Notes on...

The world is about to discover the wonders of Lake Iseo

…but you can get there first

16 January 2016

9:00 AM

16 January 2016

9:00 AM

If you’ve never heard of Lake Iseo, you’re not alone. Nestling shyly between chocolate-box Como and glamorous Garda, the smallest of Lombardy’s four major lakes has quietly resisted the limelight over the centuries. Fashionistas may frolic on photo shoots in Garda’s ritzy spas, while excursion boats patrol Como’s west bank in the hope of spotting George Clooney in his front garden. But pint-sized Iseo shelters beneath cascades of forest, her charms undisturbed by tourist hordes. Iseo’s waters shimmer benignly amid nothing more disruptive than birdsong, the splashing of traghetti boats and the occasional peal of church bells.

Inevitably, a few cognoscenti have rumbled Lake Iseo’s unique brand of magic over the years. ‘Dear child,’ wrote Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to her daughter in 1747, ‘I am now in a place the most beautifully romantic I ever saw in my life.’ (She duly bought a half-ruined palazzo in the waterfront town of Lovere, acquired a dairy and then set about introducing locals to what she called ‘the science of butter-making’.) Another fan was the novelist George Sand, who described the lake and its ambience in 1857 as ‘gentle and fresh, like one of Virgil’s Eclogues’. But other converts, especially in recent years, seem (happily) to have opted to keep their discovery to themselves.

Lovere is one of just three small towns on the shores of the lake, the others being Iseo itself, with its cheery array of pizzerias and gelaterias, and exquisite Sarnico — full of cobbled streets, stone gateways and iron balconies. Elsewhere around the lake, -dinkier settlements are linked like a daisy chain by an attractive coastal road — with even the tiniest of villages boasting an elaborate church, a flagged square and medieval alleyways. At sleepy Sale Marasino and neighbouring Sulzano, elegant mansions parade their finery in the evening lamplight like fashionable old ladies on a volta.

In the middle of Lake Iseo is the -gorgeous wooded island of Monte Isola. Fairytale pretty, it has a picture-perfect chapel at its apex (reachable by mule track through chestnut groves), and two lost-in-time waterfront fishing villages. Wander the back streets of Peschiera, and you’ll find a vaulted inner world, linked by crumbling porticos where women still sit patiently repairing fishing nets. It’s like stepping into an oil painting.

Ready for that romantic getaway? Lake Iseo is part of Brescia province, and the two closest airports — Brescia and Bergamo — are both less than an hour away from the lake. But you may need to move fast if you want to visit while it’s still relatively crowd-free. Bizarrely, yet rather wonderfully, Lake Iseo has caught the eye of the 80-year-old installation artist Christo (remember Berlin’s Reichstag, trussed up in what looked like tin foil in 1995?). His forthcoming ‘Floating Piers’ project (18 June–3 July) will suspend a two-mile walkway covered in gold cloth from Sulzano across to Monte Isola. Yes, it will almost certainly attract new visitors. But it should also be a magnificent spectacle. And after all, what lovelier place to walk on water?

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  • King Kibbutz

    Thanks, but maybe not just now. Spent quite enough time this winter looking at expanses of water.

  • Tamerlane

    It gets no light.

  • Paratico

    You would have thought that the Spectator could get a photo of Monte Isola rather than incorrectly captioning the photo they have used!

  • Riccardo Sbrilli

    Loreto Island in front of Monte Isola!

  • Caterina Calzaferri

    May I suggest a visit round the corner to the Franciacorta vineyards where one can taste the world famous Italian spumante and decides if it is true that it is better than champagne.

  • dramocles

    Hmm…. you had better hurry. After years of visiting this charming place, last year it had a distinctly different atmosphere. What was different was that there were small groups of seemingly unemployed immigrants on street corners in Iseo itself. It felt a little intimidating.

    But before I get flamed by the righteous I’m simply reporting change here. I rather suspect we’ll be seeing somewhat more of this effect over the coming years.

  • Migru Ghee

    Been there done that one already. May I enquire how the Lago di Como could possibly be chocolate-box? It features several campsites with direct access to the water which ought to disqualify such assertions outright.

  • Clive Marshall

    I live in Lovere on Lago d’Iseo and as an Englishman I can not believe how few Brits visit the area. I rather like it if truth be known. For those who are visiting from the UK I would highly recommend the obligatory boat ride, Monte Isola, Franciacorte and cycling. The area is incredible for road bikes in particular. From rolling flats to Giro climbs.

    Those that want to really discover unspoilt Italy should head to Lago Moro. 15kms from Lovere. This place is incredibly beautiful and only the locals go there. Happy to answer anyones questions if they have them about the area. Ciao!

    • Linda Cookson

      Ciao, Clive! Will definitely look up Maro on next visit! Best, Linda


    For discover the area of Lake Iseo and the Franciacorta (the land of the best sparkling wine of Italy and one of the best sparkling wine of the world) follow my blog and my instagram profile GenuineFranciacorta!! 😉