The New Lake Como? The Holiday Spot the Italians Don’t Want You to Know About

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

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

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

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

. “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

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

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

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

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

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