Italy: White peacocks and dark puppets

By Paul Rush

An immaculate floral display at Verbania's Taranto Gardens. Photo / Paul Rush
An immaculate floral display at Verbania's Taranto Gardens. Photo / Paul Rush

'In small barrels you'll find the good wine', says an ancient Italian proverb.

I know this to be true on two counts - the tiny village of Cannobio on Lake Maggiore is a perfect little holiday gem and its Casa Bava cellars have small barrels of maturing wines that are absolutely superb.

I sample the Bava brothers eminently palatable Bel Ami chardonnay and Monferrato sauvignon in a cool, dark cellar below the lakefront piazza.

'In vino veritas' - there is truth in wine, the locals say, and this is apparent as our small group tastes some specialties of the Piedmont region at Cannobio's La Streccia Ristorante.

Our tour hosts, Susan and John of Etruscan Pleasures, a New Zealand boutique tour company, join us for a sumptuous feast of antipasto, gnocchi, risotto, ravioli and chocolate pudding with amaretto. The meal evolves like a good story with each exquisitely tasty course adding a new chapter of gastronomic treats.

After dinner we join the nightly passegiata or promenade, wandering along the waterfront in the balmy evening air of early summer. Lakeside trattorias and cafes are full of al fresco diners sipping the local vino rosso and vino bianca with undisguised delight and talking rapidly in hushed tones. Three floors above, the last rays of a dying sun are illuminating faded stucco walls, green louvered shutters, wrought iron balconies and window boxes aflame with red geraniums.

There's something inspiring and even life-altering about a visit to Italy and I'm beginning to think that life in a lakeside village could be just my cup of chianti. As the sun fades into the purple haze of the alps and the lake turns from silver to indigo, I feel I could sing Pavarotti's Nessun Dorma.

On a nearby hillside, pencil-thin cypresses frame weathered villas matured by time and nature into a dull patina of plaster and stone, enlivened by wild red roses rambling over carved balustrades. The scene is reminiscent of a model landscape from a Renaissance painting, every detail reflecting idealised peace and harmony. I slowly ascend the cobbled Via Marconi to reach the charming Hotel Pironi.

Morning reveals the true romanticism of Lake Maggiore. For it is indeed known as the 'Romantic Lake', beloved of artists, poets and writers throughout the ages - illustrious figures like Stendhal, Goethe, Dickens, Byron, Flaubert and Ruskin.

Under the gentle touch of the warm sun we explore the geometric pathways of the verdant

Verbania Botanic Gardens amidst colourful clusters of camellias and rhododendrons. Then we gather at a lakeside cafe to sip cappuccinos and meet guide Daniela for our grand island tour.

A water taxi whisks us over to Isola Madre, literally a botanical garden on the water where rare plants and exotic blooms are intermingled with even rarer white peacocks. The fascinating birds prance about with a proud aristocratic bearing but seem reluctant to reveal their full plumage. We move on to explore Isola Madre's magnificent 16th Century palace.

The interior has retained an intriguing old-world, belle époque air of opulence with fine collections of household ceramics, serving staff liveries, porcelain doll sets and Countess Borromea's neoclassical puppet theatre.

The theatre is a macabre precursor of Harry Potter wizardry - a mini 'Horror Show' with a sinister cast of devilish marionettes leering at palace visitors. The little fiends hang forlornly on their immobile strings, longing for freedom. There is an aura of severe nobility in the grand halls as if only a certain blue-blood class of person should enter here.

We rejoin our water taxi to cross over to Isola dei Pescatori, the nearby fishermen's island. On a flagstone terrace overlooking the lake we find the popular Ristorante Albergo Verbano and enjoy a light repast. But even a light lunch in Northern Italy is substantial. As British writer, George Miller, once said 'The trouble with eating Italian food is that five or six days later you're hungry again.'

Our third island is Isola Bella, a large chunk of rock that resisted the insistent thrust of the giant ice age glacier that carved out Lake Maggiore. The water taxi circumnavigates the island, revealing the remarkable shape of the terraced gardens and orderly rows of carefully shaped trees laid out in the form of a massive ocean liner.

Isola Bella is a magical, dreamlike Alice in Wonderland world where you can lose yourself in the pure botanic ambiance. This imaginary vessel appears to steam down the lake in a weird baroque setting.

I have been privileged to visit this beautiful region and met some of its warm-hearted people. The writer, Stendhal, once expressed it this way. 'Anyone with a heart must visit Lake Maggiore even if he has to sell his shirt to get there.'

Paul Rush travelled to Milan courtesy of Cathay Pacific Airways, Etruscan Pleasures Italy Ltd and the Hotel Pironi, Cannobio.

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