Lake Iseo and Brescia

Sunday 22nd April 2007-04-22, Lake Iseo


We left Lake Maggiore on Friday morning and spent a frustrating, exhausting day travelling a mere 120 miles during six hours continuous driving. The roads north of Milan are one endless traffic jam for which the cause is never apparent. The sun was hot and the countryside, while not ugly, was uninspiring. On the outskirts of every town we had ample opportunity to sit in the hot sun and admire the supermarkets, factory outlets, garages and furniture warehouses. By the time we reached Iseo we were happy to camp anywhere. In fact this little site is lovely, right beside the lake where a mother duck with thirteen fluffy ducklings is proudly showing them off to the campers. Our reward for the day's tiring driving was a glass of wine by the water as we watched the sun set behind the hills on the far side of the lake.
Sunset over Lake Iseo

Yesterday, Saturday, was warm but muggy with the sun hidden behind a haze of cloud and a mist over the lake that unfortunately meant that the surrounding hills and the towering island off shore were no more than ghostly outlines. The island is the largest of any to be found in the Italian lakes and there are at least a couple of little towns or villages visible, their lights glowing across the water at night. We had planned on taking our folding bikes Hinge and Bracket over on the boat and cycling around the base of the island but we would have seen very little so the bikes continue to be useless lumber so far. Instead we walked into the pretty little town of Iseo and strolled along the promenade beside the lake enjoying the happy holiday atmosphere with children playing and people taking beers and coffees at the lakeside cafés. There are pleasant arcaded squares and a Romanesque church with a rugged old tower.

The church in Iseo

Cheery monument in the church, Iseo

By lunchtime we had exhausted the main sites of the town and loaded a blog at one of the hotels, so decided to take the train to Brescia. A half-hour journey across the pleasant plain of Brescia, scattered with vineyards, brought us to the city, described in our guide as an important industrial town for the manufacture of arms. Derelict factories on the outskirts confirmed this but inside there were several beautiful squares and a number of interesting monuments. The city boasts not one but two cathedrals, set side by side on the Piazza Paolo VI, which at the time of our visit was filled with a massive tent for a book fair. Of the two the new Renaissance cathedral is a massive pompous affair in white marble, bristling with statues, but the older 11th century cathedral is much more attractive and one of the most interesting that we have seen, being round in shape with the nave set down below the galleries which surrounded it. Set into the floor below glass panels were mosaics which must have dated from an even earlier structure, perhaps fifth or sixth century.

Coat of arms of Brescia

The two cathedrals of Brescia

The other square was the Piazza della Loggia with its medieval and renaissance buildings, including a monumental astronomical clock and the beautiful loggia of which the city of Brescia is justifiably proud. There was also the town hall, filled when we visited with a Chinese exhibition. The Italians make their squares work hard. When we arrived at about 2 pm the square had just been cleared of the last market stalls and was a clutter of boxes, rubbish and dustcarts. We left it to visit the castle set high on the hill in landscaped grounds above Brescia with splendid views over the rooftops and vineyards that surround the city. Here we heard our first cuckoo of the year. The castle was a massive complex yet somehow and for some reason they had managed to transport an entire steam locomotive up there and place it on the ramparts!

Castle entrance, Brescia

View over the city from the castle ramparts, Brescia

Vinyards and hillside seen from the castle, Brescia

Castle locomotive, Brescia

We made our way down through shady avenues of flowering chestnut trees, past the Piazza del Foro which houses the few highly reconstructed Roman remains and back to the Piazza della Loggia, hoping for more uncluttered views of the buildings around the square. But we were too late, already a series of perhaps twenty wooden booths were nearing completion for some other event. So we had a couple of beers at a table in front of the town hall and watched the workmen slotting the last of the booths together and the production line of newly weds emerging from the entrance of the town hall to step into vintage vehicles and be cheered on their way.

Route down from the castle, Brescia

Temple of Vespasian, Brescia

One of the city's many famed fountains, Brescia

Piazza della Loggia, Brescia

Wedding couple leaving the townhall, Brescia

By now we were feeling the effects of walking around all day and the relaxing beer, so made our way back to the railway station and Iseo. Here we strolled around the busy little streets and bought stuffed peppers and courgettes at a delicatessen for supper. Back at the campsite, while waiting for our purchases to reheat in our tiny portable oven, we chatted with our friendly German neighbours and watched an Italian mum rock her baby to sleep in a hammock suspended between a couple of trees on the water's edge as she sang it a very pretty lullaby. The setting sun glowing bright red through the evening haze that continued to hang over the lake as we finally enjoyed a delicious supper with a glass of red wine.

Piazza Garibaldi, Iseo

Strolling along the waterfront, Iseo

Monday 23rd April 2007-04-22, Peschiera, Lake Garda
The mist over Lake Iseo was still there when we woke yesterday morning so we decided to move on. First though we went back into the town to sort out our email, load another blog, phone our kids and indulge in chocolate buns by the lakeside. Nearby to the north of Iseo, high up a tortuous narrow road into the white limestone mass, lies the little village of Cislano. It lies on a terrace of debris left by the glacier that originally formed the lake. The area is now a protected park containing a strange geological abnormality. The glacier carried and deposited both clay and calcite remains as well as rocks of harder material. The melting ice flow and subsequent weathering dissolved and washed away the softer materials leaving the harder rocks perched on top of pyramid shaped stacks where the calcite beneath was protected from erosion. To see these, we were able to walk from the village along steep footpaths through mountain pastures of bright flowers with wonderful views of mountains, valleys and the lake far below. Along the path lizards, up to a foot in length, scuttled from beneath our feet to rustle away into the surrounding bushes. Returning to the village we discovered a little church offering a couple of hot and weary walkers a seat and some cool shade. It was decorated with weathered frescoes on the walls, both inside and out.

The Pyramids of Zone, Cislano

Church at Cislano

Frescos in the church at Cislano

Fortunately we did not need to return along the same difficult route down to the lake. Instead we took the fast and busy national route through the mountains, passing through several long tunnels where the deafening noise of motorbikes zipping past us was quite terrifying. At least we made good progress and in no time we were at this little tourist resort of Peschiera at the southern end of Lake Garda, the largest of the Italian lakes. The town has historically been important for controlling the trade routes across northern Europe, occupying a strategically important site on the lake, near the foothills of the Dolomites and on the northern edge of the vast flat plain of the Po which stretches from Turin to Venice and down to Ravenna. Just a short distance from here is the ancient city of Verona.

And so we arrive at Peschiera

Today we have done very little culturally but have thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in the warm sunshine beside the lake with nothing to worry about and our time completely our own. The delight of the dolce farniente! We strolled into town and wandered around the weekly market, selling mainly clothing and shoes (Italian women love gold, sparkly ones and the higher the heels the better. Perfect for cobbled town streets!) There were cheese stalls selling huge chunks of hard Italian parmesan, gorgonzola and mozzarella. The fish stalls sold squid and seafood and of course, huge fresh water fish from the lake. We bought a punnet of local strawberries and a couple of samples of fried fish for a picnic beside the incredibly clear, green water of the lake where huge fish swam right up to the shore.

Market by the fortifications of Peschiera

Waterside scene, Peschiera

Our indolence continued with a coffee at a bright sunny table on a waterside terrace – the temperature for sitting around has been perfect. This was followed by a stroll along the lakeside beneath the shady pine trees. Swimming in the lake is not currently allowed and it would be far too cold yet anyway. On the beach however, there were quite a few sunbathers, mainly sound asleep.

Our walk beside Lake Garda, Peschiera

Our map showed a little village nearby but when we arrived it turned out to be quite modern with little to enjoy save a rest in the cool interior of the rather uninspiring 20th century church. As we returned to Peschiera Jill was counting her blessings that we are well out of the mountains here with no imposing castles for Ian to insist on visiting. However, he soon managed to discover some fortifications completely devoid of shade both for climbing up there and along the top when we arrived! There were some nice views of the lake and town as compensation however.

On the ramparts, Peschiera

Following our recent comments on the exhibition of naïve ex voto paintings, our attention was drawn to a display of posters as we passed the church in the historic town centre. Here photos of recently departed residents are displayed with messages from their families and details of their forthcoming funeral services.

The Italian way of death, Peschiera

We returned to our campsite to cool off, Ian with a beer on the terrace of the swimming pool, Jill with an icy swim. The pool has only just opened and the water is still so cold it almost hurts to breathe. It felt wonderful coming out!

This is the fourth lake we have visited since leaving the Jura. All have been pretty and each has its own individual charm. Lake Garda is some thirty miles long and we have seen only this southernmost corner. Here it is wide and flat, a huge inland sea. Further north it becomes narrow, deep and hemmed in by mountains, more like a Norwegian fjiord. It is something we will have to miss this time.

Domestic chores need doing even when life is one long holiday, so today we also used the campsite washing machine and festooned our pitch with tee-shirts and tea towels. At least we are respectable for a couple more weeks now. Ian has also washed Modestine, who was filthy with dust and had more squashed flies than one of Italy's acclaimed Garibaldi biscuits!