On the western bank of Lake Maggiore, Stresa started life as a small community of fishermen & peasants. Gradually it became a piece of prime real estate for the Milanese aristocracy who built palaces and gardens on the islands that lie offshore. With the arrival of the railways, Stresa itself became a popular holiday destination for the wealthy of Milan. Today, the imposing, impressive, multi-lit hotels along the front mix it up with fading apartment blocks behind, a jumble of cobbled streets containing bars, restaurants and the usual tourist tat, all that remains of the original fishing village.
In the winter the places closes up. In season, the hotels are filled with coachloads of slow-moving Americans, Brits & Germans, mostly grey-haired and rather loud. There is still room in the streets and the eateries for those of a younger disposition who are searching for a more local Italian experience.
At this end of Lake Maggiore everyone has to take a tour of the islands. In the 16th century the Borromeos, members of Milan’s aristocracy, bought land here and built palaces on the islands of Bella and Madre. Private tours to visit the grand buildings and impressive gardens are available at quite a cost. Or one can take the public ferry from the centre of town for a few euros and visit them all, plus a few mainland villages, from the water.
And the ferry back to Stresa