Islands: is there anything concocting more perfectly together thoughts of wilderness, mystery and beauty? An island is a world apart, secluded from the rest of humanity by an endless sky-like expanse of water. Land surrounded by water than looks like precious stones, the sun playfully transforming waves into jewels.
On these little, special worlds surrounded by incredible water, more gems can be found: Italian small villages, or borghi, as we call them, have a magical charm of their own.
If you are lucky enough to have spent some time in any of them, you probably agree with me when I say it feels like time has incredibly stopped at some stage between the late 40s and the early 50s: you would expect a young Sophia Loren to turn the corner of the Piazza Municipale, brightening the day and the lives of all presents with one of her carat gold smiles.
Yet, in so many ways, it is thanks to progress and modernity that these places have managed to keep their beauty intact. Careful artistic restoration and environmental maintenance programs, the rise of tourism and the financial security that comes with it, all the way down to cultural associations operating at national and international level: all contributed to make of these villages the gems they are.
Borghi of our islands are somehow even more special, because so much of their history, fortunes and –indeed - misfortunes, has been dictated by the fact they lay on such secluded strips of land. Among them, some truly deserve to be visited for their beauty and uniqueness, and may transform your next trip into an incredibly pleasurable adventure into an Italy of times long gone.
Murano has kept its charm unaltered throughout the centuries and it is a definite must-see if you are heading to Venice
Murano (Murano Island)
I was 17 when I walked the colorful, timeless alleys of Murano for the first time. It was a school trip and I have a clear memory of wishing I could move there straight away: who needed school, friends, university, money, when you could live in a place so incredibly beautiful?
The first thing that strikes visitors of Murano, I believe, is how fairy-like it looks. Small, by all accounts, built on water, its homes the colors of the rainbow. But Murano is a hub of art and culture, too, and this should not be forgotten. Built on seven small islands on the Marani Canal, Murano is one of the most densely populated areas of the Venetian Lagoon. Of course, most of us knows Murano for the beauty and artistry behind its glass production, the tradition of which goes back as far as the 13th century, but there is much more than that to appreciate.
Most of us knows Murano for the beauty and artistry behind its glass production, the tradition of which goes back as far as the 13th century
Art and history buffs may like to visit the Duomo of Santi Maria e Donato, a beautifully decorated church with mosaic floors very likely contemporary to those of Saint Mark in nearby Venice or Santa Maria degli Angeli, which was used, at the beginning of the 20th century, as a lazaretto when the Lagoon was hit by a cholera epidemic.
Murano has kept its charm unaltered throughout the centuries and it is a definite must-see if you are heading to Venice.
Where Capri is glitz and glamour, Anacapri is local old fashioned colors and tradition
Anacapri (Capri Island)
Capri: so beautiful, so enchanting emperors made it their home, in ancient Roman times. So exclusive to be a favored hot spot for the Dolce Vita’s VIPs of the 1950s and 1960s.
Anacapri is Capri’s mysterious, slightly wild but equally beautiful sister, the place you have to go if you want to stare straight into the island’s soul. Where Capri is glitz and glamour, Anacapri is local old fashioned colors and tradition. Where Capri is Prada, Gucci and high end shoes, Anacapri is local crafts and homemade food, the deep brown eyes of a Mediterranean country girl. Anacapri is the essence of the island, where Capri is its - just as beautiful, mind- more superficial golden veneer.
Check out via Giuseppe Orlandi for incredible local crafts and the church of Santa Sofia, with its baroque façade and Renaissance interior. Notable is also Villa San Michele, built by Swedish doctor Axel Munthe in the last decades of the 19th century: the house, located 300 meters high on the hill, offers some of the most beautiful panoramic views on the island.
Portoferraio is known for the Torre del Martello, part of the Fortezza della Linguella
Portoferraio (Isola d’Elba)
Let us travel up north to the shores of quaint and beloved Tuscany, to discover yet another amazing spot, the Isola d’Elba and its main urban conglomeration, Portoferraio.
Legend – and Egyptian poet Apollonius of Rhodes – says this is where the Argonauts seeking Circe landed and, a bit more historically, we know the area was an appreciated imperial Rome spot.
Today, Portoferraio is known for the Torre del Martello, part of the Fortezza della Linguella, both beautiful landmarks of the town. Within the fortress, the Archaeological Museum, where both Roman and Etruscan findings are preserved. Even if ancient art and culture are important for Portoferraio, the village remains a Renaissance hub architecturally, as demonstrated also by another fortress, the Forte Stella, built in the 16th century and home to one of the oldest, still functioning lighthouses in Europe.
General extraordinaire Napoleon Bonaparte loved the quaintness of the borough so much to have his Winter home, Villa dei Mulini, built only a stone’s throw from its center.
The Isola Bella lays in all tranquillity about 400 meters off Stresa’s coast
Isola Bella (Lago Maggiore)
Let us leave the seas of Italy and move on the shores of one of her largest lakes, Lago Maggiore. Within it, you will find the tiny, yet breathtaking Isola Bella, one of the Borromee Islands. Its very name tells about its beauty, as it literally means just that: beautiful island. The Isola Bella lays in all tranquility about 400 meters off Stresa’s coast, and it is in large part occupied by Palazzo Borromeo and its gardens. Although the island is not strictly a “borgo”, its uniqueness made it almost impossible for me to leave it out. Surrounded by the deep green waters of the lake, an emerald encased in the Alps’ white gold crown, the island offers many an amenity to check out, even though Palazzo Borromeo’s gardens are probably the place to be: landscaped on tiered terraces, visitors can enjoy some of the most beautiful views of the island from there.