Isola Maggiore: The Secret Irish Island in the Heart of Italy
“Each piece takes three and a half days to make”, says the local tour guide. The crowd inches closer to the elderly lady who sits shaded, in a doorway, stitching a small beige square of lace. As she rotates the delicate needlework, an intricate pattern of tiny leaves and shamrocks is slowly revealed. Now almost blind, the woman says she has been making lace in the same way since she was seven years old. She opens a battered tin and flicks through several finished pieces, all pristine examples of traditional Irish lace.
It’s a scene straight from the last century that could easily have taken place in Clonakilty or Killarney or even Connemara. But it’s happening 2000 km from Ireland on Isola Maggiore, a remote island of just sixteen residents located on Lake Trasimeno in Umbria.
Today Irish lace-making is one of Isola Maggiore’s proudest traditions and the women who sit sewing on the main street are almost regarded as local celebrities.
How Irish Lace Made Its Way to a Tiny Italian Island
In the early 1900s, Isola Maggiore’s population was booming – around 200 people were calling the island home. One of them was a Marquis by the name of Giacinto Guglielmi of Civitavecchia. He had just built his lavish “Villa Guglielmi” summer residence on the southern coast and was on the look out for ways to improve the local economy. Noticing that the local women were a dab hand at mending their husbands’ fishing nets, his daughter Elena had a light-bulb moment. She called in the expertise of a Turin-based Irish woman to channel their skills into the far more refined craft of traditional Irish lacework.
Little is known about the identity of the Irish lacework teacher or how she came to be in Turin, but what we do know is that she taught the islanders well. Within a short amount of time, the local women of Isola Maggiore were supplying Elena’s wealthy Perugian and Florentine friends with delicate Irish- style lace garments and accessories. By 1904, an embroidery school was opened for the young daughters of the fishermen. And so began the legacy that lives on to this day along the doorsteps of Via Guglielmi (Isola Maggiore’s main street).
The Lace Museum
The Museo del Merlotto (Museum of Lace) is located on Via Guglielmi and showcases some of the most beautiful and impressive examples of crochet and lacework made by women on the island including tablecloths, handkerchiefs, collars, gloves and wedding dresses. It also tells the story of the embroidery school, how the craft flourished on Isola Maggiore and the key role played by lace in improving the island’s economy. It’s a pleasant way to spend half an hour or so with the added bonus of being a nice, cool refuge from sizzling afternoon temperatures in the summer months.
Museo del Merlotto, 9am – 5pm, Via Guglielmi, entry costs €1 per person
Getting to Isola Maggiore
Isola Maggiore is the largest of the three islands on Lake Trasimeno and is connected to the mainland by a ferry service that runs to the towns of Tuoro sul Trasimeno, Passignano and Castiglione de Lago. There are currently just 16 permanent residents, amongst them are 3 Belgians and one 31- year old writer, the island’s youngest inhabitant. In the summer months, the island’s population swells, with day-trippers hopping on the ferry for an afternoon of R and R. Visitors are asked to respect the quiet, peaceful environment – no cars are allowed at any time. Perugia is the closest airport.
The Green Heart of Italy: Three Umbrian Towns Not to be Missed
Umbria is known as Italy’s “green heart”, it’s the only region of Italy that is completely landlocked, bordering neither coastline nor other European countries. With its meandering olive groves, rolling hills and medieval towns, there’s an old world charm about Umbria, reminiscent of neighbouring Tuscany. The fact that the region is still very much untouched by mass tourism makes it all the more attractive. Planning a trip to Umbria? Don’t miss these three cities:
What’s not to love about a city that practically carved itself into a slab of volcanic rock? Located halfway between Florence and Rome, Orvieto is a photographer’s dream with its cobbled laneways, medieval piazzas and magnificent gothic cathedral.
Popular with pilgrims for centuries (St Francis was born here in 1181), Assisi’s main attraction is its 13th century Basilica di San Francesco, home of sacred relics associated with Francis as well as frescoes about his life. In recent years, the city has become a bit more touristy (neon rosary beads anyone?) but wander its streets in the late afternoon or early evening and you’ll find the town bathed in the most beautiful light. A sense of peace prevails and it’s easy to imagine the quiet tranquillity experienced by St Francis.
A foodie’s paradise, Norcia is famous for its delicious pork creations including sausage, prosciutto and salami as well as its locally grown lentils and black truffles. Visit during February and feast your way through giant wheels of cheese, mountains of sausages and lashings of Umbrian red wine at the city’s truffle festival.
Been to Umbria lately? We’d love to hear about your favourite towns and villages – leave a comment below and share your tips!