Thursday, 5 July 2007

Sightseeing in Lake Iseo, Lombardy, Italy

Guide to Lake Iseo, Lombardy, Italy
by Karen Bryan

Lake Iseo, also called Lake Sebina, is the fourth largest lake in the Lombardy region of Italy. The lake was formed by the Valcamonica Glacier, and is 24 kilometres long and up to 5 kilometres wide. This width is not always obvious as the largest lake island in Europe, Monte Isola, sits in the centre of the lake. The lake is situated just north of Brescia and Bergamo, this being reflected in the fact that it is administered on the western bank by the Bergamo district council, and on the east bank by the Brescia district council. The River Oglio, flowing down from the Val Camonica and entering between Lovere and Pisogne, mainly feeds the Lake from the north. The Val Camonica has thermal spas and prehistoric rock carvings. At the southern end of the lake lies the Torbiere, a peat bog and now a nature reserve. South of this lies the Franciacorta valley, producing the best sparkling wine in Italy.

On the eastern bank, a few kilometres up from the lake, is the Natural Reserve of the Pyramids of Zone, a unique formation of pillars created by uneven glacial erosion. The sixty-kilometre perimeter lakeside is dotted with villages and towns, the main ones being Iseo, Sarnico, Lovere, Pisogne and Marone. These towns are full of historical and cultural interest, yet it is pleasant to stroll along the promenade or linger over a drink in a café. There are a variety of water sports available on the Lake and fishing is popular with the locals, tench being the prized catch. There is a good selection of walking and cycling trails, and in Winter there is skiing north of Lake Iseo in the Presolano area.

Unique points

The fact that Lake Iseo is not well known outside Italy and therefore less touristy makes it more appealing. One of its biggest attractions is Monte Isola, the largest inland lake island in Europe, which is easily reached by ferry and with no cars on the island it is very peaceful, making it ideal for walking or cycling. There are also the Pyramids of Zone, where the erosion of glacial deposits has left pinnacles of earth up to ten metres high. On the western lakeshore are the bogns of Castro and Zorzino, sheets of limestone that plunge into the lake. North of the lake in Val Camino you can see hundreds of prehistoric rock carvings at the National Park of Rock Engravings and to the south of the lake is the Torbiere peat bog and Franciacorta, the area where the renowned sparkling wine is produced.

Getting there

Nearest airports

Bergamo (Orio Serio)
Milan (Malpensa)
Milan (Linate)

All of these airports are within reasonable travelling distance to Lake Iseo. Most international flights come into Milan Malpensa, although the low cost carrier Ryanair uses Bergamo and Brescia.

Car: travelling on the Milan Venice motorway (A4) to go to the West bank Of Lake Iseo you would come off at Sarnico junction and on to the SS649. To reach Iseo town, travelling east on the A4, you would also come off at Sarnico exit, and travelling west on the A4 you would turn off at Brescia up the SS510.

Public transport: There are regular connections by bus and train to Brescia from all the nearby airports, then connections from Brescia by bus and train to Iseo. The train continues up the east bank to Pisogne.

Once you have reached Iseo the most relaxing and picturesque option for getting around the lake is the ferry.

Guide to Lake Iseo, clockwise from Iseo town on the southern shores.


I am really fond of Iseo town; it has a relaxed ambience, wide squares and a lovely promenade with a fantastic view of the lake and Monte Isola. It is quite lively, mainly with Italian families and couples.

Iseo was a business centre in Roman times, and it was an important port until the end of the 19th century. The hero of Italian unification, Garibaldi, is celebrated with a statue and fountain in the main square. Also on this square is the Palazzo Vantini, built in the 1833s and now used as the town hall. The Pieve di S. Andrea dates back to the 12th century, and is distinctive because of its cusped Romanesque bell tower. The 11th century Castello Oldofredi was recently restored and now houses the public library.

Just south of the town are the peat bogs; Torbiere del Sebino is now a nature reserve. Lake Iseo was around 10 metres deeper in the past, but erosion of the bed of the River Oglio at the southern outflow meant that the lake level began to drop, cutting off a shallow basin, which gradually became a large marsh with peaty deposits. During the industrialisation of the 19th century local factories began using the peat as a source of energy, eventually excavating most of the peat deposits. Imagine digging up the peat using a caged spade with a five-metre handle!

Evidence of prehistoric settlement was found during peat cutting: stone arrowheads, blades and daggers dating from 5000 BC. Now the area is of great scientific interest and home to many species of bird and fish.

The Franciacorta region, south of Iseo, has become well known for its sparkling wine. In the mid 1950s a young entrepreneur started to make sparkling wine emulating the method using in the Champagne region of France. This means that the secondary fermentation of the wine occurs in the bottle, a process which takes around two years. Now this valley produces the legally protected Franciacorta wine, assuring it has been hand made using the traditional champagne methods in one of the thirty wineries in the area. Visits to the wineries and tasting sessions can be arranged. Wine lovers may wish to visit for the three days in September for the Wine Festival, with tasting, special meals and visits to cellars.

Villa Lechi, a Palladian style villa built in the 16th century, can be visited by appointment (phone 392 706 30087 to arrange) Just west of Erbusco is the Oglio North Park, on the eastern banks of the river.


Sarnico is the first resort heading west from Iseo. It was originally a prehistoric stilt village, as it stands where the lakes narrows and once again becomes the River Oglio. There are frescoes dating from 1200 AD in the church San Nazario e Rocca di Castione. You can still see ruined medieval ramparts.

For some Sarnico is best known as the home of the premier speedboat company Riva. One of the most fascinating aspects of the companys story to me is the journey of Pietro Riva from his hometown of Lagio on the Lake Como to Sarnico in 1842. The young Pietro was travelling to start a new job repairing boats in Sarnico; his 70-mile journey took him two days, travelling by boat, train and coach.

His repairs were so successful that he was soon being commissioned to build boats. The boat building business grew under Pietros son, Ernesto, who began produced boats powered by piston engines.

In 1912 Ernestos son Serafino achieved a speed of 24 kilometres an hour in a speedboat. Riva became a prestigious brand, sought by the rich and famous as a status symbol. However you no longer see speedboats on Lake Iseo because they were banned for environmental reasons in 1976!

Sarnico is home to the Bellini Gallery, a picture gallery exhibiting around 150 pieces, mainly from the period between the 16th and 18th centuries. The Gallery is in the old part of the city and was formerly a nunnery. Also on display are some sculptures and furniture.

The Palazzo to Sarnico rail line winds along Oglio River. Volunteers reopened this line recently. TrenoBlu as it is known is often steam hauled. The trains run during the Summer. There are rail connections from Bergamo and Milan.

Just outside Sarnico, heading east, stands the Faccononi villa, designed by one of Italys best Art Nouveau architects, Sommaruga, for the wealthy Faccanoni family. The villa on the lakeshore exemplifies Sommarugas trademark Floreale style.


The stretch from Tavernola north constitutes the most dramatic stretch of the west bank. Just try to blot out the quarry at Tavernola! Riva is a pretty fishing hamlet, full of arches and alleys. The old centre is up the hill at Zorzino. The Zorzino Bong, with its vertical slabs of limestone plunging Mount Clemo, creates its own enclosed bay. Further north is the Castro Bogn.


The Lovere area was occupied by the Gauls in the Iron Age, and by the second century BC the Roman settlement began to take form.

Lovere still has ramparts remaining from its period as a medieval fortified town. The oldest church is the 12th century Capell di San Martino. The town was famous in the 15th century as Venetian textile town. Most of the output of woollen cloth was sold in Germany and Austria. At the beginning of the 16th century there was a period of turmoil, with periods of rule by the French, the Holy Roman Empire and the Spanish, which greatly disrupted the production and distribution of the cloth. There was more strife later that century with plagues and famines. By the 17th century the authorities had tackled the security problem of bandits and some Lombardy noblemen began to travel to Lovere for their holidays. The Basilica of Santa Maria dates from the 15th century and houses a 16th century organ case and frescoes. The lakeside Palazzo Tadini contains the School of Fine Arts, a gallery with paintings, sculptures and ceramics. Count Luigi Tadini began this collection in his town house in Crema. The Tadini familys only son died in Lovere in 1799 where they often took holidays. Count Tadini provided the funds to built the Palazzo, in memory of his son.

The English writer and poet Lady Mary Wortley Montagu lived in a villa on the outskirts of Lovere in the 1740s. Lady Mary is said to have written many letters to her daughter in the villa garden, and been inspired to write poetry by the beauty of her surroundings. In fact she declined an invitation to the Venice carnival saying, there are plenty things to do in this village which, by the way, is one of the most beautiful that exists. Lady Mary came to live in Italy in 1741, supposedly for health reasons, although it is thought that she no longer wanted to live with her husband. Lady Mary had travelled to Turkey as wife of the British Ambassador and there she came across the practice of inoculation against smallpox. She had her own children inoculated but was never given proper credit for introducing the practice in Britain. Lady Marys daughter married Lord Bute, who became prime minister of Britain in 1762, a year after Lady Marys death.

Lovere has another literary connection in Georges Sand, the French novelist, who wrote of Lake Iseo to a friend in London, Come, I have found a lovely place to live. Georges Sands real name was Aurore Dupin, but she had taken a mans name as it was not deemed suitable for ladies to be novelists in the 19th century, and she often dressed as a man. She had a long-standing affair with Chopin. After their break up in 1847 she wrote the novel Lucrezia Floriana. The romance between a young Italian noble and an older lady is set on Monte Isola. It is said that this novel inspired many visits by ladies seeking romance to the area!

In 1854 Lovere joined the industrial revolution, with the development of the first large steel complex in the region. Lovere prospered as an industrial centre until the 1980s, but this has left a scar on the landscape.

Valle Camonica

As you head round the north of the lake, you may wish to have a slight detour to visit the Valle Camonica. This valley is 90km long and contains 41 towns and villages, making it the longest valley in Italy. The healing powers of the waters of the spa town of Boario Terme were written about as early as 1497 by the naturalist Paracelsus. The Italian writer Manzoni was a regular visitor, living to the age of 88. Nearby at the Capo di Ponte is the National Rock Engraving Park, with prehistoric rock carvings, dating from Neolithic times through to the Iron Age. The carvings relate to the history of the Camuni tribe throughout this period. It is an amazing site, containing thousands of figures: an enormous stone history book. One of the most common carvings is that of the Camonic rose, which is now the emblem of the Lombardy region. On this site is the Archeopark, an open- air interactive park where you can try out various daily prehistoric activities e.g. lighting a fire, shooting with a bow and arrow and grinding corn and baking bread. The Archeodromo is a realistic construction of a Neolithic village with six huts perched on a rocky hill. Some school groups stay in the village for a few days to get an authentic taste of prehistoric life. Personally speaking I think Id rather go back to my hotel bed and shower. The traditional art of woodcarving continues in this area. The Cammunian Wood Handicraft Workshops in Boaria Terme, where all types of objects from religious ornaments to babies cribs are produced, can be found in the area. A fusion of modern and 16th century techniques are used to craft the goods.


Pisogne was an important centre in medieval times for commerce - a large weekly market was held there. The town had a ring of walls and a system of gates but not much is left standing now. In the Market Square you would be hung in a cage suspended from the tower for non-payment of taxes due to the bishop. Tax was due on almost everything - fishing, hunting, milling, salt and iron. The bishops were forbidden to inflict any punishment that would cause loss of blood, so humiliation was the next best option to extract their dues. In 1518 eight women accused of witchcraft were imprisoned in the Widow Tower before being burned.

Just off Market Square is Santa Maria Assunta church, which contains a 150-year-old pipe organ. The facade of the Palazzo Fanzango is adorned with medallions depicting the characters from the book I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) written by Manzoni. This is an important piece of Italian literature, telling the tale of how love triumphed for two peasants despite the efforts of a local tyrant. The book also has a vivid description of the spread of the Plague in 17th century Milan.

At the end of the 17th century, Pisogne was home to the notorious bandit Giorgi Vicario. There was not much brotherly loyalty between the bandits as Vicario tracked down and killed Giuseppe Techi for a reward. Techis head was delivered on a tray decorated with bay leaves to the authorities. A double whammy, a reward and less competition locally!

Pisogne hosts the local festival of mushrooms and chestnuts on the last Sunday in September.


Marone is situated in a beautiful spot in a green valley at the foot of Monte Guglielmo. There are ruins of a first century Roman villa, Co del Hela as you enter the town. On the lakeside is the Parrocchiale di tours, an 18th Century Baroque style church with a marble altar. Marone was well known for production of woollen cloth and felt and the quarrying of dolomite. Nowadays tourism is the main industry.

A few kilometres uphill from Marone on the road to Zone lie the Earth Pyramids. They are an amazing sight: thin spires of earth up to 30 metres high, with large granite masses perched on top almost like hats. The Pyramids are not static as they can erode, causing the boulder to fall and gradually new pyramids are created.

On the way to the Pyramids is the church of San Giorgio and on the outer sidewall are frescoes painted in the 15th century, including one of San Giorgio slaying the dragon.

Further up the hill is the village of Zone. As you ascend you can see what I initially thought was a ski lift, above the road. It is in fact suspended containers, which carry the dolomite down from the Calarusso quarry. In some respects it reminded me of a Swiss alpine village; the air was so fresh and crisp. There are two interesting churches on the Piazza Almici: The octagonal 18th century Beata Veringe di Lourdes and the 17th century Parrocchiale S Giovanii Ballista, containing wooden works of art by Andrea Falconi. The festival of honey is held in the town square at the beginning of August. From Zone there are several walking paths and, if you're feeling energetic, one to the summit of Monte Guglielmo.


The largest lake island in Europe is 3km long, rising to an elevation of 600m, and is sometimes referred to as the pearl of Iseo. Only public service four wheeled vehicles are allowed on the island. If you want to see more of the island you can rent a bicycle or use the local bus. There is also the option to take the gentle level walk along the southern coast from the village of Peschiera Maraglio to Sensole and return on the ferry from Sensole. If you are feeling energetic you can visit the 13th century Il Santuario della Madonna della Cerinole, which is situated at the highest point of the island.

The 14th Century Fortress Martinango is the ancestral home of the Olofredi family. It is one of the best-preserved forts in the region. It is unusual in that its highest tower is in the centre.

The population of the island is around 1700, with those not employed in tourism working as fishermen, in boatyards or making nets. In fact, the nets for the goal posts of the 1982 Football World Cup were made locally. Guess what - Italy won the Cup that year! There are still numerous naets, the typical wooden local fishing boats, to be seen. Some of the catch is left outside to dry in the sun in the traditional manner.

You can visit a traditional boatyard, Cantiere Nautico in Peschiere Maraglio, and see the construction of the handmade wooden boats.

I think that Monte Isola is a charming, tranquil place to visit, still relatively peaceful and relaxing. It is very thickly wooded, when you observe it from the shore its hard to imagine being able to reach the summit.

One of the big events on the island is the festival of Corzano, a hamlet that dates back to the 1600s. This only takes place every five years.

There are regular ferries from several towns on the lakeshore to the coastal villages in Monte Isola.

Suggested Itineraries

Day Trip:

Driving: it is possible to drive round the lake with a few stops in one day from Milan, Brescia or Bergamo and see unique sights.

Public transport: bus/train to Iseo, ferry trip from there. Trains from Brescia operate every hour, and it is a half-hour journey to Iseo, and they also go up to Pisogne, stopping at Sulzano and Sale Marsino.

Weekend/Short stay (2-3 nights) you could either be based in Iseo, spending a day visiting Monte Isola, one day visiting the west bank of the lake and one day on the east bank. An alternative would be to tour the lake in a day and spend a day either in Bergamo or Verona.

Iseo town would be a good base for day trips to the cities of Bergamo, Verona, Venice, Brescia, Vicenzia and Padova. Lake Garda and Lake Como are both nearby.

You can read to full guide to Lake Iseo at

Karen Bryan is a UK based indepedent travel consultant and writer specialising in less well known destinations in Europe. In her website, Europe a la Carte,, she demonstrates that you can see a lot more of the real Europe if you venture, even slightly off the well beaten tourist track.

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