Lake Iseo at Monte Isola ... lake island promenade and castle
Story and photos by Lucille Cohen
It is still there to be savored – that jaw-dropping sense of awe that accompanied those privileged upper class British travelers on the Grand Tour when they arrived at the Italian Lakes after struggling through the Alps with their manservant, or in the case of young women, the maiden aunt chaperone.
I never tire of the Lakes so when one of our offspring lodged this summer with her family in the mountains, we took the even more scenic option of lodging several hundred meters up from the nearest lakeside – in this case, Lake Iseo.
Lake Iseo is one of the lesser known and fourth largest of the Italian lakes but is no less scenic.
“Where’s that?” was the inevitable query posed – in fact, not too dissimilar to that tentatively advanced by some friends back in Britain when asking where our Israeli hometown of Zichron Yaakov was located.
At dawn, as the sun would commence its glorious, daily re-emergence from behind the mountains to the east, we would throw open the traditional wooden shutters, then the window. The moment of capturing the view of the glacial-formed lake to the south with its surrounding peaks thrown into stark relief plus the rush of cool, crystal-clear air was intoxicating every day – until a suitably ethereal autumn mist greeted us on one of our last mornings there in early September. Our balcony across the room allowed us a similarly atmospheric enjoyment of sunset.
At the northern terminus of the train from Brescia
Lake ferries ply their trade, allowing for hours of cruising, shuttling from village to village - each with its own ancient core and character. The town of Iseo stands out with the most characterful piazzas while Sarnico offers the idyllic setting of swans gliding past the port where the Oglio River flows out of the lake on its journey south - an atmosphere to be absorbed along with the ever glorious Italian gelato. Lovely Lovere on the north–west shore boasts the steepest lake cliffs nearby.
Our stay was punctuated by a few worthwhile excursions. With two of our grandsons, we ventured forth like 19th century explorers on the train up the east shore’s Trenord line that runs from Brescia in the south and follows the Camonica Valley northward, terminating in the mountain town of Edolo in the Orobian Alps - with its castle and fast flowing, multi-waterfall river.
The Valcamonica, as it is known locally, exhibits a few metal foundries, and it was surprising to learn that the tradition of metalworking started with the once enslaved Jews who left Rome when the barbarians sacked the capital of the Empire. The valley’s history extends into pre-history as evidenced by cave paintings throughout its length.
A state-of-the-art spa in the valley town of Boario Terme, nearer the lake, can be enjoyed for NIS125 for an afternoon, along with indoor and outdoor pools, water massages, Turkish baths and Mediterranean baths (warmer and more aromatic), chromatic showers, ice rooms and a salt block room. Healthy teas and juices can be tasted while lounging in the robes and slippers provided.
Another outing was on the traghetto with all the family, to Europe’s largest lake island - Monte Isola - which itself boasts a handful of villages, a castle and an abbey. The mainly flat, encompassing promenade makes for a scenic cycle route.
This year, the lake and its island boasted an enormous art installation – the Floating Piers - by international artist, Christo. If you ever wanted to walk on water, this was the time. Bright yellow walkways crisscrossed the lake joining the island to nearby towns - but only for a few weeks. (We missed them!)
Gatehouse of the Mantua Jewish cemetery
Our final trip was to Mantua where the Gonzaga ducal family ruled in all their magnificence. Surrounded by lakes, some now drained, the setting is extraordinary, as are the palaces. Most striking, in the early 16th century Palazzo de Te was the room depicting the mythical Fall of the Giants. Before its time, it provides a startlingly immersive experience of giants tumbling down from the sky (the ceiling) and down the walls. The Gonzagas enjoyed good relations with the Jewish community, and the surprise spotting of a Magen David on the way out of the city led us to the town’s somewhat neglected Jewish cemetery, sadly the place where you will find most of Mantua’s Jews nowadays.