Brissago Islands, Lago Maggiore: legacy of a Russian Princess

September 24, 2016 — No comments

Baronesse Antoinette Fleming-St. Léger, born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, is believed to be the illegitimate daughter of Tsar Alexander II. By the time she married the Anglo-Irish Lord Richard Fleming-Saint Léger at 29 years of age, she had already seen off two elderly husbands. In 1885, Antoinette persuaded her new husband to pour his wealth into purchasing the Brissago Islands. By the thousands of boatloads the couple brought soil, manure and exotic plants from around the globe to the islands. Antoinette could now devote herself to her third passion: gardening. Besides the company of handsome men, her other love was to play the piano, for which she hired Franz Liszt as her teacher.

One hundred and thirty years later, this island paradise proves that the titled Lady had a keen eye for beauty and composition. The landscape is covered in majestic, towering trees growing from luscious green lawns. Luxuriant shrubs and exotic flowers in all hues and sizes entice you to stop and breathe in their perfume. At every bend along the manicured path there is a new discovery: romantic stone settees overlooking the lake; a Roman bath shimmering in turquoise tiles; a mystical beach with steaming vapours. I’m captivated by this enchanting atmosphere as I leisurely walk through the Mediterranean, Asian, African, Americas and Oceania gardens; – all of it in the midst of Lago Maggiore.

Brissago Islands

As I turn toward the Manor house, thunder rumbles overhead and heavy drops begin to fall. I flee onto the stone tiled terrazza  where I sip my espresso, protected from the rain by a large canvas umbrella. Here, too, vines laden with ripe orange fruit climb up the porch wall and a humming bird hovers in front of purple hollyhocks. It is pleasant out, mild, and the birds keep chirping away in the warm rain. The region around Lago Maggiore has a unique climate in Switzerland. The Alps to the north form a protective barrier against the cold and the lake water stores summer warmth year-round.

As the wealthy Lady of her own kingdom, the baronesse attracted musicians, artists and writers whom she supported generously. An enchanted life? Not according to the official Brissago Island leaflet: “In 1897, the baron abandoned the Islands and his wife moved to Naples. After the First World War, the Baronesse was deeply in debt and in 1927 forced to sell the property. She moved first to Ascona, then to neighboring Intragna, where public assistance supported her until her death on January 24th, 1948”.

Antoinette had sold the islands to a wealthy German merchant who built a palazzo on the site of the ancient monastery. No expense was spared. Today, the old-world charm is enjoyed by hotel guests or tourists who visit for the day, taking steamboats from every direction around Lake Maggiore. Inside, the stately Palazzo impresses with pure white Carrara marble of the Sala degli Specchi to the Florentine inlaid wood flooring of the Sala Rossa. Red silk tapestry covers the walls and whispers opulence and intrigue. Elegant tall windows from marble staircases open to glorious lake-to-shore views from every room. How many costume ball romances and frivolities of free-wheeling garden parties have these walls witnessed?  I’m thinking of the Russian Princess as I trace her steps one last time down the path and to the pier where the planks of my white boat carry me back into my present day and time.

Front photo of Antoinette Fleming-St. Léger: Archivio Iconografico del Verbano Cusio Ossola.

Have you visited the Brissago Islands? Share your experience and leave a comment below!

About Silvia and Swiss Wanderlust


Switzerland travel enthusiast. Cat lover, bicyclist and classical music fan. I prefer walking over running and enjoy a good Swiss card game of Jass with friends.  More about Silvia and Swiss Wanderlust »

Follow Us on Facebook

Additional Information

A Russian Princess

Portrait of the Contessa, by Daniele Ranzoni, ca. 1886, painted in the red room of the Palazzo on Brissago Island. In a current exhibit until mid October 2017, the original painting has returned to the place where it was painted over 130 years ago.

Brissago Islands

The Brissago Islands can easily be reached by boat from all along the northern shore of Lago Maggiore.

30 minutes from Locarno

15 minutes from Ascona

4 minutes from Porto Ronco

10 minutes from Brissago

Italian ships travel freely on Lago Maggiore

Italian ships travel freely on Lago Maggiore

Link to the navigation timetable:

The Italian boat company services the Italian and Swiss sections of Lago Maggiore, while the Swiss boats rule the entire Lago di Lugano, further south in the Ticino.


Sign up to Swiss Wanderlust via email and get the new articles for free. Your email address will never be shared.

Related Posts

Follow me on Facebook

Leave a Comment Below

Your email address will never be shared. Your comments make my day. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More from Swiss Wanderlust