With several large, tourist-budding lakes only a hundred or so kilometres apart in the north of Italy, there is obviously some competition between them, in much the same way as with neighbouring city’s football teams. Being my Italian home, Garda has stolen my bias: with its diverse landscapes, micro-climate and peaceful walks, you’d be mad not to appreciate it. However, even I can’t deny the attraction of a sparsely populated mountainous island placed in the middle of a lake which is itself surrounded by highlands.
This is the case of Monte Isola, which sits on the waters of Lake Iseo. Most recently it was famed by Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s large scale art project, “The Floating Piers”, in which large, fabric floats connected the island to different sections of the mainland, allowing visitors to have the sensation of walking on water.
Although I appreciated the project for popularising this unique island, I much prefer it orange-float-free in all its simplicity – even if that means paying five euros for a return ticket on the ferry boat rather than walking to it. (Ferry boats run regularly to and from Iseo, Sulzano, and Sale Marisino. See here for full timetables).
With a population of less than 2000 people and fairly small roads, there is a common thought that only the priest and the doctor have cars on this island. Whilst not entirely accurate (there are several small trucks used for maintenance and landscaping, for example), it is true that you will see very few four wheeled vehicles. Instead, the Italian moped stereotype is exemplified here, with everyone over the driving age appearing to have a moped, and even children and toddlers being taken on them (there being little other ways of transportation).
In addition to the obvious natural attractions, the main tourist spot here is the Sanctuary of Madonna della Ceriola, which sits at 600 msl, the highest point of the island. Unfortunately there is no lazy way of getting there, so bring your comfy shoes and stamina.
There are, however, a few different routes, depending on your ability and time limit. From the port for Sulzano in Peschiere Maraglio, follow the road right and take the sharp left turn. Following this road will lead you to several different signs towards the sanctuary, the first of which appear after just a couple of hundred feet. Those with the red marker highlight the more difficult, off-road path: don’t be put off by the dangerous red colour, its doable for anyone with average fitness and some will power in my opinion. Whilst the lake and mountain views aren’t particularly more stunning on this path, the nearby landscape is far more tranquil, with the track taking you through fields and woodlands.
If you aren’t feeling up for a short hike (about two hours) however, you should opt for following the main road to the village Cure, and taking the mule tracks for the final ascent. It saves at least an hour, and you still have several astounding viewpoints.
Other attractions include the Martinengo fortress. Unfortunately also accessible only by a fairly steep incline (its lucky I enjoy hill-walking) that starts in Sensole, this is a mediaeval structure from the 14th century, now secluded in the woodland and giving the true sensation of the ancient lordship.
The rest of the island’s attractions lay largely in its natural landscapes. To admire the lakeside, take the small, coastal road that goes from Peschiera Maraglio to Sensole. The first part of the walk will take you past all of the main shops, bars, and pizzerias, but there are also a few other stop-off points further along the road, including some well placed coastal-view benches. For a tourist spot, the bars and pizzerias aren’t hugely over priced, costing only about a euro more than the average spot. However, I would recommend taking a picnic rather than eating an average pizza. Though the pizzerias might still be lake-side views, there are so many other natural beauty areas to relax in that personally I would rather take a few sandwiches and admire the view from a window-and-waiter-free zone.
Even the travel here is relatively stress-free. Ferry boats travel from several of the lake-side towns on Lago D’Iseo (see the timetables linked in the third paragraph), and most of the surrounding cities provide public transport via bus or train to Iseo town. If you are going by car, you will have to leave it on the mainland, and if it is in season be prepared to pay a parking fee (generally 6 euros for a full day). There is no specified parking for those catching the ferry boat, but every town has a few car parks a short walking distance from the port.
Whether you are looking for an adventure, a light walk, or simply some spectacular views, Monte Isola is a must. The landscape is tremendous: standing near the edge of the island, you feel as though it is a sanctuary from the forbidding mountains looming over it, your only protection the glistening water between you. At such a small cost, this natural highlight is a must on any north-Italian tour.