Last year, when I went to Europe, my plan for the first night was to stay at Stresa, on Lake Maggiore. My motivation was to see the white peacocks on the islands nearby. But plans don't always go as you like. With the troubles I had with my Air China flight, I never made it.
Then, this year, when I made my travel plans, I found the cheapest flights were out of my Milan. That meant a nice train trip from Geneva with a stopover in Stresa on the way. I'd get to see those white peacocks after all.
Stresa is a gorgeous town. Apparently, the area was much loved by writers like Charles Dickens back in the day -- and there is still an old world feel about the place. It attracts the kind of tourists who wear sweaters tied around their necks and stroll and hand-in-hand along the waterfront. The kind of people who return to the same holiday destination each year.
There are some magnificent grand hotels in Stresa. I didn't stay at any of them but at Hotel Elena on the town square which was a much cheaper option. The people there were lovely and my room was comfy. Grandeur is not for me but the coffee with breakfast was the best I've ever had at a hotel and that's the main thing.
I got in late and wandered around in confusion looking for my hotel while an Italian crooner filled the air with music from a festival nearby.
There are three islands off the coast of Stresa, once owned by a super rich Italian family. They are easy to get to. I just left my hotel and headed to the waterfront then went with the first guy who approached me (wow, that sounds much dirtier than it was). It's a short boat ride to the islands but it was the first time I've ever felt any kind of seasickness. The water was pretty rough on that lake and probably not helped because there is so much boat traffic.
The first island I went to was Isola Madre. I think this is the one most people skip if they don't have time to do all three but I liked it best. It didn't have all the stalls set up selling tourist tat that the other two have. Also, the gardens are gorgeous and very calm. On the ferry to the islands, I bought a ticket to enter the house on this island plus Isola Bella. I works out cheaper than paying separately.
Totally ripped off though. All the white peacocks on the island had their tails cut off. With tails, they were just like big, fat chooks!
The next island was Isola dei Pescatori. No grand houses there but a whole heap of restaurants. Since it was lunch time, I stopped at one of them. It was all very lovely, right on the water with an amazing view. The food was okay.
One problem though, when I wanted to leave, they would not bring my bill. The ferry comes to the island every half hour and I wanted time to wander around the island a bit more before I caught it. So I asked the waiter. Then I waited. The second time I asked, I figured I could have a fast stroll. When they still didn't bring it, I walked to the register. In the end, I was almost screaming at them to let me pay! I really wish I'd gotten the name of that place so I could write them a bad review on tripadvisor.
I made the boat and headed to Isola Bella.
Isola Bella was gorgeous. I wandered around the grand house -- and got in trouble for taking photos. Then I went through the house to the gardens!
Imagine you are a rich Italian dude getting a garden designed on your private island. You call in your garden designer and the two of you drop a ton of acid then make your plans... I'm not saying that's what happened, I'm just saying it's not that hard to imagine. That garden had my jaw dropping to the ground.
One of my new life ambitions now is to have a crazy garden capped with a dude riding a unicorn statue. It was really difficult to capture the crazy over-the-topness of the garden.
When I'd had my fill of gardens, I went to the cafe and was joined by one of the white peacocks. That ended up being kinda annoying actually because everyone walking by stopped to crowd around my table to take photos. At least this guy had enough tail feathers that you could tell he was a peacock.
After the islands, I headed back to the mainland to have dinner. To be honest, I found the food in Stresa not the best food I've had in Italy. It did seem to be catering to tourist tastes. But still had a pleasant dinner and a few glasses of wine.
The next day, I checked out of my hotel. I had the bus booked to the airport for later in the day but the weather was nearly as pleasant so it was a bit of struggle to fill my time in the drizzly rain. I explored the shops and had a coffee and the rain started to clear. I had planned to go up on the cable car but that was closed for repairs.
There are sculptures all along the waterfront which made for an interesting walk. Then it was time for the bus to the airport. The other option is to train into Milan then back to the airport. I didn't want to do that because I hated Milan last time I was there. The bus was the winning option anyway as it winds around the lake side with awesome views.
I'm so glad I finally got the chance to make it to Lake Maggiore and see the white peacocks, even if they did have their tails cut off. I don't think I'll be joining the going to the same place for holidays every year crowd but I would like to go back one day and explore the area more.