The New Lake Como? The Holiday Spot the Italians Don't Want You to Know About
Wild swimming, island hopping and stumbling upon trattorias in the romantic (and underrated) north Italian paradise of Lake Iseo
21 October, 2019
The early evening lights of Monte Isola's residents twinkled on. The golden hour, violet and scarlet, let rip with a clap of thunder and pitter-patter of rain as I dried off in my room, a crisp boudoir of cream, white and pink. My friend lay fluffy robed in wait, and we dressed for dinner just up the hill.
The views from outside Trattoria Cacciatore (recommended to us by a cashier as we bought cigarettes in the village) were brilliant: the curves and peaks of lush mountainside were stalked by mist; was that a castle there at the top? We could just about make out the 17th-century Sanctuary of Madonna della Ceriola. My inner convent schoolgirl remembered that today, 8 September, was Mary Magdalene's birthday. Her blue-and-white bows of ribbon adorned various fences passed the following day.
Inside the trattoria we found checked tablecloths and wipe-clean menus, a delightfully unpretentious discovery which we concluded offered the best dinner in Italy. Owners Lori and Leo, armed with cheap carafes of excellent wine, a platter of fried minnows, ravioli in sage butter and an abundant salad bar, welcomed us with a casual demeanour that felt comfortingly unfussy. Then came impromptu keyboard singalongs which got the remaining late-night guests up dancing in the middle of the restaurant and dogs running in from the rain to join in, tails wagging. We attempted a foxtrot to Pink Floyd.
The next morning, we hopped on a five-minute ferry crossing to Monte Isola (foregoing the alternative 800m swim) and applying factor 50 in the 32°C September heat. Twinkly-eyed boatmen stamped our (€5 return) tickets to Peschiera Maraglio on the island. Over coffee earlier that morning, hotel waitress Giulia had pointed out her grandmother's house; just up the way is a long line of pastel-coloured cafés, restaurants and shops as well as jetties and tiny boats in tiny marinas. We dipped and dove in the lake, asking Madonna to forgive us our sins before we walked towards more pagan pursuits in the direction of the castle, which - despite being skilled witches - we could not locate among the orange groves and other dazzling shrubbery that lead to the mount's tip.
Veering off ancient lanes, we stumbled upon the lunch-only Bar Trattoria, where we were a little too late for lunch and so we shared a massive frutti di bosco gelato. The restaurant was filled with incredible smells and foliage of its own homegrown pumpkins.
The world-famous Floating Piers, in all its glimmering-orange glory, stretched over from Sulzano to Pescheria, then jutted out again to Sao Paolo Island. The mysterious islet is a tiny blob in the water on the Peschiera side of Monte Isola, where an 11th-century monastery stood. It's named after Saint Paul, an unthwarted and by all accounts quite hardy-sounding sailor, and is now privately owned by Italian artillery magnates; ones who throw pleasant garden parties and classical concerts on the island throughout summer.
The sheer age of the area is echoed in the Lake Iseo's gorgeous architecture. Big, terracotta 15th-century villas are sprinkled across mountainside terrain, side by side with bright "bar" signs, low-key cafés and pizzerias. Down backstreets I find amazing ceramist studios, family-run osterias (try Trattoria Al Campel) and the well-signposted trail up to the Madonna.
A mahogany-tanned man in little blue rolled-up vest sat sunning himself for hours on a plastic chair. A dog basked in the heat. It was the sort of laziness you imagine in Italian nature, the sights and smells rounded off by the clean mountain air. Spectacular butterflies landed all over us; the male adonis blues seemed taken with my white platforms.
At 4pm, we headed for a kayaking session on the other side of Monte Isola. Reached in half an hour by car, SportAction is a vast and friendly watersports centre which gives visitors prime access to the best part of the lake (you can choose to book with a guide if needed). We kayaked with locals Anna and Antonio during the late afternoon, as the weather got a bit fresher. Seeing the island from yet another perspective was awesome, and we spent a long time scaling the west coast of the lake.
Later that night, we opted for dinner at the hotel (book ahead; we didn't but they were very accommodating, setting up an extra twinkly, candlelit table on the terrace). The atmospheric conservatory here allows for views of the pink and gold sundown reflecting on the lake. We ordered a generous pasta alla bolognese - perfectly al dente - and beautiful pea and barley risotto. With one final clink of our local Franciacorta Barroni Pizzini wine (its award-winning sparkling variety was first made in the 60s), we bid adieu to spellbinding Sulzano and gazed across the waters.
When leaving Venice, I told people I was going to catch some fresh air up at the lakes. "Lake Garda," they confidently confirmed to me, nodding. "Lake Iseo!" I replied. Most seemed puzzled, and had let their attention wander elsewhere by the time I'd pronounced it better, usually on the third attempt. It didn't seem to excite as much as Garda, Como, Maggiore et al. - and it was this indifference that made me look forward to arriving all the more.
After playing host to one of recent years' most famous art installations that appeared to let people walk on water, Sulzano has peppered modern art mood boards across the internet. Indeed, The Floating Piers (2016) installation by Christo and Jeanne-Claude effect is still thriving - its exquisite magnitude and colour (70,000sq m of golden fabric floating on cubes in the water) was an inspiration for Jacquemus' recent luminous catwalks in the meadow.
I found Iseo by chance when looking at swimming options in northern Italy, and the dramatic images I found had me sold; I had to see what the artists found so enticing about this place, and what the atmosphere was like in the wake of a world-famous exhibition.
On a warm Sunday evening I arrived seven hours later than planned at Sulzano, an epicly crisp-aired lakeside village some 20 minutes farther north on the Edolo-bound line from Iseo town. As you might imagine, the views en route are arresting. During the day, I'd unsurprisingly missed impossible four-minute cross-platform transfers, blocked by slow trudgers ("even the elevators can't save me now", I remember thinking); been kicked off a rapid train; bamboozled myself along with two Germans on the whereabouts of platform "tre ovest" (three west) at Brescia; missed yet another pesky regional connection and sat teary with a warm beer on the dusty ground at the finally found, dastardly-hidden "tre ovest" which makes perfect nonsense on the far side of platform nine, in case you're ever at Brescia.
Further advice: if, like me, you're thrown off a slinky, chic high-speed train at Peschiera del Garda, enjoy the views of famous Lake Garda with a packed lunch. Maybe a cooler of beer. Though you may carry your suitcases in so many wrong directions you gain lean muscle, it's possible to turn a disaster day into a quaint one. My companion's journey from Milan was contrastingly seamless. She told me about the friendliest train conductors ever encountered telling off a teenage boy dodging a fare, in the manner of a fond uncle. Oh the charm of the Italian train system; another reminder why trains - and Italy - makes us slow down.
En route, thoughts of hurling myself into a lake once checked-in flurried in and out of my mind - and that's exactly what I did once I'd arrived at the stunning Hotel Rivalago, a five-minute walk from Sulzano station (look out for the daily morning market).
This boutique hotel, a far cry from the imposing, dramatic palazzos I'd left behind in Venice, was no less astonishing and its views tantamount to however you might picture heaven if you regard huge mountainous islands in the middle of a turquoise lake quite celestial. I do. It was here, in this almost entirely solar-powered hotel that the artists responsible for the floating piers stayed throughout the project, and it was spoken of with fondness and warmth by those I met during my two day venture.
"At first, people were a bit put out by the swarms of crowds and the construction," born-and-raised Iseo resident Anna, from the (helpful and easily located) local tourist office told me. "But in the end, it was a very fine affair, very exciting, and naturally the show brought a lot of tourism. People were happy." I ask her whether the show impacted the development of the area. "Absolutely. Some people now have money to renovate old dilapidated buildings."
The installation seems to have instilled a burst of new energy in an already happy place - one that recognises it's no Lake Como and is entirely okay with that. It felt much less showy and more personal, but still really very good. The tourism agency's tagline is "Iseo: the romantic choice", and the trueness of this felt immediate. It was early September, and seemingly quiet, but alive. In fact, our hotel was at full occupation.