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A Real Slice of Italy - Bergamo, Lake Iseo, Val Camonica

Alexander Reed

A short hop away from Milan, lies an area of Italy little known by tourists, yet resplendent in culture and beauty. Having discovered this oasis of tranquillity some 18 years ago, I moved my family to the area and for many years have savoured the delights of skiing in the winter, lakes in the summer and street parties with an honest Italian welcome throughout the rest of the year. Even though Ryanair and many other low cost airlines fly into Milan Bergamo airport (barely 20 minutes away), the area still remains mainly undiscovered and unspoilt.

The area encloses Lake Iseo, Valley Camonica, Montecampione ski resort and the lower Alps. To understand better the fascination of this area, I'll take you on a virtual tour of discovery and the first place of call has to be the City of Bergamo, not only because of the airport, but also because I would rate it up there with the best in terms of culture, sites and experience. High claims I admit so I'll explain why.

Bergamo

The train and bus station sits like a pedestal to the expansive central avenue with some excellent shops and restaurants but the frosting on the cake is the fortified old medieval high town (Città Alta) reached by cable car at the top of the main street. It is still today one of only four Italian cities (with Ferrara, Lucca and Grosseto) with the old town centre still totally surrounded by the walls that have maintained intact their original aspect over the centuries.

The lack of cars is a blessing although scooters wizz past you at regular intervals. Standing on the old cobbled streets looking at the Old Square (Piazza Vecchia), with the Contarini Fountain and Palazzo della Ragione (the Reason Palace), you can still hear every evening at 10pm the Campanone, or bell tower, ringing out to recall the past when these bells announced the nocturnal closing of the fortified doors of the city.

On the other side of the Reason Palace there is the large white building of the New Palace that hosts the Angelo Mai Library. For the energetic, you must climb the Torre del Comune (City Tower) as the views are worth the hard work but be careful of the narrow steps. Nearby the famous Romanesque Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica holds the tomb of Bergamo's favorite son, the musician Donizetti.

Bergamo Città Alta also hosts a Botanic Garden and is the centre of the prestigious university faculty of Foreign Languages and Literature, and there resides a sort of Italian Cambridge atmosphere as students bussle past, late for their classes.

Before descending, I recommend a visit to the Rocca (old castle) as there are also beautiful views from the castle walls and a large cannon reminds you of the real reason for this hilltop walled town.

On the way back to the station, stop in the Accademia Carrara Gallery in Piazza Giacomo Carrara 82. you will be surprised to find such a variety of masterpieces, from Botticelli and Raffaello to Bellini and Donatella, all illuminating these ancient walls.

Lake Iseo

The bus station has handy buses every 30 minutes to Lovere port on Lake Iseo. The lake surprises most people as it winds majestically for over 18kms through the lower Alps and hosts Europe's largest inland Island, Monte Isola, with its characteristic Sanctuary of the Madonna of the Ceriola sitting like a beacon on the highest elevation of the Island.

Lovere was recently voted as one of Italy's prettiest borghi (picturesque villages) and apart from the obvious bars and restaurants, I particularly recommend a walk along the bank of the lake down to the port with the odd duck or swan to accompany you on your way. The Ferry point in the centre is a great place to set off on a trip around the lake or take an evening cruise with live music to accompany an evening meal onboard.

Boario in Val Camonica

Next stop is a 15 minute bus hop north to Boario spa town in Val Camonica, famous for its bottled mineral water and used by many as a central location to explore both the lake and mountains of this idyllic location. Boario's name is thought to derive from an ancient Celtic word for "ancient water" and the valley itself has the unusual fact that it contains the highest concentration of ancient rock carvings in Europe and is an UNESCO World heritage site.

At the head of the valley on the western side is the Alps largest national park, Parco dell'Adamello, rich in flora and fauna with numerous lakes and valleys. Staying in one of the many park lodges is back to nature at its best.

Just above the town is Lake Moro. Unspoilt and nestled like a cup in the palm of the mountains. Walking round the edge of the lake is a favourite past time of many and the occasional Otter or Kingfisher are a reminder of the natural beauty of this area. Waking up in the morning wondering what to do is not a problem as the area is teaming with activities, places of interest and history. Activities include the usual canoeing, windsurfing, ferry boats, multi pool complex and horse riding but also the more exhilerating treetop rope parks, indoor go-carting, paragliding, canyoning and rock climbing! To get the most I recommend hiring a car locally for a couple of days!

The rich history of the valley is reflected in its castles and villages with their quaint churches centrally located as if the villages themselves were but an afterthought. There are many stories about the valley's dramatic past. One story recounts that in the time of the "witch hunt" in 1510 the Bishop Paolo Zane came to the valley and accused hundreds of witch craft with the subsequent sad consequence. In fact the then rulers (Venice) sent another Bishop to investigate, not the numerous witches but Bishop Zane himself!

Excellent pasta, pizza and wine are a staple of the Italian cuisine but digging deeper there are some exquisite local delicacies to discover in every region. In the Camonica valley it's Casoncelli (a home made type of Raviolli), wild boar stew with Polenta, Strinu (a type of sausage) and Tagliata, delicate slices of lightly cooked beef often served with rocket salad and Parmesean cheese. Every village in the summer has a weekend street party where they serve these dishes along with music and barrels of wine. Fortunately there are a lot of villages so summer seems an endless festival of food!

Montecampione Ski Resort

Winter calls for a trip up to the Montecampione Ski Resort situated just above Boario and Lake Iseo. The trip itself is a discovery, as between the tree lined roads appear spectacular glimpses across the lake and over the valley and to the Alps beyond. The resort, although large and stretching over three stations with some 80kms of piste, is mainly used by Italian day trippers from Milan which leaves most weekdays surprisingly quiet and ski passes less expensive than some other famous resorts. Even better the following is available locally: snow mobile hire, snow shoe excursions, ice climbing, Heliski etc.

Iseo

Our trip ends with a picturesque train journey from Boario down to the bottom of the lake to the actual village of Iseo. Also voted on of Italy's top 20 villages, it sits along the lake with a large pedestrian area behind. Many people from the surrounding area go down to sit outside a bar sipping a cocktail and watching the sun set behind the mountains reflected in rays of orange and red across the lake - unforgettable.

For my work I have travelled extensively throughout Italy and personally the "branded" locations like Lake Garda, Milan, Venice, Florence and Rome, I find much the worse for wear from over development of tourism, sometimes to the detriment of their local culture. They remain "must-see" places, yet, for a real slice of Italy, I'd head for the hills and the lesser known Lakes of Lombardy.

Resources

www.regione.lombardia.it: Region of Lombardy official website

Get more information from the Wikitravel Bergamo Travel Guide.


Alexander is a travel consultant living in Italy and has a complete destination guide to the area at www.monticolo.it.

© Alexander Reed, 2007

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