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The Seven Magical Islands of Italy

October 05, 1986|NINO LO BELLO | Lo Bello is an American newspaperman, author and former teacher living in Vienna.

ISOLA BELLA, Italy — Roll out the Tourist IQ meter.

What country in Europe fits the following description? Not noted for having any kind of lake district per se, it nonetheless has seven idyllic lake islands that probably only a dozen people out of 5 billion could even name.

Where to start? Where to start is with a map. Using Milan as your orientation point, put your thumb just northwest of it on Lake Orta, your remaining four digits will finger Lakes Maggiore, Como, Iseo and Garda.

Sometimes called the Lombard Lakes, these five bodies of water of glacial origin constitute the lake district of Italy and contain a septet of islands often referred to as "the islands of silence" or "the happy isles." All are inhabited and are thoroughly guaranteed to captivate everyone in search of something new that will also conjure up the joys of splendiferous solitude.

Let's first touch upon the Numero Uno of the magic seven water-girt lots that perhaps can lay some claim to fame, Isola Bella in Lake Maggiore, just off the coast road leading to Switzerland. Developed by the wealthy Borromeo Family in the 17th-Century, Isola Bella was transformed by a massive effort to make the island perceptible from afar as an imaginary pleasure ship resting in the lake. To accomplish this artistic hocus-pocus, half a dozen terraces were constructed, each with its own garden, pools and statues.

During the next 150 years, Isola Bella became the "in" island, as anybody who was anybody came to pay a call, including Queen Victoria of England and Napoleon. Mussolini used the island to meet with Ramsey MacDonald of Great Britain and Pierre Laval of France in April 1935 in an attempt to stave off World War II.

As part of a three-island complex referred to as the Borromeo Islands, Isola Bella is a travel poster site that boasts the stupendous 18th-Century palace with its spellbinding terraces sloping down to the lake. All this is set amid the whispering of fountains, the gaze of statues, a succession of avenues and groves and a cadre of white-on-white peacocks, whose tails, if you happen to catch them strutting their stuff, look more like intricate white lace veils than feathers.

Harmoniously embellished by orange, magnolia, lemon, camelia, cedar and honeysuckle trees, Isola Bella has an intoxicating natural perfume.

Its nearest neighbor is tiny Isola Madre, where nature is at her capricious best with tropical birds and with what many consider the most beautiful rare flowers anywhere in Italy. Isola Madre has a cypress tree that is more than 160 years old, the foremost old-timer on the Boot.

The third island is blanketed by a picturesque village of several dozen houses whose 300 inhabitants make their living from fishing, hence its name, Fishermen's Island. The island's only restaurant, the mom-and-poppa Trattoria del Verbano, provides a melange panorama of the Lake Maggiore coastline and has a reputation among French tourists for food.

Italy's deepest lake, Lake Como, has only one island, Comacina (known to the ancient Romans as Larius), a green speck so close to the shore that you can swim to it in a 10-stroke jiffy. Once the scene of fierce struggles by invading Byzantines, Longobards and French, Comacina, which used to have nine churches (now all in ruins), has a succession of bays and promontories with a few villages lapped by the water and others on the mountainside.

The island abounds with fragrant olive parks that seem to grow as if by magic. Comacina Island also has three stupendous (private) villas.

East of Como, midway between it and Lake Garda, lies Lake Iseo, whose sugar-loaf Monte Isola has the distinction of being the largest of the Italian Lake islands, nearly six miles in circumference. On certain days, especially during September, the water around Monte Isola takes on the hue of liquid sapphire. But the island is really all one mountain (1,965 feet), which is steep and rocky on the eastern side and gently sloping on the other side so that vineyards, olive groves, flowery patches and chestnut woods grace an area that presents a whole series of come-hither hamlets.

In little Lake Orta is a wee paradise community of fishermen, painters and nature lovers on the Island of San Giulio, which resembles a fiord surrounded by hills. This isle was once ringed by a great wall (known as the "Queen's Wall"), but now there are only a few visible traces of it left.

Set between tranquil wooded heights and sparsely scattered farms, villages and villas, the 330-yard-long San Giulio was once the scene of a 70-day battle in which an Amazon queen, Willa, successfully warded off a ferocious attack of Germany's Otto I. The island was named after St. Julius, who got rid of its snakes.

The smallest of Italy's lake islands lies in the largest of Italy's lakes, Lake Garda. The tiny land parcel that calls itself Garda is private property, truly a Garden of Eden island unlike its sisters elsewhere, and cannot be visited by the public, unless you know somebody and are extended a special invitation.

It's a pleasure, however, to look at, for olives, vines and orange and lemon groves spread every shade of green on the luxurious islet's shores. The rich and the powerful knew back then that small is beautiful, so don't let nature's painting fool you about Garda Isle's tranquillity, because during the 15th Century it was the scene of a fierce battle between the Republic of Venice and the Visconti Clan.

The lake islands are floating bits and pieces of much-blessed Italy. Given little recognition from topographers, except for dots that a magnifying glass reveals, these water Elysiums have so much to brag about that they have put themselves on the map.

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