It looks as if time has passed this place by. The Alps are the background, the shimmering blue water the foreground, with miles of well-maintained walkways for taking in the views.
Though it's only two hours from Milan, Lake Iseo was for many years the best-kept secret in Italy's famed lakes region. Lakes Garda and Como are the more popular destinations, and quiet little Iseo (pronounced EE-zayo), plunked down between them, was overshadowed. In the afternoon, benches along the lake and nearby cafe tables are populated by locals, who never seem to tire of this activity. The water acts as a reflecting pool along the horizon, with houses, mountains, clouds, piers, and fishermen mirrored on the lake.
This tranquillity was interrupted for two weeks last summer, for the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude's The Floating Piers, a 2-mile-long installation that connected the mainland to islands in the center of Iseo. Tourists flocked to see what he was up to and discovered they could actually walk along bright, wide saffron-colored piers floating on the lake's surface on giant polyethylene cubes. "Those who experienced The Floating Piers felt like they were walking on water," wrote Christo, "or perhaps the back of a whale. The light and water transformed the bright yellow fabric to shades of red and gold throughout the sixteen days."
One can only imagine how weird, wonderful, and lucrative it was for the townspeople to find themselves serving the hordes of photographers, art critics, and tourists who descended on the area. Christo's piers are gone, but the secret of lovely Iseo is out: You can circle the lake's 37-mile perimeter, stopping at every little town, strolling or hiking, visiting churches, cycling, and tasting wine, and know it quite well in three days. Or you can spend the entire time sitting along the water, watching fishermen pull in salmon trout, perch, and other firm-fleshed white fish. Then at night, find these same species on menus everywhere, along with the region's famous sparkling wine, Franciacorta.
Along the southern approach to the lake, the Alps are sometimes obscured by smaller mountain ranges. Tunnels (some quite long) go under them, and when you emerge, you start to see the red-tiled roofs of local homes, with stone facades in colors such as sand, dark chocolate, tan, persimmon, dusty rose, and cream, all with second-story balconies, many tiny, most decorated with potted plants. I imagine that I live in Milan (a girl can dream, can't she?) and that I'm heading to my country house for the weekend in my Maserati Ghibli; this is the drive that will calm me as I unwind from the hectic pace of the big city.
Besides fishing and related net-manufacturing industries here (those nets are now also sold to sports venues for tennis and volleyball), there are olive groves, chestnut trees, and wild mushrooms that the residents forage.
Things can get geographically confusing because Iseo is the name of both the body of water and the major town on the lake. Iseo the town is the most charming place, with a lively square and beautiful shops. This is where to stay off-season if you want something more than a sleepy village. Iseo harbors the ancient Oldofredi castle (said to date to the year 1000) in the center of town, with the small Museo della Guerra (Museum of the World Wars) inside it.
The best way to tour the lakeside area is to get in a car in Iseo and travel around clockwise, stopping first at Sarnico, where the River Oglio joins Lake Iseo. We never seem to get out at an early hour; if you, like us, have gotten a late start, go for lunch in Sarnico at Pizzeria L'altro Pizzicotto, which makes a fine pie with a thin, chewy crust and, based on the customers, who seem to know one another, looks to be popular with the locals. Then climb back in the car and continue north to Castro, about half an hour away. The town dates to the Roman era and has remnants of a 15th-century fortress. Quarries, known for their distinctive black marble, are nearby. Next door is Lovere, a town many say is one of the most beautiful in Italy. Houses here have overhanging wooden roofs, more typical of Switzerland, with the heavy stone arcades common in Italian architecture. Amble along the striking waterfront, with its manicured shrubs and paths.
Most travelers worry about the same things: Does it take more than two people to figure out the parking fee system? Will someone make off with our things while we're sightseeing? Can we get our vehicle down that tortuous medieval lane? We're hopeless about that third one, so do as we do not: Beware streets that are so narrow you won't make it through; resist the tinier roads that hug the water and tempt you to explore. This is the real Iseo, you may say to yourself. Ha! Many roads are one lane and dead end. Your only recourse is to drive out in reverse (sometimes up a hill), trying to avoid scraping the rental car on a stone wall (not saying anyone in our party did this).
A short trip up and around the top of Iseo brings you to the eastern side of the lake and the medieval village of Pisogne. It's worth a stop if only to see the 15th-century church of Santa Maria della Neve, with frescoes by Renaissance painter Girolamo Romanino.
A bit farther south, you'll reach Sulzano and the Hotel Rivalago (39-030-98-5011, rivalago.it). We lingered for two nights on the premises, all whites and creams. Out back, there's a terraced lawn and two pools perched on the water's edge, giving you a postcard view of the lake. A stylish dining room can hold a grand party; it's also the place that serves guests an elaborate breakfast buffet of pastries and cakes, fruit, and everything eggy you can imagine. Many hotels in Europe charge up to $20 for their version, but ours was included in our rate (summer rates are $340 per night; in the fall, that drops to $145).
Get to Sulzano before dusk so you can catch a ferry to the largest inhabited island on the lake: Monte Isola. (There are ferries from other towns, too.)
In a region with views that take your breath away around every bend, Monte Isola stands out. The cone-shaped mass rises out of the water and feels like one of nature's great triumphs. Less than 2 miles across, the island is a five-minute ferry ride from Sulzano. Just as you sit down and settle in, the ferry pulls up to the landing at Peschiera Maraglio. Monte Isola is carless, and the lack is almost jarring at first. Locals ride bikes, and everyone else is on foot. If you decide to stay here, you're carrying everything with you, so travel light. But don't worry about food — the island has a thriving fishing industry and enough agriculture to sustain its residents.
You can walk to the top of the Madonna della Ceriola sanctuary, parts of which date to the fifth century. From this height, you can see the entire lake. When it's time to climb down — make sure to do so while it's still light — head to the family-run Albergo Ristorante La Foresta (39-030-988-6210, forestamontisola.it), set on the edge of the shore. Think of it as a restaurant with lodging.
Opened in 1974, La Foresta was started by Silvano Novali; his fisherman brother, Sandro, supplied the kitchen. Now, more than 40 years later, the place is run by Nicola Novali, the son of Sandro, and his wife, Antonia. The hallmark of the menu has always been fresh fish, simply but imaginatively prepared.
The night we went, the restaurant was not yet open, but we were given a table so we could have a drink and wait for service to begin. In another room, three generations of the family were having a leisurely supper, course by course. We sat patiently and imagined how disruptive it would be if we were accompanied by someone who expected the staff to drop everything and wait on us. This is Italy.
The first course here might consist of an array of fish, such as marinated perch, a single fried sardine, smoked chub, cured salmon on greens, and more. If a whole fish roasted in wood embers is on the menu, certainly order that. It was probably pulled from the water hours before. Dessert might be big chunks of sbrisolona, an Italian almond cake served in pieces with a sweet dipping sauce (find a recipe by clicking here). Sipping glasses of chilled Franciacorta rose, we're in heaven.
As the ferry pulls out of Monte Isola at night, we notice that we're the only passengers. Just us and the captain, starry skies, and a moonlit lake illuminating a silhouette of mountains forming a protective ring around us. The water is midnight blue. It's magnificent, and that's not the Franciacorta talking. This is a stunning, magical moment.
We wonder why the Michelin Guide hasn't been to La Foresta to present it with a coveted star. But even with its grand setting and superb food, this restaurant isn't Michelin material. It's not showoffy enough. The restrooms are ordinary. Service takes its time.
Anyway, stardom would ruin the place. For now, it's our secret.