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 tranquility 18 years ago, I moved my family there. For many years we have savoured the delights of skiing in the winter, enjoying 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 portion encloses Lake Iseo, Valley Camonica, Montecampione ski resort and the lower Alps. To understand better the fascination of this region, I'll take you on a virtual tour. 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.
The train and bus station sit like a pedestal to the expansive central avenue with excellent shops and restaurants. The cream on the cake, though, is the fortified medieval high town (Città Alta), reachable by cable car at the top of the main street. It is still one of only four Italian cities (with Ferrara, Lucca and Grosseto) in which the old town centre is surrounded by the original walls of centuries ago. Lack of cars is a blessing although scooters whiz past at regular intervals. Standing on the cobbled streets looking at the Old Square (Piazza Vecchia), with the Contarini Fountain and Palazzo della Ragione (the Reason Palace), every evening you will hear the campanone, 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 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), but the views are worth the hard work. Watch out for the narrow steps; it's a long way down. Nearby is the famous Romanesque Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica, which holds the tomb of Bergamo's favorite son, the musician, Donizetti.
Bergamo Città Alta has a botanic garden; it is the centre of the prestigious university faculty of Foreign Languages and Literature. There resides a sort of Italian Cambridge atmosphere as students bustle past, late for their classes.
Before descending, I recommend a visit to the Rocca (old castle). There are beautiful views from the castle walls, a large cannon reminds you of the 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 a variety of masterpieces, from Botticelli and Raffaello to Bellini and Donatella, all illuminating these ancient walls .
Buses leave every 30 minutes to Lovere port on Lake Iseo. The lake winds majestically for over 18 kilometres through the lower Alps. It 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. 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 on board.
Next is a 15-minute bus hop north to Boario spa town in Val Camonica, famous for its bottled mineral water that is used as a central location to explore both the lake and mountains. The name Boario is thought to derive from an ancient Celtic word for "ancient water". The valley contains the highest concentration of ancient rock carvings in Europe and is a UNESCO World heritage site. At the head of the valley on the western side is the largest national park in the Alps, Parco dell'Adamello, rich in flora and fauna with numerous lakes and valleys. Staying in one of the many parks lodges is back to nature at its best.
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, 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; the area teams with activities, places of interest and history, such as canoeing, windsurfing, ferry boats, multi pool complex and horse riding. Also there are the more exhilarating 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 and carrying health insurance.
The rich history of the valley is reflected in its castles and villages with their quaint churches centrally located, as if the villages were but an afterthought. Many stories abound about the valley's dramatic past. One recounts that in the time of the "witch hunt" in 1510, bishop Paolo Zane, came to the valley and accused hundreds of witchcraft, with subsequent sad consequence. In fact, the then rulers (Venice) sent another bishop to investigate, not the numerous witches, but Bishop Zane!
Excellent pasta, pizza and wine are staples of Italian cuisine. Digging deeper, though, are some exquisite local delicacies. In the Camonica valley, it's Casoncelli (a homemade type of ravioli), wild boar stew with polenta, Strinu (a type of sausage) and Tagliata, delicate slices of lightly cooked beef often served with rocket salad and Parmesan cheese. In the summer every village has a weekend street party, where these dishes are served, along with music and barrels of wine. Fortunately, with so many villages, summer seems an endless festival of food!
Winter calls for a trip up to the Montecampione Ski Resort situated above Boario and Lake Iseo. The trip is a discovery. Between the tree lined roads appear spectacular glimpses across the lake, over the valley and the Alps beyond. The resort, although large and stretching over three stations with some 80 kilometres of piste, is mainly used by Italian day trippers from Milan, leaving most weekdays quiet. Ski passes are much lower than some other "famous" resorts. Even better, there are snowmobiles for hire, snowshoe excursions, ice climbing, etc.
Our trip ends with a picturesque train journey from Boario to the bottom of the lake, where the village of Iseo is located – voted amongst 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, sip a cocktail and watch the sun set behind the mountains reflected in rays of orange and red across the lake – unforgettable.
I have travelled extensively throughout Italy. In my opinion the "branded" locations like Lake Garda, Milan, Venice, Florence and Rome, have become 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.
Alexander is a travel consultant living in Italy and has a more complete destination guide to the area at Monticolo Vacanze.