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.