A major day out on Lago Maggiore: the Medieval Garden at the Rocca D’Angera, the Castelli di Cannero, and the Isola Madre

The Rocca Borromeo at Angera, on the Lombardy shores of Lake Maggiore: the meeting point for a press day on Lake Maggiore, on Friday 11 June 2010, by invitation of the Borromeo family, organized by the Padua-based Studio Esseci press&public relations consultancy.

Long a strategic look-out point from which to espy the enemy trying to invade from the Lake, the remarkably well-preserved Rocca di Angera is now a major attraction for visitors to Italy, and residents alike. The Rocca is open to visitors daily, 09.00-1730, from mid-March to mid-October. More on the Rocca Borromeo, or Rocca d’Angera, here http://goo.gl/BQFI. (Photo Rocca d’Angera, courtesy_Gnemmi).

After a visit to the Rocca’s newly-inaugurated Medieval Garden — one of very few in Italy — we were to proceed, by boat, to the Castelli di Cannero, in the northern part of the Lake, off Cannobio, in Piedmont.

Heading back south, we would visit the Botanical Gardens on the Isola Madre, part of the Isole Borromee group of islands off Stresa, that also includes the Isola Bella and the Isola Pescatori.

Car duly parked, we walk up the cobbled path to the entrance of the Rocca Borromeo, or Rocca d’Angera, where the rest of the group has — presumably — already arrived from Milan.

No sign of life. Perhaps once we go through the gateway …

Once through the gateway, though, eyes instinctively go left to look out from this hill-top position. An imposing view from here over the lake. Equally impressive — of course — is the sight of the Rocca Borromeo, which is also quite simply known as the Rocca d’Angera, from the lake. No pix of it, though. Sorry. You’ll have to find some on Google Images. Or plan a trip to Italy, and see it for yourselves.

The press bus from Milan has obviously not arrived yet, But the television people are here, and hard at work.

That’s the entrance to the Rocca, which takes you straight to the Doll Museum. We will be ending our visit there. For now, the Milan press people have started streaming through the gateway. It’s about 11am and it is already very hot. We have been invited to sit under the porticato where the bar people will bring us water and coffee.

Duly refreshed, we are now starting our visit. First stop is the brand-new Medieval Garden. Massimo Venegoni of Studio Dedalo in Turin, who helped design the garden, explains the details.

The 2,000-square-metre garden is centered around the old chapel, and is bounded to one side by the fortress walls and to the other by the vineyard. This is one of the few medieval gardens in Italy.

Another example is the garden attached to the Borgo Medievale in Turin http://www.borgomedievaletorino.it/giardino.

Laura Pimpinello, the head gardener, looks a bit concerned. Perhaps she’s worrying about the TV interview scheduled for later. Or perhaps she is concerned that people are going to comment on the weeds. She has an answer ready, though: the garden is intended to look “natural”. A relief for the rest of us, whose gardens are always a mass of weeds.

They have explained that the garden consists of four sections: the vegetable garden (verziere), the herb garden (giardino dei semplici), and flower garden (giardino dei principi). The garden is in its early stages, and planting will continue throughout the summer. Plants have been sourced from nurseries all over Italy, including Vivai Belfiore of Lastra a Signa, near Florence. www.vivaibelfiore.it.

Laura is looking more cheerful as we look towards the entrance. Let’s go and take a look!

A glimpse through the gate. While this is not a reconstruction of a pre-existing medieval garden, archive documents show that this part of the Rocca’s grounds were used as a cherry orchard. The garden is part of a plan devised by the Borromeo family, to make the Rocca d’Angera, which they have owned since 1449, into an interpretation center for the Middle Ages, and also to offer a counterpoint, garden-wise, to the Renaissance splendors of the Italian-style gardens of the Isola Bella and the more formal beauty of the Botanical Gardens of the Isola Madre.

Look one way and you see the vineyards of the Rocca, with the crenellated walls in the background. No time to ask about the wine produced from these grapes. But the tradition goes back a long way. In 1841, one Adriani Balbi’s piece for the Enciclopedia popolare published from Turin, on the best wines in Lombardy, included a reference to those from the Rocca d’Angera, along with the Valtellina, Faito near Varese, and San Colombano near Lodi.

A view of the path leading from the gate to the Rocca itself to the vegetable garden. See the topiary in the middle of the path. A bed of sage is planned for the cordoned-off area in the lower left. Work started on the garden in 2008. To date, some 200 species have been planted. These include fruit trees, herbs, and flowers, as well as vegetables. Potatoes and tomatoes excluded, of course. These were unknown in the middle ages!


The pond, with aforementioned weeds, which in Italian are usually called erbacce. I prefer the expression piante spontanee, however. The idea of spontaneity appeals: let’s face it, weeds grow with such gay abandon, it’s almost a pleasure to watch!

No weeds, erbacce, or piante spontanee in this section of course: it’s the Giardino dei Principi, and very princely it looks too. The princes in question being the Borromeo family who, in addition to owning the Rocca in Angera, also own the Isola Bella, the Isola Madre and the Isola Pescatori, also on Lake Maggiore. These islands, off Stresa, are known collectively as the Isole Borromee. The family also owns the Castelli di Cannero, in the northern section of the Lake. The family also have considerable holdings in Milan, where they live much of the year.

Another view of the start to the Giardini dei Principi. Two stone benches frame two cypress trees.

Roses are the order of the day in the Giardino dei Principi at the Rocca d’Angera. Medieval ones, of course. More than 20 types have been planted here, of the Rosa Gallica and Rosa Alba types. The garden designers did make one concession to later times: they decided to include examples of Damascene roses, since these still resemble their more ancient cousins. And bloom throughout the summer, to boot. A further 40 species of flower have also been planted here. These include the Lilium Candidum, the Lilium Martagon, the Peonia officinalis, the Iris Fiorentina, as well as primulas and violets.

Leaving the Medieval garden at the Rocca d’Angera, we look out and catch a glimpse of the waters of Lake Maggiore. The swallow-tailed crenallations, or battlements, on the castle walls are ghibelline, and remind us that Vitaliano Borromeo, who acquired the Rocca from the Visconti family in 1449, was a supporter of the church party against the Emperor in the endless battles that took place during that period.

No signs of strife, as we gather in the shady courtyard, before undertaking a brief visit to the Doll Museum, for which the Rocca Borromeo, at Angera, is well-known. At least among doll-fanatics, that is.

A sample from the extensive collection of dolls, of which there are about 1000, covering over 200 years, displayed in twelve rooms in the Rocca d’Angera in Lake Maggiore.

Based around the original collections belonging to Princess Bona Borromeo, the Doll Museum at the Rocca d’Angera on Lake Maggiore has now been complemented by a selection of French-made automata toys. Games, children’s clothes, and other artefacts are also on display. The museum opened in 1988. For more on Princess Bona Borromeo, see this article from the January 2010 issue of W magazine http://goo.gl/qcgF

Another of the rooms in the Rocca d’Angera. The Borromeo family has not lived here for many years. When not in Milan, or at some of their other residences, they live in Palazzo Borromeo on the Isola Bella, also on Lake Maggiore. Indeed, Beatrice Borromeo was married in the family chapel there in 2004. So can you, if you are so inclined. For details, see

The delightful 13th-century frescoes in the Sala di Giustizia confirm the fact that, although the Rocca d’Angera was clearly built for defensive purposes — the views across Lake Maggiore are outstanding, and the enemy stood little chance of approaching by water without being seen — this was also a home.

As we prepare to leave for the next stage of our day out on Lake Maggiore, courtesy of the Borromeo family and with the assistance of Sergio Campagnolo of StudioEsseci of Padua, the final details. Laura Pimpinello gives her interview for the RAI, Italian State Broadcasting Corporation, for the one o’clock news. The 21st century meets the Middle Ages. And the outcome is: just fine!