On the shores of Lake Iseo: exploring Italy's lesser-known lake district

The smallest of Italy’s great lakes, this scythe-shaped squiggle of water is home to fishing villages tucked into deep bays, backed by an amphitheatre of snow-capped Alpine foothills and terraced hills that produce Italy’s most-prized sparkling wine.

By Sarah Barrell
photographs by Francesco Lastrucci
Published 27 Nov 2020, 13:49 GMT, Updated 11 Dec 2020, 17:29 GMT
The smallest of Lombardy’s four major lakes, Iseo has somehow resisted the limelight focused on such ...

The smallest of Lombardy’s four major lakes, Iseo has somehow resisted the limelight focused on such neighbouring bodies of water as Como, just to the north, and Garda to the east.

Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci

Sandro Novali isn’t fishing today. “He’s spent a lot of his life on the lake,” Sandro’s son, Nicola shrugs. “Not so much these days. But there are still a few regular fishermen out there.” We huddle just inside the entrance of La Foresta, the Novali family restaurant with rooms that put the little island of Montisola on the map when it opened back in 1974. Then, Lake Iseo was barely a blip on the radar for visitors to northern Italy’s watery heartland; a simple string of fishing hamlets floating in Iseo’s central waters, backed by mountains densely wooded with beech, hazelnut and downy oak. 

Even for the hardy few out and about on Montisola’s shores today, it’s not a morning for catching much more than a chill. Exhaled breaths hang in ice-thickened air; the mainland’s snow-capped Alpine foothills puncture holes in the fog-frozen horizon. Everything is still, silent, apart from a few men shuffling about on the shoreline, mouthing swearwords into recalcitrant moorings, huffing warming breaths into their hands. The boats are mostly traditional wooden skiffs from which fishermen lower hand-hewn cast nets. The centuries old expertise behind Iseo’s net-weaving industry is now being put to use for racket sports and hammocks as much as for fishing.

A mesh of old nets, hooks and buoys form a kitsch canopy above our heads in La Foresta’s reception area. Outside, similar kit fulfils its proper function: lines and pots are stacked quayside, silvery sardinas and misultitt (shad) hang like pungent wind chimes from wooden drying racks, just as they have done for centuries. Such prized lake fish jewel La Foresta’s menu — lightly poached, oh-so-delicately smoked, artfully arranged like sashimi. Nicola brings me a flotilla of little appetizer plates. I marvel at velvet slithers of cured coregone, an almost boneless, feather-light whitefish, and a pistachio-dusted salmerino, a silky cousin of Arctic char, which thrives in Iseo’s chilly waters.

Osteria Quattro Rose, a winery and kitchen located in the historical centre of Rovato, Brescia. 

Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci

Lombardy’s secret 

The smallest of Lombardy’s four major lakes, Iseo has somehow resisted the limelight focused on such neighbouring bodies of water as Como, just to the north, and Garda to the east. If known at all outside Italy, it’s perhaps for Bulgarian artist Christo’s 2016 installation Floating Piers, which crisscrossed the lake with two miles of gleaming burnt orange walkways, from Sulzano on the mainland out to Montisola and its teeny neighbour, San Paolo.

“I think we hosted more people in the two weeks it lasted than we did in the entire year,” laughs Nicola, showing me a book by his photographer friend, Luca Guarnerio, featuring the piers lined with bodies, sunbathing, walking, dangling feet in Iseo’s contrastingly aquamarine expanse. I wonder aloud how on earth permission was granted for such a fantastical feat. 

“Christo tried Japan and Argentina first, but didn’t get very far,” explains Nicola. “The Beretta family own San Paolo, so he got permits that way.” Italy’s gun-making magnates also happen to be influential arts patrons. It’s hard to imagine such a sizeable installation happening on Italy’s other traffic-heavy lakes. There’s benefit to being a backwater: devoid of Garda’s glittering spas or Como’s Clooney-level celebrity status, Iseo quietly goes about its own business. A post-lunch hike takes me into Montisola’s sharply rising interior, where beech mast and yellow oak leaves still carpet trails and off-road routes that ultimately lead to a frost-dusted summit crowned with the Ceriola Sanctuary. This simple church marks the spot where, in the fifth century, Isis-worshiping islanders were introduced to Christianity by Bresican bishop Saint Vigilio. Pagan or otherwise, I encounter not one other soul. Squinting into the mists over the magnificently still lake, I struggle to imagine it unquiet with Christo’s playground installation.

A street scene in Lovere, a town situated on the northern tip of Lake Iseo.

Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci

Wild waters

I find more piers tucked behind Iseo’s southernmost tip. At Torbiere del Sebino Nature Reserve, I follow two miles of wooden walkways and bridges that appear to float above a startlingly beautiful expanse of wetland, where lake waters drain into a patchwork of peat bogs, marshes and lagoons. Mirror-still waters reflect Iseo’s ever-present snow-capped peaks; curtains of tall rushes rustle with the promise of purple herons and great bitterns. Set along frosty banks, bird hides appear at intervals where it’s tempting to shelter from the sideways sleet beginning to glaze walkways and water. 

Instead, I keep moving, eventually succumbing to the wood fire-heated welcome of Trattoria Fontanì at the park’s entrance, where €10 (£8.44) buys me two courses — a saffron courgette risotto, poached lake trout — and a bullet-strong espresso. Affordable rusticity isn’t a mainstay of Lombardy’s glittering lakeshores. Intermittently punctuated by lidos and Michelin-starred places to dine, for the most part Iseo’s handful of waterfront towns are comparatively modest. Gathered neatly into small bays, their simplicity is dwarfed by mountains that rise off the lake with all the drama of the high Alps; lower terraces strung with clouds caught between their craggy folds. 

Long and narrow, Iseo is a lake defined by walls of rock as much as water. I follow the shoreline north to the tiny town of Pisogne where mountains eat right into the water, swallowing the road into a seemingly endless tunnel. Finally, at its end, the fortified town of Castro appears as if carved into the rock itself, the onward lakeside route vanishing into a string of overhanging grotto that run so close to the water you could be driving through sea caves. Here, at Iseo’s undeveloped northernmost tip, I have to remind myself I’m not exiled in the Alps. This is the realm of rocks where, in the midst of winter at least, human existence — buildings, pleasure boats, palm-planted boardwalks — seems a distant memory, obliterated by jagged, snowcapped summits that blaze blood red in the setting sun.

Vittorio Moretti, founder and owner of Bellavista winery and vineyards.

Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci

Wine hour

For all its wild, unpretentious qualities, Iseo has some truly refined quarters. Terraced into the hills of its southeastern shores, the vineyards of Franciacorta represent one of the world’s most exclusive terroirs. This DOGC region’s unique geology is the winning ticket for high-grade viticulture, producing Italy’s most prized sparkling wine. “When the cellars become cold, we know it’ll snow on the peaks the following day,” says Francesca Mongodi, at Bellavista winery. “But the lake’s microclimate mitigates the chill. And our protective amphitheatre of hills — ancient glacial moraine from the mountains — shield us from the mist and heat of the southern plains, and they’ve gifted us with such mineral-rich soil.” 

It’s no wonder, then, that the area surrounding Lake Iseo is a haven of top-quality wine. The famous Franciacorta region is home to more than 110 wineries. Ca’ del Bosco, Berlucchi and Ferghettina — to name but a few — are all within a 10-minute drive of each other and offer visitors the chance to stroll around vineyards that give the French a run for their money. 

Nearby Bellavista is a small, family-run wine business that was founded as a passion project of Vittorio Moretti in the 1970s and is now managed by his daughter, Francesca Moretti. A tour of the cathedral-like cellars reveals vast vaulted ceilings under which wine matures in battalions of oak barrels, followed by a secondary fermentation in the bottle, “all of which are still turned by hand,” smiles Francesca — alluding to the traditional Champagne method now rarely used by the big French houses. But don’t mention that ‘C’ word; Bellavista prefers to be known as the “cashmere” of sparkling wine, celebrating the diversity of its vintages rather than a standard house style. 

“Franciacorta’s wineries all produce very different-tasting wines. It’s incredible for a small area to have such nuances,” says Francesca. In the tasting room, sipping at Bellavista’s Cuvée Satèn, and the Pinot Nero-Chardonnay blend, Pas Operé, I note everything from biscuit and nutty caramel to ripe stone fruits and citrus jam, all finished with the finest of natural bubbles. Like most Franciacorta wineries, of Bellavista’s annual 1.6 million-bottle output, just 20% is exported. I relish it while I can — even ordering some to accompany a pizza back at my hotel later that night. Not a standard pairing I grant you, but when in Franciacorta. 

Those in the know come to hotel L’Albereta for its detox programme — a legendary Chenot Method menu that fuels devoted denizens of its extensive spa. 

I retire full of sunny Franciacorta fizz, to wake the following morning feeling a bit fuzzy. Drawing back the curtains, I have to blink twice. Francesca was right: those cold cellars signalled snow — and lots of it. The vine-clad hillsides sloping away from L’Albereta are thickly carpeted with fluffy white drifts; vines are laden, fat flakes still falling. For now, views of Iseo’s blues have vanished into the white. 

L’Albereta, Relais & Chateaux, a boutique hotel located in the countryside of Erbusco.

Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci

Five more to try: explore Lombardy's lakes

1. Como
Synonymous with priceless palazzi, celebrity-stuffed restaurants and Bond-worthy vistas, Italy’s most famous lake has plenty of natural riches. Como’s mountain-backed shores are lined with ancient paths through woodland and villages. Still in use today by locals to reach the alpine pastures, these trails have been transformed into waymarked routes rewarding walkers with the sort of breathtaking views that are the envy of even the most moneyed villa owner.
Don't miss: Follow the Sentiero del Viandante, the ‘wayfarer’s path’ that dates back Roman times when it was the only land route connecting Como’s eastern villages. 

2. Garda
This Italian stallion of a lake — the country’s largest — has been seducing visitors to Italy for centuries, with natural thermal springs feeding the venerable spas of Sirmione and Bardolino, wind-ruffled northern waters that are a boon for sports lovers, and vineyard-class southern shores. 
Don't miss: Make like an Italian and rent a farmhouse in the south shore’s Valtenesi region, where steep mountains and green rolling hills are yours to explore. 

3. Maggiore
Straddling the border with Switzerland, Italy’s second-largest lake is also one of its most peaceful. Its shores are lined with oleanders, palms and aromatic verbena, and mountainous backcountry where woodland is rich with wildlife. Hilltop forts and ducal villas made Maggiore a must for wealthy youngsters on their grand tour in the 18th century — their legacy resulted in the creation of several waterfront hamlets. Less than an hour south is the picture-perfect Lake Varese, right at the foot of Mount Campo Dei Fiori. 
Don't miss: Maggiore is home to some of Italy’s most celebrated landscaped and botanical gardens. Intragnola, with a mile of shoreline, is one of the region’s largest privately owned gardens, ablaze in spring with thousands of blooming azaleas and magnolia. 

4. Endine
Iseo’s tiny twin is an emerald-green jewel. Endine is small enough to freeze over, and though ice skating is forbidden, some still attempt it during prolonged cold spells. Come spring, birdlife abounds in and around Endine’s reeds and sandy beaches, where you’ll find little more than a handful of houses, and huts renting windsurfs, canoes and pedal boats.
Don't miss: No motorcraft are allowed, making Endine, and tiny adjacent Gaiano just northeast, a real retreat. Rent kayaks for half-day excursions to fully immerse yourself in nature. 

5. Ceresio
Italy’s border-hopping lake, also known as Lake Lugano, offers incredible Alpine hikes. Travel in early spring to see Alpine meadows filled with wildflowers, while the peaks above remain sparkling with snow. Choose a route from Valsolda, the little string of lakeside and mountainside villages along Ceresio’s north-western shore.
Don't miss: Walk among Dolomite cliffs in the 785-acre Valsolda Nature Reserve, one of Lombardy’s largest with 220 acres of trails dedicated to walkers. 


How to do it
Double rooms at albereta.it, Erbusco cost from €260 (£220) per night. 

Published in the Lombardy 2020 guide, distributed with the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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