Lake Iseo: The perfect path along a sublime shore

The less-visited side of Italy's lake district is the ideal place for a not-too-strenuous walking holiday, says Linda Cookson

From my balcony high in the hills, I watched the sun set over Lake Iseo. The water was blazing, the colour of copper. A final stream of molten gold pulsed over the waves like a searchlight, catching a tiny sailing boat in its main beam. The birdsong in the chestnut forest all around me had subsided. You could hear yourself breathe.

How on earth, I wondered, had I never heard of Lake Iseo before this visit? In truth, I hadn't even known how to pronounce it ("Izz-ayo" – to rhyme with mayo). The smallest of Lombardy's four major lakes, it is often bypassed by foreign visitors in favour of its more glamorous big sisters: Garda, Como and Maggiore. What a gem I'd been missing. The Italians, of course, have been quietly holidaying here for years.

Shaped like a scythe, Lake Iseo (also known by its Latin name Sabino) cuts a deep blue swathe at the foot of the southern Alps. It's about 25km long, ringed by dense green forest, and – happily - has escaped much of the over-development that has started to urbanise the waterfront of the better-known lakes. It has only three main towns: Iseo, Sarnico and Lovere. A handful of other smaller settlements are dotted around its shore, linked by a pretty coastal road. And, rising dramatically from the water near the lake's centre, is Iseo's crowning glory – the beautiful wooded island of Monte Isola, which peaks some 600m above sea level.

Ferries zigzag around and across the lake, with an even more frequent small boat service (the traghetto) linking the mainland with Monte Isola. Together, these services offer an ideal introduction for a first-time visitor. churches, palazzi, villas and piazze all present their best faces to the water. As you approach a town by boat, all of its colours and treasures are spread out before you.

At the larger towns of Iseo and Sarnico, the watersides are bustling with pizzerias and ice-cream parlours, but swans still drift idly amid the marine traffic. At more rustic Clusane, fishing boats bob next to piles of nets.

Even the smallest of settlements has its share of extravagant buildings. At sleepy Sale Marasino, the Palazzo Martinengo is one of the finest Renaissance mansions on the lake. At Sulzano, elegant 19th- and early 20th-century villas parade their finery proudly on the waterside at each end of the old town.

But there's no need to confine yourself to the water. Lake Iseo is a fantastic place for walkers. Taking full advantage of an itinerary that included stays in three glamorous hotels, I donned my walking boots and set off on what was, for me, a rare adventure. Purists might frown, but the independent walking package offered by Inntravel is perfect for lazy hikers. A taxi delivers your luggage to the next port of call, while you set off unencumbered – armed only with a set of walking instructions and a picnic lunch.

Sale Marasino was my starting point, an attractive village backed by an old quarter with narrow alleyways, old-fashioned lamp posts and quaint houses. The charming Hotel Villa Kinzica, the first of my three lake-view hotels, is by the water-front.

Above the village is the Strada Valeriana, a footpath that follows the route of an ancient road and winds above the shore among meadows, vineyards and olive groves. With the sun at my back and butterflies around me, I ambled along the stretch of the route that led south to Sulzano, passing over lake views so stunning that I felt as if I'd wandered into a painting. Even a spring shower failed to spoil the magic.

From Sulzano, it's the shortest of traghetto hops to Monte Isola – only 800m away from this point on the shoreline. Car-free Monte Isola is apparently the biggest island within any European lake, and is designated in its entirety as one of the most beautiful "villages" in Italy. You arrive in Peschiera Maraglio, a tiny fishing settlement with an array of ice-cream coloured houses on the waterfront, and a wonderful jumble of lanes called tresandei. The jetty is festooned with flowers and Italian flags, and miniature cypress trees grow from pots set below the waterline along the promenade.

Visiting Peschiera feels like being ferried into a different era. You realise the lake is a place of work, that people's homes and lives are linked organically with the water. There are almost no street names, just house numbers. Dwellings are connected to each other by arches, vaults and stairs – and to the lake itself by courtyards where boats are still built and nets repaired. Out on the promenade, fish are salted and hung out to dry. Back from the waterfront, fishing tackle rests for the day in quiet old arcades, and crumbling porticoes are strung with freshly washed linen.

Monte Isola is a paradise for walkers. A gentle option from Peschiera is to head north along the coastal road or (perhaps more prudently, to avoid the ubiquitous scooters and cycles) to take the mountain track above the shoreline. This leads to Carzono, another pretty waterfront settlement. But whatever you do, try not to miss the spectacular climb (by mule track) from the village of Cure to the Madonna della Ceriola chapel, which lies in woodland at the island's highest point.

Lake Iseo is proud of its cuisine. Unsurprisingly, fresh fish features prominently, with tinca al forno (oven-baked tench, stuffed with bread and herbs and served with polenta) as the local speciality. At the second of the hotels I visited – the fabulous I Due Roccoli, set in the hills above Iseo town – I dined like royalty, justifying the seemingly endless succession of lavish courses with the knowledge that an intrepid walker such as myself must surely need extra fuel.

In truth, the two-hour downhill walk from the hotel to Iseo was a breeze until the end – a gentle stroll through sylvan forests of hazel and horse chestnut, with conker-casings strewn across the pathways like caterpillars and feather-beds of catkins cushioning my footsteps. It wasn't until I hit the final steep descent over uneven cobbles that I was in any danger of burning calories. By this time the periwinkle and wild strawberries had given way to comfrey – always good for sprains, I reminded myself. And down I tottered.

My reward, before heading off to relax in the swimming pool of hotel number three – the Relais Mirabella, which offers panoramic views from above Clusane – was a cold beer in Iseo's main square. Amid a friendly cacophony of clatter as the weekly market packed up for the day, I leafed through an old guide book that I'd picked up from one of the stalls, and came across a stirring quotation from Edith Wharton: "I saw the blue lake far below, hidden in the hills like a happy secret in a stern heart." Wharton visited Lake Iseo over a century ago. How wonderful, I reflected, that it has remained a happy secret.

Travel essentials: Lombardy

Getting there

* The nearest airport is Bergamo (Orio al Serio) airport, known as "Milan" by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) which flies there from East Midlands, Prestwick, Liverpool and Stansted airports. Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) flies from Leeds/Bradford.



Getting around

* The writer travelled with Inntravel (01653 617000; inntravel.co.uk), which offers "Secret Lake Iseo – Italy's Little Known Lake" independent walking holidays from £788 per person. The price is based on two sharing, including six nights' dinner, bed and breakfast at three four-star hotels, two picnics, walking maps/route notes and luggage transfers. Flights and transfers, which can be booked by Inntravel, are not included. (Return taxi transfers from Bergamo cost £80 per person.)



More information

* lagoiseo.it

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Sales Assistant

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This airport parking organisation are looking...

    Recruitment Genius: PCV Bus Drivers

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Do you enjoy bus driving and are looking for ...

    Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - York

    £18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - Y...

    Day In a Page

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project