Just like you wouldn’t expect the team of a landlocked country to win a major international sailing competition, you probably wouldn’t expect to find an island paradise in Switzerland either. And yet… Switzerland won the America’s Cup in 2007, and is also home to the Brissago Islands with a lush subtropical garden.
The Brissago Islands, or Isole di Brissago, are two islands in Lago Maggiore in the southern Swiss canton of Ticino. Lago Maggiore stretches from Switzerland all the way to Italy, but the islands are located in Swiss waters and are easily accessible by boat from Ascona.
The boat takes you straight to Grande Isola, also known as San Pancrazio, which is the larger of the two as the name suggests and home to a grand mansion and the superb botanical gardens with over 1700 plant species. The smaller island, called Isola di Sant’Apollinare, Isolino or Isola Piccola, is left in a natural state with indigenous vegetation.
The Brissago Islands have been through a series of ownership changes over the last 130 years. In the late 19th century, the islands were owned by the St. Leger family, who purchased them complete with the remains of an old convent. They restored the convent and developed what is now the big botanical garden that stretches all over the Grande Isola by creating pathways and bringing in subtropical plant species.
Max Emden, a businessman from Hamburg, bought the islands in the late 1920s, establishing a grand mansion building and roman bath on Grande Isola but mostly leaving the botanical gardens untouched in their layout and vegetation.
Emden’s heirs later sold the islands to the government of the Canton of Ticino and the leagues for national heritage and nature conservation in 1949, under the condition that the islands be used for the purpose of conservation, to give the public access to the botanical gardens for tourism and cultural activities.
The variety of plants to be found in the 2.5 hectare botanical garden of Grande Isola include palm and eucalyptus trees, bamboo, lotus blossoms, ferns, cypresses, banana plants and even sequoias. The mild climate of the islands is due to the alps protecting the area from the cold air, which in turn also enables the waters of the lake to store warmth better, and thus allows plant species normally found in subtropical areas such as Asia, Australia, South Africa, America and Oceania to flourish on a small island in a lake at the southern end of Switzerland.
The Brissago Islands are a beautiful little surprise to the first time visitor of Switzerland and show how a country that is thought of as the mecca for chocolates, mountains and winter sport offers a lot more than its stereotype suggests, and spoils its visitors with a taste of subtropical vegetation in the middle of a large lake!