Blame it on the wine. If Madonna Di Campiglio was Stuart’s responsibility then Lago D’Iseo was mine. Mine and Vanessa’s.
Vanessa P. my beautiful Italian flamenco friend born in Bergamo who lives in Rome. We have a ritual of meeting for one or two flutes of champagne in the Triana market when we’re in Seville at the same time. One day she surprised me by taking us to a different bar-restaurant because it served Francia Corta and she’d established that I’d never tried it. All I knew of bubbly Italian wine was Prosecco and Lambrusco.
What Vanessa gave me that day was truly fine Italian champagne. Delicious! Apart from the fact that it is from a small terroir in northern Italy and not from France it is the real deal, a twice fermented blend of 85% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Nero and 5% Pinot Bianco grapes methode champenoise/method Classico. I’ve been scouting for Francia Corta ever since.
To locate the growing region of Francia Corta look at the southern end of Lago D’Iseo and the tongue-shaped former morain of rolling hills that runs down towards Brescia.
We stayed in a hotel at Iseo on the southeastern side of the lake. More on that later.
Lago D’Iseo is smaller than Como, Garda or Maggiore, but that means it is less well known and far less crowded. No coach tour groups yippee! I wouldn’t go back to the Lake Garda roads if you paid me. Iseo is served well by train and bus and the council runs ferry services from the main villages dotted around the lake, as well as to the largest of the three islands on the lake, Monte Isola.
The fine spell that broke with a vengeance in Madonna on the Friday continued heavily in Iseo Sunday morning. Perfect weather for wine tasting followed by a long Sunday lunch. Clearly not a novel idea as more organised people than us had booked out the first three restaurants I called. We found a fourth, whose phone rang out, close to a Francia Corta winery with tasting room in Adro, called Ferghettina, jumped in the car and went straight there. Of course the restaurant was closed, however at that point our luck changed. A beautifully mannered young man, Daniela, welcomed us into an already crowded tasting room and proceeded to pour us nectar of the gods, their Ferghettina brut.
We worked our way through their tasting menu then Daniela took us down to see the Ferghettina archive of vintages carefully labelled and tended since their first vintage in 1991 and gave us a more detailed history of the family business which is run by Laura Gatton and her father Roberto who founded the vineyard with his wife Andreina. All this for free. I was moved to buy two bottles to set by in Edinburgh for a special family occasion. Bound to be one before too long!
Daniela offered to help us find a lunch restaurant and after a couple of rebuffs he got us into Dispensa Pane e Vini, a few minutes down the road. This establishment is a combination boutique wine store, bar and gourmet restaurant. Daniela had done us proud.
Sunday afternoon the sun came out. We walked a section of the Via Valeriana pedestrian way from Pilzone to Pisone. It has fine views of the lake as you walk alongside well tended gardens, fields and veggie beds. Some people keep a couple of sheep or donkeys to manage the grass.
The weather held for the whole week, allowing us to indulge in more hiking and biking with delicious aperitivi and dinners on the waterfront.
I’d been in touch with a local cycling guide, Nicola (another young Italian who is a ski instructor in winter and cycling guide in summer). Nicola specialises in Francia Corta tours by bicycle. As we had already done a tasting we were happy just to ride his 23k route (with a short coffee break) and hear more from Nicola about the history of this wine and see the vineyards, villages and corn fields up close. The final section runs through the Torbiere del Sebino wetlands nature reserve.
This time there was no battery assistance so we had to work a bit harder, but Nicola was an attentive, careful guide. The only time we needed to take special care was right on 12md when workers poured out of a factory in small, fast cars, racing off for their one hour lunch break.
Next day we took the ferry from Iseo to Sensole to hike up to the highest point of the Island, the Ceriola Sanctuary. This is an aerobic 40 mins up but the view and picnic lunch on the summit was well worth it. We meandered down via Olzano and Carzano along the eastern side of the island before catching the ferry back from Sensole. If you fancy supporting local handicraft some retired fishermen make natural fibre hammocks and sitting shopping bags. Nice memento for 10 euros.
We enjoyed the experience so much we returned to Peschiera for dinner one evening. A five euro return ferry runs every 20 minutes the short hop from Sulzano to Peschiera. Mi Lago restaurant has been operating in the same place overlooking quayside for 100 years. When they renovated in 2015 they uncovered and preserved an ancient well. Certainly we enjoyed our meal there very much.
For our final hike we decided to wing it and drive through Francia Corta until we spotted a walking track pointing up hill. Good in theory, but I had forgotten how narrow the roads get in small, elevated villages… Even with both rear vision mirrors retracted I was perilously close to scraping both sides of the one track road.
Eventually I found a tiny space to turn around in and held my breath as I repeated the exercise downhill. Unscathed we parked in a large factory car park and started the trek uphill. At first we followed a green sign for a castle then when those disappeared we switched to red signs for Scala Santa, the staircase of the saint. This consisted of a stepped, stony path leading straight up for 40 minutes to a large cross atop a small shrine. People had placed photographs of deceased loved ones inside the shrine. Maybe some of them had died climbing the hill?
While I was catching my breath and contemplating this a young dad and his staggeringly beautiful daughter reached the shrine from a different track that seemed much gentler. I asked him where they’d walked from and he said “Colombaro”, the same village as us. Perfect, we could return an easier way.
Not sure what happened, but at some point we turned off that path and ended up meandering across and down the mountain. The recent heavy rains had washed out walking tracks and made other trails. Trail signs were few and far between. The geology of the mountain was such that the top section is composed of either white or pink stratified stone, something between marble and chalk. The movement of the Earth’s crust raised it to a 45 degree angle which, as it wore away, made for challenging stepping. What should have taken half an hour took an hour and a half. No matter, we had our picnic lunch beside the lake at Clusane Sul Lago watching a 60ish chap swim across from the other side of the lake with an orange buoy tied around his waist. Admirable.
Our final afternoon I had the dubious honour of driving around the lake to see some villages we hadn’t yet visited. The wind had picked up and we watched small sail boats passing. Sarnico with its wide pedestrian esplanade seemed the most appealing. Its San Marco bar deserves a special mention.
The lakeside road in places resembles the Amalfi coast except narrower and several of the tunnels need urgent upgrading. Hard to believe but there is no separate cycle lane or path, so cyclists (some in dark clothes with no lights) share the tunnels with tankers, trucks, buses and motor homes. You have been warned.
Yes, he walks on water.
I think the rental companies should present foreign customers with a special honorary Italian driving licence (verified by their rental GPS system) upon returning their cars unscratched. Our Golf had 13 dings on it when we picked it up and 13 when we returned it!
We stayed at the International Hotel in Iseo which seemed distinctly non-International at first. Breakfast was a feast of plastic wrapped, highly processed, sugared, fatty crap plus white bread rolls and silty coffee.
When I politely inquired about possibly getting some tomatoes and olive oil for future breakfasts (our standard vegan breakfast in these situations) I was told by the duty manager in Italian, “I don’t speak English”, I tried again in Italian and was told in perfect English, ‘We are not a restaurant.’
Next day however the two fat nonni who run the show brought me a big bowl of tomatoes and a large bottle of olive oil plus warm soya milk.
The day after they added steamed cauliflower.
Next day I had all that plus courgette sautéed in olive oil.
Thus it continued for four breakfasts. The morning I left I planted a loud kiss on each of their chubby cheeks and we parted friends.
The two lakeside Iseo restaurants we recommend are Platana on the eastern side of Iseo near a children’s playground and Leon D’Oro on the western side of Iseo. Platana has the advantage of the better sunset view.
Italmark supermarket (open 8-8 every day of the week) on the Iseo ring road has everything you could want for a picnic, or there are small shops dotted around central Iseo, but they close at midday.
Other things to do in Iseo
You can rent SUPs and small boats at a couple of places around the lake and there are plenty of cycle rental shops.
Nicola Pica, our bike tour guide, is contactable at firstname.lastname@example.org