The spirit of the Italian Lakes
Over a ridge, another lake straddles the border between Switzerland and Italy. Lake Maggiore is a deep, wide, blue ribbon of water twisting from the Alps to the plains. North of the industrial city of Arona on the western side, its shores are thickly wooded and dotted with elegant but sleepy towns. Maggiore is less flashy and more sedate and charmingly old-fashioned than Como. It’s dawn, and mist clings to the surface of Lake Maggiore. The still waters reflect the sky: a pale duck-egg blue above and below. Daniele Ruffoni steers his little boat out of Belgirate’s harbour. His mate, Stefano, stoops to catch the end of a net before hauling it in. Wild whitefish flop and twist in the morning light as the delicate net drags them into the boat. With a thud, Stefano heaves a fat silver perch in after them. ‘It’s sad,’ Daniele muses, ‘but fishing on the lake is going to die out.’ Beside him, Stefano finds a clump of weed in the net and lobs it back into the water with a splosh. ‘I began 20 years ago, when I was 21. Now, the youngest fisherman on the lake is 35. The working day begins at 2am. Young people today don’t want to do it.’ Daniele’s family is from the Isola dei Pescatori (Fishermen’s Island), one of the three inhabited islands in the Italian part of Lake Maggiore. The fabulously wealthy Borromeo family, who built enchanting palaces and gardens on them in the 16th and 17th centuries, owns the other two islands, now open to the public. Isola dei Pescatori remains a warren of crumbling fishermen’s cottages, though restaurants and shops catering to tourists have popped up along the main avenues and lakefront. Fishing also accounts for a large population of feral but conspicuously well-fed cats. ‘It’s sad for me that this is going to end,’ admits Daniele, ‘but times change. Most lake fish are farmed now.’ He docks at the stone quayside in Belgirate, next to a lean-to beneath the lakeside road dedicated to the Amici della Barca, or Friends of the Boat. Here, Daniele, Stefano and the lake’s other remaining fishermen meet at night to drink beer, eat prosciutto and tell tales of the past. Stefano leaps off, and the two men set about preparing the day’s catch for sale.
Motorboat rides to the Isola dei Pescatori and other Borromean islands can be arranged from Stresa via CMA (Piazzale Marconi 28838).
To sample lake fish on the island, try Albergo Ristorante Verbano (Via Ugo Ara 2, Isola dei Pescatori).