Where baroque and belle poque unite

Stresa, in Italy's lake district, awaits discriminating travelers

Let's dig a lake - deep, long, and winding - and color it tourmaline blue. We'll set it at the feet of snow-capped Italian and Swiss Alps and add a few swans to reflect on its mirrored water.

Now let's dot the lake with a few small islands. On one, build a opulent baroque palace. Give it10-tiered terraced gardens connected by pebbled paths, edge them with primroses and hedges, and plant exotic flora to rival Eden.

We'll design rose gardens, goldfish ponds, and fountains, trim the conifers in geometric shapes, and tuck a dovecote in one corner to house a flock of snowy-winged, fan-tailed pigeons.

Done? Don't be silly. We're in Italy. We can gild the lily with a few haughty white peacocks and let them stroll the manicured lawns. Finally, we'll erect some pedestals topped with statues of Mars, Neptune, and a host of other ancient gods to guard our treasured isle.

But then, why bother? It's already done and awaits your visit to Lake Maggiore's gracious Isola Bella in the Piedmont/Lombardy region of northern Italy.

Lago Maggiore. Only Italians can really say it. They curl their tongues like a piece of tortellini, rev up the "r," and let the two words loose as one; Lagomaggiorrrrre. Lagomaggiorrrrre.

Isola Bella - one of three islands in the Isole Borromee group - lies anchored in Maggiore just off Stresa, a popular resort town. The islands are a short boat ride and a small fare from shore.

Don't let the name deceive you. Stresa is about as stressful as a week at an Italian spa.

Long populated by those with a discerning eye for beauty, the town, like many that nestle on the lake's shore, has always welcomed Italians and visitors in the know from around the globe.

But not as many tourists as its sister lakes in northern Italy, Como and Garda.

Maggiore, second-largest lake in the country, has always winked at Italy's wealthy. Summer villas, hidden from curious eyes by high stone walls, open toward the lake and are visible to common folk only by boat.

Some abandoned estates have fallen into gracious decay and stand as hollow memories of more affluent times. Indeed, a number of these have taken on an "Addams Family" look and have been left to the town of Stresa. But the town, lacking the funds to renovate them, is at a loss as to what to do.

Stresa is a town more of aging grace than quaint charm. A broad and continuous park hugs the walled shoreline. Planted with an endless variety of trees, flowers, and shrubs, something is always in bloom: Camellias, oleander, azaleas, hydrangas, and magnolias all have their season to show off. Everything seems to thrive in this moderate climate: Stick a strand of spaghetti in this soil, and you'll have a pasta bush in a week. Guaranteed.

The Italians, never able to leave anything alone, are forever trimming hedges, shaping shrubs, and twisting trees into espalier. Only the palms, it seems are left to their own devices. But even there, pink and red roses are coaxed to climb up their black burlap-looking bark.

Tourists join local townsfolk and promenade arm in arm along the wide walks each evening to catch the moonlight's final curtain call on the lake before it disappears behind the mountains.

The many hotels and villas are built away from the shore, separated from the water by a street and a park that hugs the lake.

Stresa's older hotels, notably the Regina Palace and the illustrious Grand Hotel Des Iles Borromes, give the resort town an elegant turn-of-the-century belle poque air that can beguile the most seasoned traveler.

The Grand has sheltered such luminaries as much of Europe's royalty; the Maharajah of Burdwan in Bengal; American bankers Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Carnegie; writers Steinbeck and Hemingway; as well as Mussolini and a bevy of artists.

Hemingway used this hotel as a location in "A Farewell to Arms." His suite of two bedrooms and a living room (with lake view) is yours for 4,200,000 lira a night. That's about $2,000 of your hard-earned money.

Discover what Stresa has to offer by wandering on your own. Back streets of gray cobblestone, set in sweeping fan designs, are flanked by a tempting array of shops, small restaurants, and cafes. Above the stores are apartments, most with balconies where matronly signoras tend their window boxes of red geraniums and terra-cotta pots of papery blue and pink hydrangeas.

Although little in the way of Italian craft and signature design is actually made here, some of Italy's most famous products are well represented if you're in the market for some expensive trinkets.

Be sure and stop for lunch or dinner at one of the many eateries. A meal of antipasto and handmade ravioli with a white-truffle cream sauce will set you back less than $12. And sample a plate of involtini, little "roll ups" of meat, fish, or vegetables stuffed with cheese, anchovies, olives, or whatever, skewered with a toothpick.

A plate of Italian cheeses is a savory ending to a meal. Local Gorgonzola and other aggressive cheeses are often tamed with a drizzle of chestnut or lavender honey.

Before returning to your hotel, stop for a frosty gelato. Tiramisu, violet, licorice, and truffle are just a few of the two-dozen flavors to choose from. Look for a gelato shop that sells Eis Brioches Gelato, a brioche stuffed with your choice of gelati - the ultimate ice-cream sandwich.

Shops in Stresa, in and around the cobblestone Piazzas L. Cadorna and Matteotti especially, are filled with a trove of table treasures: jars of honeys, tins of anchovies, bottles of olives, vacuum-packed cheeses, dried porcini, endless bottles of fine Italian extra-virgin olive oils, and colored ribbon pasta, all set for you to pack and enjoy at home.

So if you've "done" Venice, battled the trampling herds of art students in Florence, and had it with the heat of Naples, head for the green hills, cool lakes, snow-topped mountains, and quiet civilization of Italy's northern lake district.

Go where the Italians go on holiday. They just may be onto something.

*From Milan's Malpensa Airport,buses, taxis, rental cars, and trains are available to get you to Stresa, some 36 miles away.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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