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3 Idylls in Italy's Lake District

Savoring natural beauty on a drive around Lake Iseo

May 12, 1996|PAMELA J. DILLET | Dillett is a freelance writer who lives in Italy

ISEO, Italy — While hundreds of tourists sweat Lake Como traffic jams, and others wait in line to have dinner at a pricey Lake Garda restaurant, we're only 30 miles from Garda, but we're eating grilled lake fish in the gentle Italian sunshine, watching swans drift along Lake Iseo, and imagining who inhabits the terra-cotta roofed villages sprinkled on the mountain backdrop.

One of the smallest and least-known lakes of Northern Italy's Lake District, Lago d'Iseo, or Lake Iseo, is an easy hour's drive or train ride from Milan. The area's untamed charm has been popular with Italians since Roman times, and the fact that it's not as dressed up as the more famous lake resorts is an advantage for travelers seeking refuge from Italy's frequently astronomical prices and cattle-herd atmosphere.

When we visit the Lake District, my husband and I base ourselves in the 12th century town of Iseo on the lake's southeastern shore. Here, fashionable clothing boutiques nestle beside medieval churches and piazzas, but the prevailing theme is nature, expressed by the olive and palm-lined promenade Lungolago Marconi, the surrounding pre-Alpine mountains, geranium-filled clay pots on every balcony and caged canaries singing from windows.

We stay at the Milano, a 15-room, family-owned hotel and restaurant that faces the lake. Most of the customer service is conducted by Roberta, the sweet-natured 29-year-old daughter of a Dutch mother and an Italian father, who together have a long history in the hotel business throughout Europe.

Her mother, Margriet, cooks meals that are comfortingly homemade in both flavor and stick-to-the-ribs satisfaction, especially her lasagna. The rooms are not luxurious, but are comfortable, clean, sufficiently appointed, and offer photogenic views of the 23 1/2-square-mile lake. And at $59 for a double, they're a veritable steal.

Roberta recites the many things we can do nearby, including golf, canoeing, para-sailing, swimming and sightseeing by train or boat, but we choose a leisurely drive around Iseo's 37-mile perimeter, with selected stops along the way. (Visitors may not want to make this drive late on Sunday afternoons in summer when Italians are returning from weekends in the mountains, creating extra traffic. An expressway is under construction to divert nonlocal traffic and should be completed within two years.)

Sated by a continental breakfast of fresh rolls, yogurt and cereal in the hotel dining room, we set out in our rented Fiat, driving north on the lake's perimeter road. A mile away, we see technical climbers tackling mountain ascents with such names as "Flash" and "Tiramisu." At this point, a path through the woods leads to Buca del Quai, a 220-yard-long underground cave that is navigable by appointment.After the village of Sulzano, we turn right to climb up into the mountains. It's early June and each hairpin turn brings a new and more magnificent view of the lake. Directly below us, terraced, spring-green slopes flutter with grazing goats, bobbing poppies, women conferring energetically as they hang out wash, and men in vests and sea captain's caps inspecting their small, but precious, grape plots.

At the summit, we drink soda on the shady patio of a trattoria, and admire the valley views on either side of the mountain. There's a hut here for the many hikers who trek along the mountain ridge. In fact, hikers can take the glorious walk through the mountains from Iseo, passing this point, and continuing on to Mt. Guglielmo (elevation 6,428 feet) in about nine hours.

Back on the lake road, we drive about five miles, passing through little fishing villages, to the town of Marone, where we follow the signs up another mountain toward Zone and the "earth pyramids." True natural oddities, the pyramids, some of them 100 feet high, are needle-like spires of earth with perfectly rounded boulders perched on top. They were formed from glacial morainic debris exposed to centuries of erosion.

Farther up the mountain we find ourselves in alpine splendor among Swiss chalet-style houses and wildflower meadows worthy of the Von Trapp family. The entrances to hiking trails (including a three-mile walk to Mt. Guglielmo) disappear into fir and beech forests.

At the northern end of the lake we explore the towns of Pisogne and Lovere, both offering art-filled churches and bustling piazzas. After lunching alfresco on Lovere's harbor, we continue along the lake's western shore. Suddenly, we're at the bottom of a sort of gorge, with rock cliffs and overhanging vines that drop to the water. This stretch is spectacular, though I'm sure to leave some fingernails in the car seat as my husband negotiates blind, single-lane curves and tunnels blasted out of the rock.

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