Lake Maggiore`s popularity as a resort began in 1800 when Napoleon`s Simplon highway from Geneva to Milan skirted its shores and Europeans from far and wide discovered its mild climate perfect for building villas and gardens, turning its fishing villages into holiday retreats.

It became a renowned European pleasure ground, its deep, moody waters backed by the Alps inspiring great minds like Flaubert, Wagner, Goethe, and most notably Ernest Hemingway, who set part of A Farewell to Arms in Stresa (a novel based very closely on his own World War I experiences).

Maggiore`s most spectacular sights are a legacy of the powerful Borromeo family, who have ruled southern half of the lake as a family fiefdom since the 15th century.

In 1395, the Borromeo family fled political intrigue in Tuscany for Milan, where they bankrolled the rise of the Visconti to power. Building a pan-European financial empire, the family bought itself the Arona fiefdom in 1447. They tacked skillfully in the era`s turbulent political winds, married wisely, and hitched their stars to the Sforza (on the gates as Isola Bella, look for a symbol of three circles representing the interlocking fortunes of the Borromei, Visconti, and Sforza dynasties) while they slowly acquired control over more and more of Lake Maggiore.

Prize parcels of this lakeside land has stayed in family hands to this day (the modern Borromei princely family is very much alive and well), and their legacy and continued generosity in sharing the family patrimony make up some of the lake`s greatest sights. They left a colossal statue of their family saint, San Carlo Borromeo, outside Arona, and a castle in Angera, but most notable are the Borromeo gardens and villas on Isola Bella and Isola Madre, two of the "Borromean Islands" off the shores of the resort town of Stresa that together comprise Lake Maggiore`s most significant (and photogenic) sight.