Italian Lakes

Friday 10th April 2015, Lake Maggiori, Italy, Continued.
We drove up through Pontarlier and on into Switzerland. Mid-afternoon we drove through the centre of Lausanne and along beside Lac Leman through Vevey and Montrose. All are smart, fashionable towns and we could easily have spent time exploring them. However, as we never have any Swiss money as we pass through, we can never stop to park, so we pressed on, thinking of our friend Martine who hails from Vevey but has now lived in England for most of her life. Also a former resident of Vevey was Charlie Chaplin who chose to make his home there. A wise choice. It’s smart, clean and altogether a lovely town just a bus ride along the lake from Lausanne.

Our route beside Lac Leman

Centre of Montrose, Lac Leman

Nearing Sion, Switzerland

That evening we decided to camp somewhere we’ve used before, right on the linguistic border between French and German Switzerland. Temperatures dropped overnight to minus four as we piled on all our blankets inside Modestine. Around us, hemming us in on all sides, the jagged mountain peaks were coated in a thick crust of snow. Modestine had been objecting for several days to the thought of having to carry us up and over the Simplon Pass. She’s already done it at least twice so we devised a cunning plan to take her into Brig and load her on to a navette that would carry her in a tunnel right through the Alps.

Station at Brig

Modestine’s train arrives, Brig

It was a perfect plan and surprisingly cheap at 22 Swiss francs! We sat back in Modestine while she and around 20 other vehicles disappeared into a dark tunnel beneath millions of tons of mountain. Thirty minutes later we emerged on the south side of the Alps into brilliant sunshine.

Time to load Modestine onto the train, Brig

About to enter the tunnel, Brig

Arriving in Italy

Within seconds we were off the train and driving steeply downhill for ages, winding down through Italy , overtaken constantly by fast and impatient Italian drivers. By lunch time we’d reached Lake Maggiori and found the campsite at Baveno which is as pleasant on this visit as we’d remembered it from 2005. Right beside the lake, bathed by the warm sunshine, there are trees heavy with oranges and lemons while every corner of the local gardens have bright shrubs of camellias and magnolia blossoms untouched by the frost that invariably damages them back home.

Lake at Baveno

Lakeside villa, Baveno

Since then I have unfortunately been rather ill. Somehow I was determined to get us here but once I’d done so my immune system gave up and allowed a horrid cold and high temperature to attack me. Currently I am feeling a bit better and Ian has left me here and wandered off down to the lake to check on boat times to the Borromeo islands. We are happy to settle here until I feel recovered. I’m sorry I am not up to writing much about Baveno, which is a lovely little town, but our previous account was very detailed so please do read that, it says it all.

Yesterday afternoon I unwisely thought I was well enough to take a walk with Ian along the lakeside to Stresa, the next town along. We didn’t realise the footpath gave out a kilometre outside of Baveno and we were forced to walk a couple of kilometres further along the busy roadside. Once we eventually reached Stresa we found it to be a pleasant little town though more touristy than Baveno. It has an attractive lakeside strand where we ate ice creams to cool my sore throat. We found a bus to bring us back and I went straight to bed with a high temperature, cough and uncontrolled sneezing. This morning however the fever had eased so maybe we can move on in a day or so. Daytime temperatures here are up to 31 degrees so it’s too hot to sleep in Modestine during the day though the air off the lake is fresh and very pleasant. This morning we explored the delightful residential area, back from the lake and in the shadow of the granite quarry from where the pinkish building stone is cut. It has been used all over the world, including the royal palace in Bangkok. In the village shop we bought vegetables and bread. Down beside the lake everyone will speak in English but up in the village on the hillside, away from the tourist places, we have to manage in Italian. Ian is brilliant at it, considering he makes it up as he goes along, and people accept and understand him with no problem. I understand a lot but don’t have Ian’s natural flair for language. He’s a very useful travelling companion.

Ian has just returned from his potter around the town on his own. He says he’s been exploring the local church and the library. In the former he found some more of the strange ex voto pictures that seem a curious feature of Italian churches, while in the library he found a local history section with a detailed account of Queen Victoria’s visit to Baveno in the 1870s.

Frescos in the church, Baveno

Isola Bella, Lago Maggiori

Isola Bella, Lago Maggiori, seen from Stresa

Sunday 12th April, Lake Lugano
We spent four days at Baveno waiting for me to feel fit enough to drive again and we moved on here this morning. I suppose I am a lot better but I’m still very spluttery and snotty. (See how interesting my news is?) I’ve done loads of sleeping while Ian has been working with his computer. He tells me it’s research but he seems to be having an ongoing correspondence with a fellow cloacopapyrologist with whom digital toilet paper has been happily exchanged! Ian’s new friend is a retired British diplomat who lives in Turkey and his wife is probably thinking much the same as I am!

Modestine has stayed overlooking the water while we have taken bus rides around the lake rather than using the boats as we did last time. Yesterday we took the bus round to Pallanza and ate ice cream with everyone else along beside the water. Generally it has been a very enjoyable but low-key visit, but it’s as much as I can as yet manage.

Water front at Pallanza

Hydrological Institute, Pallanza

Checking my email this morning before moving on I found a message from Lynn telling us of an alpine garden above Stresa, accessible by cable car, that she had visited. Checking with the campsite they said the cable car is not currently running and it would be too far for us to walk up. So regretfully we decided it wasn’t going to happen. Sorry Lynn but thanks for the suggestion. We really appreciate ideas from anyone that knows more about the areas in which we find ourselves than we do.

Much of today has been spent driving in and out of Switzerland and Italy. I think tonight we are in Italy but only just. At one point it seemed that the road we were driving along was itself the boundary between the two countries. We need fuel but on Sundays the pumps are unmanned and the Italian garages we tried didn’t want our card while the Swiss ones are more expensive for diesel.

Picnic spot near Locarno

This evening we walked down to Lake Lugano after supper and were in time to watch a couple of grebes courting on the water. They synchronised their movements, curving their necks and bodies until they both dived together under the water. When they surfaced the male had a fish in his beak for his partner. They swam swiftly towards each other and as they met they both rose up in an awesome display of perfectly synchronised movement, seeming to dance across the surface together! Definitely the most exciting thing that’s happened today – even more than discovering a Lidl selling foodstuff at realistic prices. Italian food shops are really boring. Mushrooms, pasta, tinned tuna, tomato sauce, eggs, cheese, mince and that’s about it. Oh yes, and massive quantities of sea salt! What do they do with it?

Once we’d settled Modestine onto this campsite in Lavende – in contrast to Baveno there is hardly anyone here and it’s a but scruffy and old fashioned – we walked up into the village. There is a circus nearby and we stopped to chat to a giraffe and a zebra while from inside the big top came the trumpeting of an elephant. The old village is lovely with narrow passages leading between the big houses colour-rendered in orange, sienna and yellow, with their contrasting blistered wooden shutters in dark green or brown. There are tubs of flowers on balconies, on steps and in entrance ways where doors are open to admit the sunshine.

Down beside the water local families were out and it was crowded with long queues for ice-creams and coffees. Restaurants were just clearing up after lunch and the vistas of the mountains, still with snow in their shaded crevices, reflected on the surface of the water. We are on one arm of the lake which sends out long tentacles, octopus-like, between the mountains. Thus at one point it seemed as if we were on the bank of a river, then the lake opened out with other arms leading off. To get to the place just across the water could take many hours of driving! We should know, we seem to have spent all day driving around the shore of Lake Maggiori before turning off some time after Locarno to make our way across towards Lugano.

Lavende on Lake Lugano

Lake Lugano at Lavende

Lavende, Lake Lugano

Wednesday15th April 2015, Iseo
I’ve not been up to writing anything for the past few days but today I think I’m slowly on the way to recovery. We arrived at Iseo on Monday after a day of hot and unpleasant driving through small but busy little towns. Italy has accepted roundabouts with delight and we reckon we’ve been round hundreds of them today. Looking through our blog of our first visit I find I complained about exactly the same things then as have driven me bonkers this time. – effaced road markings, inaccurate signposts, potholes that make the UK seem civilised, heavy lorries and narrow roads, 50km speed restrictions for almost all of northern Italy away from motorways, and steeply winding roads. The very worst though was suddenly entering a very long tunnel without lighting inside. My headlights were useless with the deflectors I have to use and the bright LED lights of oncoming vehicle broke into a thousand shards of light. It was a terrifying experience. I think it must have been the contrast with the bright sunlight outside the tunnel and the lack of lights inside. I’ve never experienced it before though, even though many Scandinavian tunnels we’ve used have been unlit.

Eventually though we reached Iseo and settled on a pitch beside the water’s edge with Monte Isola out in the lake. This is claimed to be the largest island in a lake anywhere in southern Europe. It has several little villages and a circumference of nine kms. The campsite we found was idyllic, the clear water lapping just a couple of feet from Modestine’s back door. It was clean and friendly and there was free wifi.

Sunset from our pitch on the campsite, Iseo

Lake Iseo

Monte Isola, Lake Iseo

For two nights we stayed, I was too ill to be interested in anything other than not driving! Yesterday I felt marginally better and Ian wanted to explore Iseo.

Castle, Iseo

Piazza Garibaldi, Iseo

Arsenal, Iseo

It was hot and by the time we’d walked two kilometres into town we were both weary and realised the campsite was quite unsuitable without a bus service. So this morning we reluctantly left the lake and drove along into Iseo where we have settled on another, slightly dearer campsite but it is minutes from the ferry terminal, the supermarket and the railway station. It is also on the lake and we have an equally good view though we are not on the water’s edge. It is a charmingly run, old fashioned campsite where we were greeted by an elderly, delightful Italian gentleman who shook our hands, even opening my door to assist me out! He spoke to us the entire time in German but then we are the only English here. It is an ADAC listed site and all the other campers are German. It’s very pleasant indeed and we still have free wifi so we are more than happy to stay here instead.

Ian went off into town to find some bread and ham for a snack lunch while I fell asleep – it’s so good when I am able to breathe enough to sleep. I’ve been choking like a fish out of water for days now! After a peaceful lunch under an olive tree, where three blackbirds hopped around under the table chasing our crumbs and a couple of lizards eyed them warily from the low wall beside the tiny beach. We walked into town and arrived in minutes at the ferry port for the afternoon boat out to Monte Isole.

Approaching Monte Isola, Lake Iseo

The highest point of Monte Isola is 600 meters above sea level or more than 400 meters above the lake. It has four major settlements along the shore of which Peschiera is the largest and four inland with the sanctuary above Cure crowning the highest point. The total population is about 1,800. It is about 2 km from east to west and 3 Km from north to south, making it the largest lake island in southern Europe. It is first documented in 905 in a list of the properties of the monastery of Santa Giulia in Brescia. In the 11th and 12th centuries the Oldofredi family built the two strongholds on the island. They were a local noble family who also built the castle in Iseo; (when we see their name attached to local streets, alleys or buildings we say, "There's Old Freddy again!") The Visconti of Milan hunted there around 1400 – though what game such a small island might hide is a mystery. In 1497 Caterina Cornaro, the Queen of Cyprus, stayed on the island – we never even knew that the island of Cyprus had its own monarchs.

On the water there was a gentle breeze and twenty minutes later we stepped off onto the island at the tiny hamlet of Sensoli from where we walked the “coast” road along to Peschiera. This was really no more than a surfaced track. Cars are not allowed on the island though essential ones are allowed for the locals – about 1,800 people live there and many of the younger residents drive lambrettas. There is also a small hourly bus around the island and visitors can hire bicycles if they are feeling energetic. I suppose the atmosphere is rather as one would expect landing on one of the Scilly isles. Houses are tightly packed with cool shady alleyways between them. Olive trees offer shade along the shore between the villages, while rising steeply up immediately behind there is a rich vegetation of pine trees and mixed woodland. The summit of the island stands 600 metres above the lake. The main activities, apart from tourism, are fishing, net making and boat making.

Landing stage, Sensoli, Monte Isola, Lake Iseo

Peschiera, Monte Isola, Lake Iseo

We spent a delightful afternoon, resting frequently beneath olive trees looking across at the mainland while enjoying chocolate ices creams which melted in the hot sunshine faster than we could lick them! This evening we are discovering sticky brown splobs on our teeshirts!

By 5pm it was time to return across the water to Iseo, past Monte Isola’s very own off-shore island, Isola Santo Paolo, with its pretty villa and several Cyprus trees, and past Modestine, looking across at us from the campsite as we passed by on the boat. In Iseo we strolled to the supermarket, up in the newer part of the town, returning to Modestine with half a cooked chicken, some mixed olives and a melon for supper. Life’s not so bad!

Isola Santo Paolo, Monte Isola’s own offshore island, Lake Iseo

Related links:
Baveno seeLake Annecy to Lake Maggiore, 2007
Iseo see Lake Iseo and Brescia