by Roderick Conway Morris

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Monte Isola on Lago d'Iseo

An Enchanted Isle in a Lombardy Lake

By Roderick Conway Morris
LAGO D'ISEO, Italy 19 June 1994


A thoroughly seasoned traveler by the time she set eyes on Lago d'Iseo in 1746, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was instantly captivated: 'I am now in a place the most beautifully romantic I ever saw in my life,' she wrote.

Even though a thoroughly seasoned traveler by the time she set eyes on Lago d'Iseo in 1746, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was instantly captivated, writing post-haste to her daughter back home in England: 'I am now in a place the most beautifully romantic I ever saw in my life.' Indeed, she liked it so much that, having come here for a brief rest-cure, she settled on the lake's shores for over a decade. It remains one of the loveliest and least spoiled spots in Italy - almost inexplicably since it is less than an hour's train ride from Brescia, and within easy reach of Milan.

Following in Lady Mary's footsteps - though, perhaps fortunately, no longer obliged to go by carriage on a road that was, she wrote, 'so stony, I was almost shook to pieces' - we board the dusty, picturesquely down-at-heel, Lago d'Iseo-bound train at Brescia station. With a loud hoot, this miniature conveyance pulls out and, gaining speed, rattles along between the backs of factories and foundries with yards piled with heaps of scrap metal. It is lunchtime and the train's two carriages are packed with frolicking school children and chattering shoppers loaded with bags and packages.

Minutes later the scenery changes to featureless agricultural plain, with mountains dimly-discernable in the haze to the north. And then - less than twenty minutes out of Brescia - rolling hills appear on either side. Meandering along the gently curving track between them, every few minutes we pull up at a country station, each with a neat garden, the station house festooned with baskets overflowing with bright flowers. The hills are now everywhere covered with ranks of vines and the landscape dotted with old churches, elegant bell-towers and country villas.

This is Franciacorta, an ancient wine-growing district that for long languished in obscurity, but during the last few years has enjoyed a startling rebirth, transforming itself into Italy's Little Champagne by producing sparkling wines of exceptional flavor and quality.

All at once the vineyards disappear and we find ourselves skirting a mysterious land that looks like a tract of Old English countryside in flood - an intriguing patchwork of submerged fields. These are the torbiere, or peat bogs, whose turf was extracted in large quantities in the 18th and 19th centuries to be burnt as fuel. Later abandoned, the whole area filled with water and became a wilderness. It is now a peaceful, strangely atmospheric nature reserve, which can be explored on foot by following trails along the banks and crossing little wooden bridges that link the narrow strips of dry land that criss-cross this man-made marsh.

At last, the train lurching to one side as it negotiates a sharp bend in the track at the foot of rugged lime-stone cliffs, Lago d'Iseo, a great stretch of blue-green water hemmed in by spectacular mountains, comes into view. And then we see, rising up in the middle of the lake a majestic, wooded, over 1,800-foot-high peak - Monte Isola, Mount Island, the largest lake island in continental Europe.

The train pulls in at the small waterfront town of Iseo, and half the passengers get off, but eager to set foot on Monte Isola, we stay aboard and continue northwards along the lake shore to Sulzano, a couple of miles up the line. Descending at Sulzano station, we follow a cheerful group of islanders down to the traghetto (ferry) landing. On the short trip to Peschiera Maraglio, the island's chief port, we catch our first sight of a pair of the buzzards that nest on the inaccessible peaks around the lake, circling and plummeting into the water, and carrying away fish in their talons.

On a journey full of pleasant surprises, Peschiera Maraglio is not the least of them. Over a hundred miles from the nearest sea, we find ourselves in a place reminiscent of nothing so much as a remote southern Mediterranean fishing village: there's a pungent smell of fresh-grilled fish in the air, wooden boats line the quay, children play in the street, and women sit outside the houses passing the time of day, expertly, but apparently absent-mindedly, knotting nets.

Monte Isola has been renowned for net-making for hundreds of years. Local makers still supply nets for lake fishermen in Italy and Switzerland. And they have been strikingly flexible in adapting to the modern age. A number of factories on the mainland - to which some islanders commute daily - manufacture a whole range of heavier-duty netting for purposes as diverse as deep-sea fishing, crop protection, hunting and fencing, while the artisan tradition is kept alive both there and on the island itself in the manufacture of top-quality sports nets for tennis, basket-ball and soccer, not to mention hammocks and shopping-bags.

This balance between preserving the old ways and meeting the demands of the late twentieth-century is at the heart of Monte Isola's specialness. The only motor vehicles permitted on the island are three public mini-buses, a handful of very small cars and vans - allowed to the doctor, vet and itinerant food vendors - and small, low-powered scooters for other residents. No outsiders are allowed to bring any form of powered transport here - and even non-island cyclists are banned at week-ends.

As a result, peace reigns supreme, and one can freely roam the island's narrow tarmac roads - charmingly labeled in places not with speed limits but the injunction 'Al Passo d'Uomo' (At Human Pace) - as well as its winding cobbled paths, without having to leap for your life, as one is often well-advised to do in Italy, at the sound of an approaching vehicle.

The near-idyllic conditions here mean that Monte Isola has äescaped the depopulation typical in many other rural parts of Europe. There are some 2,000 native islanders - more than there were a century ago. Island traditions are very much alive - as is the local dialect, which is well-nigh incomprehensible to outsiders. 'In fact,' said Giuseppe Zilani, whose workshop in Peschiera Maraglio specializes in making the gossamer-fine lake nets used by the local fishermen, 'the dialect even from village to village is different.'

Young people also make great efforts to remain here, finding, for the most part, the bright lights of nearby cities only mildly enticing. 'If a girl starts seeing a boy on the mainland, it's thought quite odd here,' Ziliani's wife Bruna told me. 'And even if she were to marry Prince Charles, nobody would think it a good thing!'

Over two hundred years ago, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu enthusiastically praised 'the fine fish with which the lake abounds, particularly trouts, as large and red as salmon'. The same fish, salmerino (salmon-trout) are still caught today by fishers using the traditional flat-bottomed naet - with their curious arrangement of oars, the right one attached to the rollock three feet or so closer to the prow than the left oar, so that the fisherman can control the boat and get the net over the side. Other delicacies include alborella (white-bait), coregone (another variety of salmon-trout), tinca (tench) and fillets of persico (perch). There is no better place to try these than Peschiera Maraglio's congenial and very reasonably-priced family Trattoria di Pesce, run by Alberto Archetti. ('Archetti' - literally, little bows - is one of the commonest names on the island, deriving from the strung U-shaped wooden frames used, to dry fish, which you still see hanging outside houses everywhere you go.)

It takes two to three hours to walk round the island on the coast road, which passes through a verdant landscape of olive trees, lush grass and woodland, sometimes hugging the shore, sometimes rising above little cliffs and coves. This walk brings us to Siviano, the island's 'capital', perched high on a spur, and the lakeside settlement of Carzano, with its pretty church, known to the locals as 'San Gioan de le Sardene' (St John of the Sardines), because St John's feast day, 24 June, marked the beginning of the sardine fishing season. Sensole, the village in the southwest corner of the island, is a particularly pleasant oasis (and can be reached like the other villages by public boat service).

Off Sensole is the cypress-clad islet of San Paolo, which seems, even at a distance, wrapped in eerie silence. It was once a monastery where the monks - renouncing meat - lived only on fish. Later it was bought by a rich, but seemingly unbalanced businessman from Milan, who had all the medieval buildings demolished and hurled into the lake so that he could build a villa there. With glee the islanders - who have a marked relish for ghost stories - will tell you that the lifeless corpse of this 'destroyer of holy things' was duly found floating in the lake during a violent blizzard. (In defiance of their orders the demolition-gang secretly saved San Paolo's altar, and brought it to St John's church at Carzano.)

A more ambitious three-to-four hour round hike (a trip the less energetic can achieve most of using the public minibus) to the 13th-century Sanctuary of the Madonna della Ceriola, at the summit of the island (the church itself is only open on Sundays), leaves us in no doubt that Monte Isola is not just a mountain in name, and takes us through some truly Alpine scenery of fruit trees, flower-stewn meadows and pine woods. Indeed, by this time we may be forgiven for feeling a pleasant sense of unreality, as though we were walking through the pages of a children's geography book with every possible climate and landscape illustrated on the same page.

Near the summit is the charming hamlet of Cure, where every house has a smoking room for home curing sausages. And though the inhabitants here have the distinct air of being hardy upland folk - who seem to live practically on a level with the towering, snow-capped peaks to the north of the lake - the welcoming owner of the tiny local bar and store serves us drinks, and, while chatting to us, resumes deftly knotting a basket-ball net, which will almost certainly end up a thousand miles or more from this enchanted isle, whose very existence we begin to doubt once we have left.

First published: New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023