winding lanes leading to the brightly-painted frescoes of the 11th century San Vittore church.

As our comfortable private transfer took us back to Malpensa airport we were sad to leave but heartened by the setting sun dyeing Maggiore’s waters a noble shade of purple of which the Borromeo family would be proud.

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