In Stresa, on the Piedmont side of Lago Maggiore just in front of the Borromean Islands, there are almost more hotels than inhabitants. Whether you are from these parts, or you arrive from outside, a stroll in Stresa is mandatory – even if there is nothing to do, if not admiring a postcard landscape that floods your eyes. Here the announcements of the houses for sale are in Russian and German. The navigators of the little or bigger boats hurry to catch tourists and take them to the islands. The ecological philosophy has never landed: here are the F1 racing cars that dart around the islands in sparkling but unlikely races, like in an old glamorous Hollywood production movie. You may not be interested, but you cannot avoid watching.
The Stresa’s ‘brand’ is the walk on the very long lakefront: on one side the ever-changing lake and the ‘princely’ islands, on the other, the hotel and its guests. The Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées in Stresa seems very real and the epitome of all this unrealistically outstanding scenario. The charm of élite tourism at the end of the 19th century, a démodé touch that makes you regret the good old days, the excessive luxury of the new rich who come from the new rich countries. It has a French name that tastes of ancient luxury, but what it offers its guests is a portrait, invented and real, of what Italy is and can offer: beauty, sweet life, refinement, always one step away from the ‘beautiful fake’ and kitsch.
Today (like back then) Des Iles is presented as an internal and external gorgeous and baroque environment furnished in precious purple, gold and indigo hues, magnificent suites that blend history, luxury and contemporary comfort, this is all we can picture and see inside Des Iles. With garden view and lake front rooms, junior, royal and imperial suites and a particular peculiar room dedicated to Ernest Hemingway, who stayed in that particular room in the immediate post-war period as a convalescent and then in 1948. It offers its guests also a spa and relax center and a lake front park available for weddings and special events. During the summer, you can enjoy views from the panoramic terrace of the Il Borromeo. In the lakefront room of the restaurant, a high-level gastronomic experience is served, delighted by the flavours of the territory and the inspiration of Executive Chef Gianni Conti.
The work in progress on the construction of the brand new Hotel Des Iles Borromées began in 1861. In the same year – not coincidentally – the Regno d’Italia (Italian Kingdom) was born. On March 21, 1863, the Grand Hotel was inaugurated in the presence of a glamorous audience. Decorations, mirrors, chandeliers adorn the building, which all have the qualities of the best Liberty style of the time. The audience is made up of aristocrats, capitalists, financiers, mainly from England, France, Prussia and Russia. At their disposal 120 rooms heated by a radiator system, and even a Thomas Cook & Son office that sells train and navigation tickets for all of Europe.
In 1906 the Simplon railway tunnel was opened, the Orient Express also stopped in Stresa and the Grand Hotel entered the myth of élite tourism. In 1929 Ernest Hemingway, who had known the magical place in his youth, inserted Des Iles as a location in his masterpiece ‘A Farewell to Arms’. Another little step forward, in 1946, Italy has just emerged from the Second World War and wants to go back to look beautiful. Here, precisely in Stresa, the first Miss Italia contest takes place, the beloved and hated event that in recent years has regained television vigour. The jury is made up of famous names, such as the journalist Arrigo Benedetti, the directors Vittorio De Sica and Luchino Visconti, the painter Carrà, and then Macario, Isa Miranda, Cesare Zavattini, Villani himself, 15 people in all. Seamstresses are on the hunt for the girls’ clothes; the official photographer is Alfredo Paulon.
From another perspective, the thinker and theologian Antonio Rosmini, beatified a few years ago, spent a great part of his life in Stresa. Let’s imagine the long and thoughtful conversations with the friend Alessandro Manzoni, the author of the Promessi Sposi, which went on until 1855 not far from the place where, only 6 years later, the construction of the hotel began. The rigour of Rosmini and Manzoni, the glitz of tourism of the Italian Grand Tour, in the same town and both set on the lake shore. Stresa and the surrounding area are dotted with buildings and Rosminian signs, including the home of the famous hotel school, the Maggia institute that acts as a link between the philosopher and the Grand Hotel.
Stresa, the Borromean Islands and Des Iles were part of the Grand Tour, the experiential travels in Italy that the rich aristocrats and intellectuals from all over Europe made in search of beauty, knowledge, culture and art, during the 18th century and during the 1800s. The Grand Tour, which sometimes also touched the Swiss and Piedmontese shores of Lake Maggiore, is the forerunner of elite tourism and subsequent mass tourism, which for some years has resumed with force to populate these territories.
From contemporary illustrations and lithographs, one immediately realizes what the clients (the Omarini brothers) and the designer (the architect Antonio Polli) had in mind when creating the hotel: in front of the sight of the Borromean islands, they wanted to create a parterre of flowerbeds set in the Italian style. These flowerbeds had to be laid out beyond the street of Sempione as well, in the garden of the landing stage constructed on an embankment by the lake.
Today, the Grand Tour and the nobility as we imagined are completely disappeared, but a little taste is still possible in the Lake front town of wonders. With the recent definitive shut down of the town’s most iconic bar, Gigi Bar, the Hotel seems to represent the only authentic location to breath that specific air. While perennial changing Airbnb accommodations are starting to populate the second Italy’s biggest lake since years, a certain feeling is born within us: things while change, but some will always stay the same. Des Iles is exactly that stability – we need this feeling.
Corso Umberto I, 67