March 2019

 

About Intimate France — We travel every spring and fall to Europe's most beautiful destinations. Our small groups (usually eight travelers, never more than 16) guarantee you the utmost in personal service and attention to detail. Learn more about us or contact Intimate France.
 

 

A photo essay

ITALIAN LAKES & ALPS

Hermitage of Santa Catarina soars above Lago Maggiore.

 

By George Nevin

Founder-owner, Intimate France

 

The Italian Lakes & Alps region, in the far north of Italy, magically combines two rich, historic cultures — that of subalpine Italy, with its villas, gardens and stairstep villages, and the German-flavored area of South Tirol (Südtirol or Alto Adige), which despite its annexation by Italy in 1919 retains a generous helping of Teutonic oom-pah.

 

Intimate France is repeating our tour of Italian Lakes & Alps in September 2019, and a limited number of vacancies remain. Details.

 

 

These images will give you an idea of the riches you'll find in just this one small corner of Europe.

 

In a tiny northern Italian village, our group came across a wedding — always a wonderful insight into a culture. Here, Arianna and Graziano were getting married — and interlopers like us were free to snap as many photos as we wanted!

 

The legend reads: "Today spouses."
 

The wedding party had one more bit of advice for the newlyweds (or maybe just for Graziano?):

 

Advice to the groom?

 

We enjoyed free time for lunch in Stresa, a pretty resort fronting Lago Maggiore. Cafes and restaurants in village centers are usually not where one wants to dine (often poor service, mediocre food, high prices), but who could resist this bar on Piazza Cadorna, with its promise of casual food and Aperol spritz cocktails?

 

Cafe, Piazza Cadorna, in the Lago Maggiore resort of Stresa.

 

This it any wonder that Italian food is the world's favorite? Lake fish done up in myriad ways are a staple in northern Italy. You can't do better than a lunch at Albergo Ristorante Belvedere, on Isola dei Pescatori (Fishermen's Island), in Lago Maggiore.

 

This appetizer of lake fish done up in several ways was a winner.

 

 

The main course at Albergo Belvedere was equally delicious.

 

Traveling in Italy, you often come across signs that remind you that the Italians have their own distinct outlook on life.

 

Ask any Italian and he or she will agree with Ginger Rogers.

 

 

Italians enjoy their pasta and bring new meaning to 'finger food.'

 

Leaving Italy proper to the south, one enters Südtirol/Alto Adige/South Tirol, and the Germanic influence is immediately evident. Though this region has been part of Italy for 100 years, and despite a heavy-handed Italianization push under Mussolini in the 1930s, most residents of this autonomous province (once part of Austria) speak German. Nevertheless, the language of its principal town, Bolzano/Bozen, is predominately Italian. It's a pretty place with a delicious blend of cultures.

 

The lively Piazza delle Erbe street market in Bolzano/Bozen.

 

The central square of Bolzano/BozenPiazza Walther.

 

 

This town in the Dolomite Alps goes by three names — Ortisei (Italian), Sankt Ulrich (German) and Urtijëi (Ladin, a derivative of Latin).

 

 

WE'RE ENROLLING FOR 2019

 

Our Intimate France 2019 tours are filling nicely, but vacancies remain on several tours. Check out the lineup below, or on our website here.

 

If you want to join one of our small groups, early action is advised — both of our fall 2018 tours (Basque and Dordogne) filled in November 2017, roughly 10 months out, and 2019's Basque and Croatia tours likewise filled early. See our site for details of 2019 tours, www.intimatefrance.comor read on:

 

Exterior, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain.

 

French & Spanish Basque,
April 28-May 10, 2019

 

 

      Pilgrimage village of Rocamadour, France.

 

Dordogne, France,

May 12-24, 2019

 

 

High peaks, Dolomite Alps, Italy.

 

Italian Lakes & Alps, Sept. 1-13, 2019

 

 

Harbor and village, Rovinj, Croatia.

 

Dalmatian Coast & Croatia,

Sept. 15-27, 2019

 

 

Wikimedia Commons 

Plitvička Lakes National Park, Croatia.

 

 

 

THE CATS OF ITALY'S
BORROMEAN ISLANDS

 

George's note: Our Intimate France tour of Italian Lakes & Alps, Sept. 1-13, 2019, spends a full day on Italy's Borromean Islands, and a few vacancies remain.

 

Resident cat, Fishermen's Island, Lago Maggiore, Italy.

 

By George Nevin

Founder-owner, Intimate France

 

Our story to date — George and Susan have found Fishermen's Island (Isola dei Pescatori) in Italy's Lago Maggiore teeming with cats. What is going on? Read part one of this tale here.

 

Returning to Stresa, we try to find out more. The Tourist Office lady isn't terribly helpful. "Oh, yes, the people of the islands like cats," she tells us. "People live on Isola dei Pescatori all year, but most of the people on Isola Bella come to the mainland during the winter. They bring their cats with them."

 

It all sounds very civilized, quite proper, really — and not a bit Italian. Life here is much messier than that, and I determine to get to the bottom of the mystery of the Borromean Islands. What secrets do they have to yield up to me?

 

Isola dei Pescatori (Fishermen's Island), Lago Maggiore.

 

***********
Ten months later, I am back, alone this time. It's early October — a sunny, winsome month, with enough tourists to keep the ferries running and the islands' tourist stands humming, but not as hot, humid and crowded as in the dead of summer.


With exactly one week of instruction in conversational Italian crammed into my head, thanks to an immersion course in the nearby town of Omegna, I'm looking for answers.


From the ferry landing in mainland Stresa, my first stop is not Fishermen's Island but the busier Isola Bella, 10 minutes away by lake steamer.

 

Borromean Palace, Isola Bella, Lago Maggiore.

 

Isola Bella means "beautiful island" but actually was named for Isabella d'Adda, wife of Count Carlo Borromeo III, who got the construction of the villa going in 1632.


The tiny village on the island, with its stairstep streets and pastel homes, draws closer, until the details emerge: stone buildings two and three stories high, with peeling plaster and wooden shutters cracked by the sun.


As the boat reverses engine and slides smoothly to the dock, the island's most renowned sight is revealed — the Borromean Palace, a baroque villa anchoring the northwestern tip of the island.


Ashore, it takes only minutes to scope out the lay of the land. Inside the palace — four stories, marble-clad — are soaring ceilings and walls crammed with plaster, low-relief sculptures. Similarly to Isola Madre, the third Borromean Island, Bella features a garden, but here the peacocks are blindingly white.


During our January visit, the palace had been closed for the winter, but now a steady stream of tourists passes through the entry door and snakes through the 23 or so rooms on two floors open to the public.


Inside we gawp at grand staircases and a seemingly endless succession of richly furnished rooms. Paintings by minor Italian masters — works by Luca Giordano (Naples, 17th century) and Francesco Zuccarelli (Tuscany, 18th century) — vie for attention with marble statuary, gilded furniture, neoclassical stuccos and Flemish tapestries shot through with threads of silver and gold.


Floating just beyond windows sealed with ripply, 17th century glass are views of the lake, villages on the near and far shore, the two other Borromean Islands and, far above, the spine of the Alps.


One of the rooms, Sala di Napoleone (Napoleon's Room), commemorates the French emperor's 1797 stay in the villa, in the company of his wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais, but also (it is said) on another occasion accompanied by an opera singer who was decidedly not his wife.


Another room, Sala della Musica (the Music Room), is known as the site of the 1935 Stresa Conference — foreign minister Pierre Laval of France, prime minister Ramsay MacDonald of Britain, and Benito Mussolini of Italy, meeting to pledge themselves to a peaceful Europe. The conference agreement soon broke down and was abandoned two months later.


Descending to the lowest level, visitors are both charmed and stupefied at a series of six rooms tricked out to resemble natural caverns — the so-called Grotto Rooms. Vaulted ceilings are encrusted with river rocks, and the floor is paved in rounded stones whose curved tops provide a foot massage, whether you want one or not.

 

© 2018 Evangeline Brown

Spiral staircase in Borromean Palace, Isola Bella, Italy.


From here, via a spectacular spiral staircase, visitors access the multi-tiered gardens, perhaps the palace's most singular element. This baroque-era composition comprises 10 interlinked terraces, peopled with 19th century statues and ornamented with stone turrets, fountains and niches.


The central construction immediately captures the eye — a large, tiered, shell-shaped structure surmounted by a depiction of the Borromeo family's symbol — the unicorn.

 

Glorious gardens of the Borromean Palace, Isola Bella.


These exotic gardens are the realm of the famous white peacocks of Isola Bella. To view one of these magnificent birds, tail unfurled, lit from behind by the sun, with the lake, shoreline villages and Alps in the background, is the stuff of tourist perfection.

 

White peacock, garden, Borromean Palace, Isola Bella

 

***********
Descending from the garden into the small Isola Bella village, I examine the wares of several tourist stands on a back alley. Here I make the acquaintance of Lia, an Italian woman of a certain age who, despite living all her life on Isola Bella, has picked up some French language along the way. Using that, along with my pidgin Italian, allows us to communicate more or less satisfactorily.


Making conversation, I ask her, "Is there a good place to eat around here?"


"On this island or Pescatori?"


I shrug — "Well, Pescatori."


She tells me she has no idea — "I never go there. People on this island don't go there."


Over her shoulder I can see Fishermen's Island, perhaps 1,000 yards away, 5 minutes by boat.


The antipathy dates back to the middle ages, she tells me. "The plague arrived on that island and the people took to their boats and came here. 'Take us in!' they begged us. 'Feed us!' But our people would not let them land."


Apparently the feud continues to this day — "The supermarket in Stresa has a box for people to leave donations of food for the cats on both islands. The people from that island are always taking all the food and leaving nothing for us."

 

Very near Lia's stand is a public (paid) toilet. The owner has posted a sign — "For the cats of Isola Bella." Kitties lounge with typical cat insouciance on the flat roof.

 

Donation box for the cats of Isola Bella.

 

So it appears that the two islands still don't get along, but today, instead of fighting over landing rights during times of plague, they feud over cats.

***********
Back in Stresa, I visit the so-called supermarket, a modest store in the old town. Here, as promised, is a box near the checkout stands. Its neatly printed sign says, "Aiutiamo i gatti che vivono liberi" — Let's help the cats who live free. The sign goes on to note that "a little help will permit the feeding of the cats who live in freedom in accordance with state and regional laws."


Good to know that the Italian state is looking out for kitty welfare.

 

Supermarket donation box for cat food, Stresa, Italy.


Nearby, at a gift shop, I get to chatting with the two owners. When the subject of the Borromeo family — still a powerful local family — comes up, they wrinkle their noses in twin distaste.


One of them tells me: "The principessa (the grande dame of the family that still owns Isola Bella and Isola Madre) comes into the shop sometimes to buy toys for her grandchildren. She always asks for a discount — because she is a Borromeo!"

 

Finally, the picture has resolved itself — both Isola Bella and Isola dei Pescatori have semi-feral cats, and residents collect food donations and sometimes treat them to lake fish, thoughtfully spread out on paper or foil — a meal with a view of one of the world's most perfect vista: lake, village and mountain.

 

EARLY WORD ON OUR
INTIMATE FRANCE 2020 TOURS

We will offer four exciting tours in 2020. Email us for more information, or to get on a no-obligation interest list: intimatefrance@gmail.com.

 

The lineup presented here is tentative, meaning changes are possible as planning proceeds. Still, this is our current thinking:

 

• Burgundy and Alsace, France, May 3-15, 2020

• Germany — Alps, Romantic Road, Rhine and Mosel Valleys, May 17-29, 2020

• Dordogne, France's single most beautiful region, Sept. 6-18, 2020

• Languedoc, France, including the enchanting fishing village of Collioure and majestic Carcassonne, Sept. 20-Oct. 2, 2020

 

We are not yet accepting enrollments for 2020, but by getting on our interest list (email intimatefrance@gmail.com) you'll be given first dibs.

 

Most groups will max out at eight travelers, and several are certain to fill fast.

 

                                                                                  

 

 

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ARCHIVED E-NEWSLETTERS 

 

• FEBRUARY 2019 — BORROMEAN CATS

• NOVEMBER 2018 —  THE SOUTH OF FRANCE

• JULY 2018 —  THE SOUTH OF FRANCE

• MAY 2018 —  CURRENCY IN EUROPE 

• DECEMBER 2017 — JUST BACK FROM BASQUE 

• NOVEMBER 2017 — JUST BACK FROM DORDOGNE

• SEPTEMBER 2017 — HOTEL MONEY GRAB

• JULY 2017 — THE LATEST TRAVEL SCAM

• APRIL 2017 — DORDOGNE'S NEW CAVE REPLICA

• FEBRUARY 2017 — BEST OF EUROPE PART II

• JANUARY 2017 — BEST OF EUROPE PART I

• NOVEMBER 2016 — MEDITERRANEAN SPAIN

• OCTOBER 2016 — LANGUEDOC, S. FRANCE
• SEPTEMBER 2016 — SWISS AND FRENCH ALPS

• AUGUST 2016 — PROVENCE, FRANCE

• JUNE 2016 — BURGUNDY AND FRENCH ALPS