A little piece of heaven in Italy

PHOTO: SG Travellers

IT WAS drizzling when I arrived in Lovere but the grey skies did not detract from the beauty of Italy's Lake Iseo along which this historic town borders.

Little wonder English travel writer Mary Wortley Montagu, who lived in Lovere for nearly a decade, described it in 1748 as "a place the most beautifully romantic I ever saw in my life".

She also wrote: "The whole lake of Iseo ... is all surrounded with these impassable mountains, the sides of which, toward the bottom, are so thick set with villages…"

On a walk along the waterfront promenade of Lovere, a glance at the mountains soaring above the lake and their village-studded slopes suggested that little has changed from Wortley Montagu's time.

Although it is the fourth largest of the lakes in the Lombardy region of northern Italy, Lake Iseo is diminutive when compared to its bigger and better known cousins of Garda, Como and Maggiore.

But it is precisely its pint size that makes it easier to hop from one lakeside town and village to another - by boat or bus - to explore old winding alleys and to view the lake from different angles.

Sandwiched between Lakes Garda and Como, Lake Iseo is only a 25km long, sickle-shaped sliver of deep blue at the foot of the Alps.

Like its larger neighbours, it offers charming towns and villages huddled along the water's edge, striking scenery, several splendid buildings and an abundant dose of cultural heritage.

Being less touristy and not as developed as the big name lakes, it appeals to those wishing to get off the beaten track.

While little remains of the Roman settlement that Lovere once was, it is rich with traces from the Middle Ages when the Celeri family were the feudal overlords who fortified the town with its landmark defence towers - Torricella, Torre Soca, Torre Civica and Torre degli Alghisi - dating back to the 12th century.

In 1442, Lovere came under the rule of the Venetian Republic and as it grew prosperous as a wool trading centre, many significant buildings that form part of the town's heritage today were added.

They include the 15th-century Basilica of Santa Maria with its breathtaking interior of frescos and its massive organ flanked with decorative panels, and the Church and Convent of Santa Chiara.

Of the town's 16th-century palaces, Palazzo Barboglio, now the Tadini Academy, stands out for its collection of works from the Lombard and Venetian painting schools.

Torre Civica, or the Civic Tower in the Piazza (Square) Vittorio Emanuele II, is at the heart of modern Lovere, just as it was in the past when it was the centre of trading activities and social life.

On a stroll around the square and on cobbled streets leading from it, I got a constant whiff of freshly baked bread from the many bakeries dotting the area.

The neighbourhood is also studded with bars, restaurants and gift shops offering beautifully hand-crafted items worthy of Lovere's artistic heritage such as Ceramiche Artigianale Rota Michele's ceramics and Studio Elisa Trivella's hand-painted postcards and souvenirs.

Torre Civica (Civic Tower) itself sports some frescoes highlighting the town's various periods of rule.

The most notable is that of the lion of St Mark inscribed when Lovere came under the Republic of Venice. It is worth climbing to the top (free admission) for panoramic views of Lovere and its surrounding hills.

Like the other lakeside towns of Iseo, Lovere has a picturesque waterfront promenade that makes for a delightful stroll.

It leads from the old port facing the crescent-shaped Piazza 13 Martiri with its characteristic pastel-coloured buildings with overhanging roofs housing bars, restaurants and offices, past residential villas and the Tadini Academy all the way to the marina.

Boats leave the port regularly for Pisogne on the opposite side of the lake and to Monte Isola, a tiny mountainous island in the middle of the lake and to a string of other historical gems.

Another alternative is to go town-hopping by road to the towns of Castro - an ancient Roman settlement - Riva di Solto and Sarnico, synonymous with the sleek Riva cruisers made in a boatyard that has been in operation since 1842.

GuideLines

I flew on Turkish Airlines from Istanbul to Milan, then took a bus to Milan's Central Station. From there, it was a one-hour train ride to Bergamo, the gateway to Lake Iseo.

From Bergamo's train station, I took one of the SAB buses that leave every half hour for Lovere.

Opt for a hotel with waterfront views.

In Lovere, indulge in regional specialities, including fish from the lake, cooked in many ways.

SAB buses ply between Lovere and Sarnico, stopping at villages and towns en route. Another alternative is to travel by boat.

Lake Iseo's maritime navigation company offers regular departures from Lovere to Pisogne and onwards to Sarnico via Mount Isola. For ferries, visit www.navigazionelagoiseo.it and www.sab-autoservizi.it for buses.

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