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An Island Chateau

( Originally Published 1911 )


Wednesday, August 17th.

WE REACHED this enchanting spot by a most circuitous and varied route, which I outline for you, as you may be coming this way some time. From Bellagio we crossed over to Menaggio, on Monday after déjeuner, where we took an electric tram which brought us to Porlezza in less than an hour. Here we found a boat awaiting us in which we enjoyed a two hours' sail on beautiful Lake Lugano. At Lugano, which we reached before six o'clock, we were in Switzer-land, as we learned when the customs officers visited our luggage, with no benefit to them-selves and little disturbance to us, and again when we found our beds at the hotel supplied with feather counterpanes—and I may venture to say it with all my love for Italy—by a scrupulous and shining cleanliness that belongs more to the thrifty Swiss than to the amiable and less energetic Italians. Lugano is full of quaint corners, interesting narrow streets, market wagons, drawn by oxen, and stalls and carts on all sides, filled with curios and native wares that would tempt the most blasé shop-per. Yesterday, being a market day when the peasants come in from the surrounding country in their ox carts, and with their great panniers, or hottes, on their backs, we found many delightful bits for our kodaks. The children were especially interested in a woman who carried a pretty, little young kid in her pannier, instead of the fruits and vegetables that are usually to be seen in these great baskets, and a heavy load it must have been ! But these Swiss and Italian women are burden-bearers from early childhood.

We needed a week instead of a day and night at Lugano, and let me advise you and Allan not to travel on schedule time when you make your tour through these lakes, as there are so many delightful side trips to be made. Some pleasant Americans, whom we met at the hotel in Lugano, told us that a day or two spent on the summit of Monte Generoso is well worth while, as the view is one of the finest in Europe, embracing as it does the chain of the Alps, the Italian lakes and the vast plains of Lombardy as far as the Apennines. In addition to all this there are fine woods and pasture lands upon this mountain top, and a hotel in which one may sojourn in comfort, if comfort is to be considered when such heave views are to be feasted upon.

We quitted Lugano after luncheon yesterday, having had time for only a hurried visit to the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli and the famous Luini frescoes. Another charming trip on the lovely Lago di Lugano brought us to Porte resa, from whence we journeyed by a steam tram through an enchanting wild wood country, full of little hills and rushing stream-lets, to Luino. Do you wonder that Lisa calls this a fairy journey? The change from ear to boat and boat to car takes away all the weariness of travel, and the varied beauties of lake and shore make this an ideal trip, especially as we found ourselves transferred to another boat at Luino which brought us straight to fairyland, here at Stresa. The lights upon the many boats on the lake and in the hotels and villas along the shore gave the little town a gala appearance, as if it were celebrating our arrival, as Miss Cassandra suggested. Later on it became humiliatingly evident that we had not been expected, our boat was late, the cabs had all gone away, and it was with difficulty that we secured enough conveyances for our party.

We drove many miles, so it seemed to us, by winding roads up a steep hillside to this pension, where we finally found light, warmth, welcome and good beds, of which last we were sorely in need. By morning light the pension proves itself to be well named Beau-Séjour, as it is delightfully situated on a hill above the lake, with a garden, which slopes down to. the town, full of oleanders and orange and lemon trees. When I opened the jalousies at my window, what should I see but dear, snow-crested Monte Rosa and the rest of the Alpine chain, seeming quite near in this crystal atmosphere, a perfect background for the picturesque Borromean Islands, fairy islets in a silver lake!

"I really think that Maggiore is more beautiful than Como," I said, reluctantly, for I have heretofore contended that Lake Como at Bellagio is the most beautiful place on the face of the earth.

"Take what goods the gods provide you, Zelphine, and don't use up the gray matter of your brain trying to find out which of these lakes you like best," said Walter in his most judicial tone.

"Yes, but one really cannot help comparing these two lakes, and if we give the preference to Maggiore we have Mr. Ruskin on our side, who considers the scenery of Lake Maggiore to be the most beautiful and enchanting of all lake scenery, so we read in a pleasant little book of Richard Bagot 's which we found on the drawing-room table, yet the author says that for himself he has no hesitation in giving his vote in favor of the Larian Lake for beauty of scenery and richness of historic interest."

Despite his philosophy I truly think that the man of the party has left his heart at Bellagio, as I heard him telling a brother angler, whom he met at the boat landing, how fine he found the fishing there and that he doubted the sport being as good at Stresa—at least for amateur fishermen. The associations here are less inspiring than those of Como, the presiding genius of Stresa being San Carlo Borromeo, whose thirst for the blood of heretics gained for him the title of Saint. A great bronze statue at Arona now proclaims his zeal for the Church. Miss Cassandra, who has an optimistic faith in a spark of the divine in the most world-hardened saint or sinner, reminds me of Carlo Borromeo's heroic devotion to the sufferers from famine and the plague at Milan in 1570 and 1576. So, with a somewhat gentler feeling in our hearts toward "the Saint," we turned our faces toward Isola Bella and its great château, built by a later and more worldly-minded member of the Borromean family, Count Vitaliano Borromeo. This château, which from the lake side appears like a stronghold of ancient times, is fitly named the Castello, and after admiring its substantial stone terrace and great iron gates we were prepared for something more imposing than what we found within. The large rooms, with their modern furniture and paintings, some of them poor copies from the old masters, were strangely out of harmony with the ancient exterior of the Castello; but they were shown to us with great pride by the custodian, who must have found us singularly unappreciative and lacking in enthusiasm, even when he displayed a room in which the great Napoleon had once slept. When Napoleon was here, and why, and whether he was here at all, does not concern any of us especially, except Lydia, who having a turn for history is always determined to find out how, why, when, and where. I am glad that she does care, as her example is edifying to us all, especially so to Christine and Lisa, who follow her about and ask questions to their hearts' content, which she is never tired of answering. The garden, we revelled in, and found it hard to believe that the terrace, which rises to a height of one hundred feet, was once a barren rock until Count Borromeo covered it with a luxuriant growth of orange, olive, and lemon trees, cedars, oleanders, roses, camellias, and every tree and plant that you can think of. It is really a bewilderingly lovely garden, and we wandered through its paths joyously until we came suddenly upon some artificial grottos at one end overlooking the lake. These remarkable creations are so utterly tasteless, with masses of bristling shellwork and crude, ungainly statues, that we wondered how anything so inartistic could find a home upon Italian soil. The children, however, found delight in the hideous grottos, were sure that they had been robbers' dens, and fancied they heard the groans of prisoners issuing from their cavernous openings. They were so fascinated, as children always are by the mysterious and unknown, that nothing but the pangs of hunger and promises of luncheon on a terrace garden overlooking the lake reconciled them to leaving the garden and the grottos.

We tried to forget the monstrosities of the château garden and to remember only the beauty and the rich luxuriance of its trees and the many flowering vines that clambered all over the shellwork terraces, as if striving to conceal their rococo ugliness. Nor is it difficult to forget unsightly objects here, when we have only to raise our eyes to behold a scene of surpassing beauty,—Isola Madre and Isola dei Pescatori look but a stone's throw from us across the shining water, and beyond a girdle of snow mountains seems to encircle the lake, our beloved Monte Rosa, white as a swan's breast, dominating them all. Despite the distracting beauty of the outlook from our café, on the terrace of a very indifferent looking hostel, we enjoyed our luncheon of Italian dishes, crowned by an omelette aux confitures of such superlative excellence that even my inveterate American was ready to acknowledge that it was the best omelet he had ever eaten anywhere.

We shall need a whole morning for Isola Madre, whose gardens are said to be even more beautiful than those of Isola Bella. The sporting tastes of the man of the party naturally draw him toward the allurements of Isola dei Pescatori, but thither we shall decline to accompany him, for picturesque as it appears from the shore, it is, on a more intimate acquaintance, said to rival in unsavoriness the far-famed odors of the city of Cologne.

ORTA, August 19th.

Prom Stresa we made a short détour, in order to have a day and night here on the Lago d'Orta, which although comparatively near Lake Maggiore is not often included in the itinerary of the fast traveling tourist, who usually hurries to Arona, Stresa, and Pallanza, which, beautiful as they are, lack something of the restful charm of this miniature lake set in the midst of a circle of well-wooded hills. After Como and Maggiore, which are like inland seas, the Lago d'Orta with its pretty island of San Giulio, all so small that one may see the whole picture at a glance, is indescribably lovely. The waters here are said to be of a deeper blue than anywhere else in Italy, probably because the lake is fed from springs which issue from its rocky bed. The whole town of Orta, as well as the lake, is a blaze of color with the gay awnings of its many loggie, its masses of scarlet and pink geraniums, cactus and oleanders, its fruit stalls laden with melons, peaches and tomatoes, or poma d'oro, and its blue sky over all. We cannot imagine Orta under any but a clear sky, as our day here has been one of dazzling brilliancy. But it was not solely for its beauty that the man of the party brought us to Orta, as I discovered when I looked over a little local guidebook last night, and learned that the Lago d'Orta is famous for its fish, and abounds in trout of large size, pike, perch, and the agoni, a delicate little fish for which Lake Como is also noted. After glancing over this illuminating guidebook, and recalling the fact that the catch at Stresa had been poor the day before, we were not surprised to hear arrangements being made for an early start this morning. After reading aloud some extracts from the guidebook, Miss Cassandra said, quite seriously :

"For ways that are dark and tricks that are vain commend me to a fisherman or hunter. With all that Izaak Walton was pleased to say about fishing being `a calm, quiet, innocent recreation,' I have known the best of men, even as good men as Walter, descend to duplicity and even to prevarication when it came to a question of fish or game. Not that I regret for a moment Walter's bringing us here. Orta is so beautiful that the end justifies the means; but he might have told us why we were coming."

Despite the innate and total depravity of fisher folk, I yielded to Walter's and the children's persuasions and joined the fishing party this morning, and a delightful day I had, seated in the stern of the boat under one of the little canopies that you see in all the pictures of this region. Here, well screened from the sun, with books and work, and the lovely lake and shore to gaze upon, the hours passed so quickly that I was surprised when we were told that it was time to land on the Island of San Giulio for our noon déjeuner. I was in the midst of relating the interesting experiences of the missionary priest Julius, who is said to have founded a church here as early as 390, when we were nearing the lovely little island named for him. The children were naturally delighted with the priest's fertility of resource, which, like that of the mother in their favorite "Swiss Family Robinson," was equal to every occasion.

Having resolved to found a sanctuary upon the island whose solitary beauty, as it rested upon the shining bosom of the lake, appealed to him as it does to us to-day, and finding no boat-men upon the shore willing to convey him thither, on account of the hideous monsters, dragons, and serpents of huge size then inhabiting the place, good Julius, nothing daunted by so trifling an inconvenience as the lack of a boat, used his long cloak as a sail, and his staff as a rudder, and thus equipped allowed himself to be blown across to the island.

"Of course, we know that there is nothing new under the sun, but who would have thought of finding traces of the first aeroplane here, in this quiet spot, far from the haunts of men?"

This from the man of the party, while Lisa exclaimed impatiently : "Now, don't stop the story ! What did the good priest do when he landed on the island? Did he kill the beasts with his big stick?"

"We never heard of the 'big stick' flourishing among these lakes," said Walter, as he wound up his line, and I explained to the children that the hideous monsters fled before the beautiful face of the messenger of peace and swam across the water to the mainland. A delightful confirmation of the story, the children found in the church, where they were shown a huge bone that belonged to one of these self-same monsters.

"Very like a whale," said Walter, while we were further edified by a sight of the silver and crystal shrine under which repose the bones of St. Julius removed from the little old church to this one of the seventh century, which is a perfect miniature basilica. This was explained to us by a priest, in Italianized French of the most mongrel description, translated by me and listened to by Christine and Lisa with eager faces and wide-open eyes.

When we related our experiences to Miss Cassandra, who had in our absence visited the twenty chapels on the mainland erected in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, she shook her head, knowingly, and said, Lydia and I have heard a great many wonderful tales, too, but it is worth everything to be a child and ready to swallow anything from a gumdrop to a whale."

The little girls take so much more interest in churches and shrines than we had expected that we are half regretting our plan to leave them in a French school in Lausanne while we make our tour among the Châteaux of the Loire. I can hear you say, "Why not take them to Tours, for the French there?" We know that the French of Tours is exquisite, but they have had quite as much travel as is good for them, and then they have little friends at the school in Lausanne whom they wish to join. "And after all," as Miss Cassandra says, "American French can always be spotted, no matter how good it may be." We were very much amused over the criticism of a little American boy who had been educated in Italy. He said of an English lady's correct and even idiomatic Italian, "Yes, it's all right; but she doesn't speak in the right tune." We have so many tunes in our own language that we are less particular than the French and Italians, who treat theirs with the greatest respect.

Tomorrow we leave this charming spot with great reluctance. We shall doubtless find architectural beauty in Touraine, but we shall miss the glorious mountain and lake views and these indescribable atmospheric effects that we delight in. But, as the man of the party says, with masculine directness, "Having started out to see the Châteaux of the Loire, had we not better push on to Touraine !"

You cannot appreciate the full magnanimity of this advice without realizing that Orta is a place above all others to please a man's fancy, and that the fishing is exception-ally good. Miss Cassandra has taken back her caustic expressions with regard to the devious ways of fisher folk, or at least of this especial fisherman, and so, in good humor with one another and with the world in general, we set forth for Lausanne, by Domodossola and the Simplon. We shall have a Sunday in Lausanne to drink in Calvinism near its source; Monday we arrange about the children's school, and set forth for Touraine on Tuesday, stopping in Geneva for a day and night.

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