Today, Fiona Harper visits a mysterious island that inspired one of the settings in her latest book – a place that had captivated and intrigued her for twenty years before she finally got to visit.
I visited Lake Garda, in the north of Italy, on my honeymoon. One day, my husband and I took a boat trip from one end of the island to the other and we sailed past a tiny island with a stunning palazzo on one end. The rest of the island seemed to be beautiful gardens, and speedboats were parked in little jetties built into the island’s perimeter. I was totally stuck by the island and bought a postcard of it when I found one in a shop later in the trip. I stuck it in my diary and declared it the most beautiful place I’d ever seen, and I was burning with curiosity to find out who lived there and what it was really like beyond the tantalising glimpse I’d had as the ferry had passed by.
This was before the age of the internet and I discovered I could find out very little about the island. Time passed and the curiosity no longer nagged at me, but I never quite forgot the image that had stuck in my head. So, last year, when I was asked to write part of the Brides of Bella Rosa series, and I discovered they wanted my hero to live in a palazzo on the edge of a lake, there was only one image that sprung up in my mind. But this time I had the benefit of internet search engines and Google Earth to help my search.
I discovered that the island was called Isola del Garda, and found a few photographs of the island and palazzo. Even better, I discovered that the family that lived there did guided tours. My husband and I were planning a trip to Italy to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I had to visit the island. The only pity was that my deadline for The Bridesmaid’s Secret turned out to be two weeks before the trip, so the palazzo in the book was largely my invention, but I still couldn’t wait to see the real thing.
There is a long story about my first attempt to visit the island, involving missed boats, locals who don’t know the street names in their own towns, tears of disappointment, a very understanding family of a distraught author, and an 80 euro cab ride on the last day of the holiday to make sure we caught the boat on the second attempt. (Worth every penny.)
Isola del Garda truly was a magical place. It was first inhabited by monks and was even home to St Francis of Assisi for a time. From the 1700s to the late 19th century the island had a number of owners, including Count Lechi, who started constuction on a villa, but it wasn’t until ownership passed to Duke Gaetano de Ferrari of Genoa and his wife, the Russian Archduchess, Maria Annenkoff that work began on the palazzo and gardens we see today. In 1927, on the death of the Prince, the Island passed down to her daughter Livia, married to Count Alessandro Cavazza of Bologna who kept it in an excellent state to leave it to his son Camillo who in turn left it to his wife Charlotte and their seven children. Today they continue to passionately look after the park and the palace where they live.
I was amazed to find out that the Cavazza family have no financial help from the Italian government or any charities, and all the restoration work going on in the house and gardens is funded entirely by them. Although the family have had offers to sell it (and wouldn’t it make a fabulous hotel), they persevere in making it a family concern. They feel their home is a unique and beautiful place and want to preserve its heritage.
If you ever get the chance to visit, please do! Not only is the island stunningly beautiful, but it’s quite quirky. While it looks as if there is one giant palazzo, it’s actually two buildings – one down low near the shore, and another higher up the rocky hill – joined by corridors. The ornate Venetian gothic top part doesn’t actually sit on top of the lower section at all! There is also a beautiful English rose garden and greenhouse on the lower terrace, a formal Italian garden, hosts of unusual exotic plants, and some amazing views. I hope the family manage to keep restoring the island to its former glory. It truly is an amazing place, every inch the fairytale setting I’d always imagined it would be.
Fiona's new book The Bridesmaid's Secret is available now online in the UK and North America and will be in the shops in July!
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