Isola Madre – Mountains, Seaside And Relaxation

Rounding the house at this point, the visitor comes to one of the highlights of the garden – the little square flanked by the chapel and filled by an ornamental pond. They can look down from a staircase on to this elliptical pond, planted with multicoloured water lilies (Nymphaea), including some of the exotically coloured Latour-Marliac types, and edged with bedding of the kind that the Borromeo gardens do so well, whatever the season. Straight ahead is an iron pergola planted with wisteria in a style which could happen only in Italy: three cultivars – pink, white and the familiar blue – in broad stripes.

The effect is novel, and the scent in mid-spring overwhelming, as it drifts on the air. The chapel, built in 1858 and faced in terracotta panels, is a pretty thing, and still in use for family weddings and christenings. Joined on to it, but facing across the lake, is the former orangery, now, like so many of its kind, in use as a tea shop, in front of which chairs and tables are pleasantly shaded by a grove of bananas (Musa).

From here the visitor walks across the looming facade of the villa, festooned in late summer with curtains of bougainvillea. The bedding along its base is always magnificent and complements the lawns and those very palms which were first seen on arrival. At the end of this walk is a little showpiece, a collection of Protea, the national flower of South Africa, in pots. Overlooking them is a big maidenhair tree (Ginkgo), always a picture of health, as so many plants are here in this ideal climate.

The lawns and specimen trees and shrubs spread away in various directions beyond the house, continuing the giardino inglese impression which has been gathering on Isola Madre since the start of the nineteenth century. In modern times all this has been superintended by Gianfranco Giustina, head gardener here for more than thirty years. Since 2006, he has also been in charge, like a supreme allied commander, on Isola Bella. He sets the marvellous standard on these islands, and was awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s Veitch Memorial Medal in 2014, when the appropriately named Jim Gardiner travelled from RHS Wisley to Pallanza to present it. When a garden is this good, everyone is happy!

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