The park was established at the same time as the Grand Hotel, in 1863. From contemporary illustrations and lithographs, one immediately realizes what the clients (the Omarini brothers) and the designer (the architect Antonio Polli) had in mind: in front of the incomparable 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.
The Grand Hotel is constantly being renewed. It has repeatedly been enlarged and since the early 20th century has its present appearance. At the same time the park has adapted to frequent adjustments, although certain peculiarities remain. Among those worth mentioning are the fashionable quarters to the east, the greenhouses and storage rooms to the west (an area currently used as the Residenza del Parco and Sporting), an area to the south set in the English manner with small detached houses and outbuildings and, as a poster of the time read, “a huge park and garden with tennis and croquet courts”. The development of the park were certainly influenced by the magnificent Baroque gardens and those laid out in the English manner to be found on the islands. The respect this development received is also evidenced by the annual presence of the conventions of the association of I giardinieri Italiani held at the Grand Hotel. The first meeting of the association, during which the constitution of the Federazione Italiana degli Orticultori was approved, took place in 1902.
Other important stages in the life of the park are the construction of the swimming pools to the west, the construction of the sports areas towards the late 1970s, and that of the Residenza del Parco. The estate changed hands several times, and, with the establishment of the present Societa Italiana Alberghi Lago Maggiore in the late 1980s, a new impetus to highlight and develop the arboreal feature of the estate developed. The work, which still continues, has seen the planting of hundreds of varieties of azaleas and camellias, the growth and the care of clusters of trees, the laying out of paths adorned with the finest mosaic, the placing of various statues and the construction of a large fountain. These efforts were formally approved by the Soprintendenza per i Beni Architettonici e per il Paesaggio, whoin 2004 published a legal document stating that the section of the park that lies to the south-east of the estate is to be protected.
Some of the trees that were born with the Grand Hotel still stand today. Some are easily recognizable from their considerable dimensions. And it is a pleasure to discover others which, though smaller in size, are equally old. Starting from the flowerbeds in the Italian style in the direction of the lake, we find the most majestic of the Magnolia Grandiflora trees to be found in the park. This is known as the magnolia of Alexandra, Grand Duchess of all Russia, who was a guest at the hotel in 1870, and who is also remembered for having engraved her name on a glass door with a diamond. It is twelve meters in diameter, and its foliage appears most elegant since it is pruned annually to retain its flowers.
Moving on, in the RADURA DEI PAVONI, rises the century-old Libocedrus Decurrens, thirty five meters in height. With its twisted bark and gnarled branches, it is the coast’s oldest specimen. Moreover, because of its harsh corporal appearance, it is dedicated to the great American writer Ernest Hemingway, another regular renowned guest, who immortalized the Grand Hotel by describing it in his well-known novel Farewell to Arms. Further on, beside the GIARDINO GIAPPONESE, we come across a lovely specimen of Tilia Vulgaris (h. 30m.). Returning to the drive in the small wood along which runs VIALETTO DELLE CAMELIE, we find a concentration of century-old trees: Cupressus Torulosa and a Chamaeciparis Lambertiana Aurea and a Cedrus Atlantica (h. 25m.). All these trees rise to a height of twenty-five meters. And now, a big surprise! Returning to the foot of the “raising-of-the-flag” pole at the beginning of the VIALE DE NETTUNO, look at the Pinaceae bush. It is a dwarf Cryptomeria Japonica Globosa. And it can boast of being more than a century old, having been planted in 1890. Slightly younger (1910) is the splendid Sophora Japonica Pendula. It is popularly known as the pagoda tree because its foliage is set in layers. Tradition has it that this was the favourite tree of the great actress Eleonora Duse. Moving on, on top of the hill that carries her name, there rises a majestic oak, a Quercus Ilex (h. 20m) and moreover does not lose its leaves in winter. It looks fabulous on spring and autumn mornings, when a light dew refracts the sun’s rays amongst the foliage. We can now start walking down the path called THE BOSCO SEGRETO DELLE FRAGOLE: if you are lucky, you might gather its fruit. Here, as we approach the end of our walk, we see a great specimen of Pseudotsuga Menziesii, the trunk of which measures 380 cm in circumference. Near Villa Azalee in the SLARGO DELLE GARDENIE, a valuable collection of Cycas Revoluta is displayed in large vases. These are “palms” which, from a biological point of view, are similar to conifers.
Extremely elegant, those which are more than two meters high are more than a century old. We invite you to discover other specimens during your walks in the park. Your visit cannot be said to have come to an end without another pleasant discovery in the GIARDINO A LAGO DELLA BELLA VISTA. After having gone beyond the small wrought-iron gate at the entrance we leave the stone-paved path which ends at the private landing stage, and we enter the lovely lawns. The natural barrier which delimits the embankment consists of a box hedge. It is the last heritage of the formal layout in the Italian style of 1884. If we look carefully among the small pulpy leaves, we can catch sight of the very old stem.
In the park one comes across not men but their representations, that is, statues. These relate to Greek and Roman mythology. We propose an iconographic visit to discover the significance of these “inhabitants”.
Let us begin at the INGRESSO GENTILIZIO where, by the side of the precious mosaic carpet there are a couple of cupids stretched out languidly on a spiral base: they are welcoming cupids who symbolically offer flowers and ears of grain. Now, turning our back to the lake, we find a couple of life-size statues of stone from whose noble and proud features we understand the figure on the right to be Apollo. An essential feature of his personality was the creative intelligence that allowed him to produce art. Moreover, he shared with Elio the features of the god of solar light. It was not by accident that he was placed in front of the islands where, in the morning, he receives the first rays of the sun as it rises. Here, he is represented with a quiver, a dog at his heels and wrapped in a cloak. To the left, the reassuring female character Fortuna, the Roman goddess of good fortune. One of her symbols is, as in our case, a cornucopia.
Moving on, to the FONTANA DEI PAPIRI, we stop on the summer terrace of the restaurant Borromeo to admire four statues representing the seasons. Two are male (Winter with Herculean facial features equipped with a club and Autumn with Bacchian features); and two are female (Spring adorned with flowers and Summer with ears of grain). It would be interesting to compare them with another set of the four seasons which we will be analyzing later on. Now, regaining the VIALE DELL’ AURORA and retracing our steps, we can catch sight of Neptune, who, sheltered by a niche, awaits us at the end of the view. The colossal statue in stone from Vicenza, created by the Vicentian sculptors Luciano e Mario Celadon, shows the sea god in all his magnificence and power. The action in which he is immortalized captures him in a typically Baroque bodily twist. Splendid and terrible is his face, framed by a thick beard and by a flowing mane. With one hand he holds back a piece of drapery blown up by the wind, while with the other he holds in his fist the trident, symbol of his power. Inserted between his legs is a sea horse. Returning to the drive we see a monumental set of Paris and Helen of which we will review various aspects.
Created in 2000 AD it has typical Baroque architectural forms of which the two-sided curved stairs around a central structure on two levels are typical. On the upper level, this reveals a panoramic view framed by a lowered arch and a gable. On the lower level a central niche suggests a perfect symmetry. At the sides, two convex walls form the bottom of a fountain. Inside the fountain a series of graded water jets forms an oblique “line”; while towards the centre a crown of jets in the form of a “veil” produces enchanting effects of transparency.
All the carved parts are in Vicentian stone, while the stairs and the basin of the fountain are made of granite. The pebbled mosaic surrounding the fountain is of great architectural value and beauty. Two large “carpets” with multi-coloured arabesque designs cover the walls which form the bottom of the basin of water. In addition, the upper segment of the central niche is enriched with multi-coloured “embroidery” on a black background.
Two musical cupids in Vicentian stone seem to be playing classical melodies on the very top. Below, half concealed inside the niche, the characters in the fountain catch the attention of the visitor, who magically becomes aware of them as he enters from the large entrance to the park. It is a sculptural group executed in marble, “Statuario Michelangelo” of Carrara, carved by master Giovanni Bedini (1921-2002), representing the abduction of Paris and Helen. It was reproduced from the original kept in Florence executed by Vincenzo De’ Rossi (1525-1587) in 1560.
The Mannerist sculptor catches the moment in which the woman tries to escape from the grip of Paris. Note that Paris, with a foot, is crushing a wild boar’s head with a gesture symbolic of contempt and sensuality. In short, the two mythological characters are Paris, he who gave the golden apple to the most beautiful goddess, Aphrodite, in exchange for the promise to be able to know the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. The extraordinary beauty of Helen induced Theseus to kidnap her. Eventually, in Sparta, Helen married Menelaus, and here the abduction represented took place, the cause of the war of Troy. It is by now a habit for guests of the Grand Hotel and for Stresian tourists to go near to the fountain in the afternoon. The nocturnal lighting renders the reading on the monument even more emotional and it appears enchanting and almost animated by the reflection of the play of the water on the mosaic walls. So, between myth and reality, a person may throw a small coin into the water with his back turned to the monument, perhaps with the hidden hope to return here, or to celebrate the moment of participation in the symbolic nature of which the silent actors are for ever protagonists. Turning our backs to the fountain, we now see the terrace of the first floor where we find two life-sized statues.
The female figure, enwrapped in a garment made of several drapes, gently holds a nest with young birds inside. She is a "Grace". The male figure is naked, adorned solely with vine leaves and bunches of grapes. With one arm he leans on a trunk, in the other hand drunkely holds a chalice turned upside down. He is the Roman Bacchus or the Greek Dionysus, a divinity whose cult, open to all, embodied natural energy. To conclude the visit, let us go to the PROTIRO D’INGRESSO (the main entrance) a group of four life-sized statues. They are a joyous Baroque representation of the “hours.” They were the goddesses of natural order, the perpetual alternation of the cycle. In our case, the beautiful young women are partly covered in drapes held together by knots, buckles and belts, and they allow their shaped figures to show. Looking at the vestibule from the outside so as to allow ourselves to see beyond the two statues on the ground floor and the two on the terrace of the first floor, we single out “Spring” to our left. She holds a rich wreath of flowers, which we also find in her hair. The slightly opened mouth hints at her singing happily. To the right “Autumn,” with a sweet smile, is depicted as a the goddess who holds rich bunches of grapes inserted in her hair. Above, to our left, is “Winter.” She holds a cloak tightly around her, and has a brazier at her feet containing fire. In contrast, to the right, clad in a light kitone, “Summer” reveals her attractiveness while to the side she displays a bunch of ears of grain.
Climbing the side stairs, we find on the parterre the Nymphaeum of Continents, the natural ending of the mountain below. Created in 2009 AD it develops around a circular little square (The Earth).
A row of arches (Serliana), alternated with walls, defines 4 basins with statues, which symbolize the continents (4 why Oceania was unknown at that time). Vases, basins and masks complete the monument. The historical references go from the Nymphaeum of Adrian in Tivoli to the Nymphaeum of Lainate and the one of Isola Bella.
Local and exotic marbles form all the structural (arches and pillars) and sculptural parts. A wonderful Red India for amphora-vases on the upper level, Yellow of Istria for all mouldings and arches, “Arabescato Orobico” for the basins of the fountains, “Statuario Michelangelo” for the statues, Green Ming and so on. The multi-coloured pebbled mosaic covers with arabesques all the walls.
America, Asia, Europe and Africa are personified and represented by a Baroque symbology. They are collector’s pieces carved on Ferdinando Tietz’s 18th century models in the Veitshöchheim park. America is symbolised by a South-American Indian with an alligator around his foot, Asia by a Mandarin, Europe by a young goddess, Africa by a woman with fruits and a parrot.
The meaning of Nymphaeum, place of water, becomes more evident on the stroke of the hours. The sound of a carillon (Hymn of Joy by Beethoven) announces, with its message of brotherhood, the beginning of a mise-en-scène. For some minutes water jets breathe life into the parterre. It’s the triumph of the water, which joins all the structure with a clear meaning of pure community.
The small lake of the Japanese carp, koi (Cyprinus Carpiokoi), deserves a special mention. Besides the presence of fine specimens imported directly from Japan, which have white coats with yellow, red and black spots, the environmental vegetative cycle that surrounds it is important. This is a complex biological system that is balanced to establish a harmonious plant and animal chain.
Water is purified by aquatic plants (fito-purification), insects are eliminated by their natural enemies, and flowers are chosen, taken care of and alternated, studying their adaptation, in order to favour and enrich the ecosystem of the lake. In spring and summer, it is not rare to see several multi-coloured butterflies flying over the pond. The lepidopterans are particularly attracted by Buddleian bushes, also known as “butterfly’ shrub”; Lilac red cornflowers bloom in June and have a delicate scent. The main plant species are represented by water lilies in the varieties Escarboucle, Rose Arcy and Sunrise; papyri, calla lilies and iris.
Inside the park, one can find a part of the garden, sheltered by a rugged stone wall, that reflects Oriental harmony. This garden, with its arrangement of natural elements based on the principles of the Japanese Shakkei, encourages a journey towards meditative states of equilibrium and well-being.
We invite you to spend moments of serene tranquillity, perhaps lying on the chaise longues placed side by side on the lawn and made of centuries old roots of teak from Thailand. The islands formed from gravel “worsted” of various hues and dimensions symbolize water; boulders smoothed into soft shapes by centuries, the hills; and moss, lichen and grass recall meadows and clearings.
Here, trees watered intelligently using the bonsai technique, assume constricted shapes of consuming poetry. The main trees in the garden are the Ilex Cremata with their small pulpy leaves, watered in layers; various kinds of Acer Palmatum with leaves of impalpable texture, which turn from crimson to green; and the cherry trees (Prunus) which the Japanese value so highly.
At the foot of the small stone wall there are Iris, ferns, peonies and fine species of bamboo (Phillostachys Area); whereas, on grated espaliers in bamboo there flourish various species of creeper.
Notice, on the wall of the building in front of you, large standards in jute which have Japanese characters inscribed on them: they carry Zen poems that invite people to contemplate and respect nature. In oriental philosophy symbiosis with nature is a goal to strive for. This union is achieved when one treats every living being with equal dignity, as in a mosaic where every tessera contributes to create the unity of the picture. The formal harmony in this garden is achieved by careful maintenance that requires your cooperation.
Therefore, we ask you not to displace any component of the ideal landscape that we are passing through.