Visiting the baroque palace at Isola Bella, a major tourist attraction in northern Italy

Before 1632, the rocky island just off the shoreline of Lake Maggiore in northern Italy was known as l'Isola Inferiore. It consisted of a tiny fishing village and not much else.

Today it's called Isola Bella, which I'm guessing needs no translation, and is quite rightly a popular tourist destination.

So, what changed?

Well, for a start, one Carlo Borromeo III came along and plonked a splendidly luxurious baroque palace on it – and it's a truism that everything is improved by the addition of a baroque palace. Except maybe Canberra.

If that weren't enough, the influential House of Borromeo (heraldic emblem: the unicorn) also added a spectacular Italianate garden, rising to 37 metres over 10 terraces, and filled it with exotic plants, frighteningly tidy lawns, ponds, fountains, more unicorn statues than the world really needs, and a plethora of albino bin chickens. (These last turn out, on closer examination, to be aloofly elegant white peacocks. Easy mistake.)

Our visit, on a day of leaden skies and sporadic drizzle, is somewhat laced with sadness as it's the last full day of Insight Vacation's Country Roads of Northern Italy coach tour. We have left Milan, Venice, Verona, Trento, Lake Como and the Dolomites in our wake and are now plotted up in nearby Baveno for the final two nights.

We take a boat from a small pontoon at the rear of our lakeside hotel and speed across a lake as grey as a nonno's underpants. Isola Bella, though, is one of those places that takes on the characteristics of the day, the way a supermodel shrugs on a garish blouse and makes it look good. Which is to say it does brooding very well and, later, when the day turns and the sun comes out it's the geographical equivalent of a Wiggles concert, all sunshine, rainbows and unicorns.

Inside the palace are ancient tapestries, shell-like circular staircases, pebble-clad grottoes, and sumptuous rooms with rich furnishing and precious artworks. The largest room soars three storeys up through the building and contains a scale model of the island, which is a good way to orientate oneself and get a sense of the grandness of the enterprise.

It's a wonderful paean to fairytale extravagance tempered by good taste, with the occasional bit of whimsy thrown in (those vaulted, pebbled grottoes, for instance).

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The guided tour finishes in a long and narrow gallery where intricate tapestries from 1565 depict the theological fight between good and evil in the shape of animals mythical or otherwise.

From here it's into the garden with its  staggered terraces, Teatro Massimo, with myriad statues (topped, naturally, by a rearing unicorn),  alongside plenty of citrus trees, pink roses, oleanders, hydrangeas, hibiscus, jasmine and viburnum.

There is a dinky greenhouse off to one side that  will enchant lovers of the orchid but the piece de resistance is the comparatively bare top terrace. From this vantage point, both the man-made palazzo and the natural glory of the lake and surrounding mountains are laid out in all their majesty.

TRIP NOTES

Keith Austin travelled as a guest of Insight Vacations.

MORE

traveller.com.au/italy

illagomaggiore.com

FLY

Many major airlines operate frequent flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Milan's Malpensa airport.

TOUR

Insight Vacations operates throughout Europe and Britain. The 10-day Country Roads of Northern Italy guided holiday costs from $3595 a person twin share. Prices include some meals, airport transfers, an expert travel director as well as local specialists along the way. See insightvacations.com

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