Italian Lakes (2013)

LAKE ISEO, FRANCIACORTA AND VAL CAMONICA

Wild Lake Iseo is bordered by the cultivated wine country of Franciacorta and is a stepping stone to Val Camonica, where the rocks are carved with accounts of the lives of the Camuni people, the valley’s prehistoric population.

Main Attractions

Santa Maria Della Neve

Iseo

Franciacorta Winelands

Abbazia di San Nicola

Franciacorta Outlet Village

Bienno

Val Camonica Rock Carvings

Parco dell’Adamello

Brescia’s inhabitants think of the lakes as a summer playground, and as a reward for their hard work in banking, pharmaceuticals and the arms trade. Lake Iseo, located between Brescia and Bergamo, is also Bergamo’s back garden, representing a restful weekend escape around one of the largest lake islands in Europe, called Monte Isola. Resolutely untouristy, Lake Iseo’s charms reside in the peaceful hamlets fringed by mountains and the cosy local inns.

GettyImages-629595657_ItalianLakes_EC

Val Camonica winter scene.

Getty Images

From Brescia, the short hop to the lake passes rolling countryside, wine estates and manor houses. This is the prosperous wine-growing district of Franciacorta, where gourmet cuisine is matched by Italy’s finest sparkling wines. It is a place of gentle moraine hills scattered with grand villas, castles and parks.

North of Lake Iseo stretches Val Camonica, running from the shore to snow-capped Tonale, passing villages which have worked stone, wood and iron ore since antiquity. As the ancestral home of the Camuni civilisation, the valley is scored with prehistoric rock carvings, especially around Capo di Ponte, which present a vivid account of the lives and beliefs of these people.

dreamstime_m_7744068_ItalianLakes_EC

The town of Peschiera Maraglio on Monte Isola.

Dreamstime

Lake Iseo

Brescia is a perfect stepping stone to rural Lake Iseo , which is a short but scenic train ride to Iseo itself. Lago d’Iseo, which measures 25km (15.5 miles) long by 5km (3 miles) wide, encloses one of the largest lake islands in Europe, and boasts wild scenery on the western shore, as well as wine-growing hills to the south. Thickly wooded slopes rise up from the waterfront. Iseo experiences a more Alpine climate than Lake Garda: olives and horse chestnuts flourish, rather than lemons and palms. Unfairly neglected in favour of the larger lakes, Lake Iseo is sweeter, quieter and less self-consciously quaint. Unlike its rivals, the lake offers no heart-stopping set pieces but compensates with the slow burn of contemplative walks and a way of life not wholly based on tourism. Iseo, the natural base for exploring the lake, is a charming unspoilt historic town, while the hills around hide some of the region’s finest inns.

83938

Sarnico 1 [map] , the Bergamo gateway to Lake Iseo, embodies the local attitude that this is a living, working community rather than a tourist trap. Set on the rugged western shore, Sarnico occupies the site of a prehistoric stilt village. Despite its delightful porticoes and medieval ramparts, Sarnico is best-known as a speedboat base, thanks to Riva, a company which produces the “Ferrari” of speedboats, which was founded here.

Tavernola Bergamasca 2 [map] signals the start of the wildest stretch of the lake, despite the blots of a cement works and over-quarried hills. Beyond here, the dramatic western shore is riddled with coves carved into limestone cliffs, and ravines running down to gnarled rocks.

At the northern end is Lovere , the capital of the Bergamo side of the lake and the starting point for expeditions into the Val Camonica. It is a good place to pause for a walk around the medieval village of Qualino , set on a hillside terrace with great panoramic views of the lake and the lower Camonica Valley.

IMG_7653_ItalianLakes_EC

Torbiere del Sebino.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Romanino frescoes

The rock carvings in Val Camonica (for more information, click here ) are best reached via the valley road from Pisogne 3 [map] . The village is famous for the frescoed church of Santa Maria della Neve (Via Antica Valeriana; Tue–Sun 9.30–11.30am, 3–6pm; free). Known as a poor man’s Sistine Chapel, the church is frescoed by Romanino (c. 1484–1559), a complex artist steeped in the Venetian Renaissance tradition, but influenced by Michelangelo, and a precursor to Caravaggio. On display is his powerful Passion of Christ cycle which, rare for the times, makes little distinction between sacred and profane subjects, placing them both on the same level. As a typically Brescian painter, Romanino is renowned for his realistic portraits of his contemporaries, faces that can still be seen all over Lake Iseo. These expressive frescoes depict a typical Romanino scene peopled by bulky, peasant-like figures, typical of an artist praised as “painting in dialect”.

IMG_7693_ItalianLakes_EC

Romanesque frescoes, Santa Maria della Neve, Pisogne.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

The ‘Pyramids of Zone’

Sheer lakeside cliffs frame Marone , where there is a turn-off to Cislano via Monte Marone and a tortuous route through chestnut woods to Zone 4 [map] . From here, there are views of strange mushroom-shaped pinnacles of soft rock topped by comical boulders. Formed by the erosion of glacial moraine deposits, these weathered “pyramids” can be seen close up by following the hiking trail from Zone.

Where

Lake Iseo Tourist office IAT Lago d’Iseo e Franciacorta (Lungolago Marconi 2/C, Iseo; tel: 030-374 8733; Tue–Fri 10am–12.30pm, 3–6pm; www.iseolake.info ) is helpful, as is the Franciacorta wine route ( www.stradadelfranciacorta.it ) and, for an overview, Brescia tourism ( www.bresciatourism.it ).

Monte Isola

To the south, and on the lakeside, Sale Marasino and Sulzano on the eastern shore offer crossings to Monte Isola 5 [map] , an island forested with chestnut trees and olive groves. En route, the ferry passes a tiny private island belonging to the gun-making Beretta dynasty, whose fearsome reputation is enough to deter curious visitors; Beretta’s industrial base is in the Brescian hinterland.

The ferry slips into Monte Isola, the highest lake island in Europe, and also the continent’s largest inhabited lake island. This mountainous, heavily forested island supports a 1,700-strong community of fishermen, boat builders and net-makers. Despite its humble origins, Monte Isola’s fishing hamlets reveal refined touches, from sculpted portals to tiny courtyards.

At Peschiera Maraglio , take the gentle walk from the jetty to Sensole , which covers the hamlets on the sunny side of the island, and allows for views of Iseo and the island of San Paolo. Above, tiers of olive groves merge into vineyards, chestnut groves and the occasional medieval tower, with the highest peak surmounted by a 16th-century sanctuary, built over a pagan shrine. The lakeside promenade is lined with fish restaurants, the best place for a scenic view of the mountainous terrain. It is hard to resist a waterfront inn for grilled sardines, perch risotto and lake scampi, washed down with a local wine.

On the shore, heaps of hammocks and fishing nets drying in the sun are the only clues that this has been a net-making area for 1,000 years. Cluniac monks built an industry which now embraces Wimbledon tennis nets and World Cup football nets. Look in at Retificio Architetti Paolo (on the waterfront), which sells serviceable hammocks.

Why not buy a picnic and consider the hike to the Gothic Santuario della Madonna della Ceriola (600 metres/1,970ft). It is a steep 90-minute climb past olive groves and walnut trees. Alternatively, the short (15-minute) route to the Marian sanctuary begins from Cure (and can be reached by bus).

Far gentler, and more in keeping with local tastes, is the lakeside promenade around the island. The pace of life is slow: cars are banned in favour of bicycles, mopeds or public minibuses (bicycles can be hired through the Peschiera tourist office). If in a hurry to return to civilisation, take the fastest ferry back to the mainland, which connects Monte Isola with Sulzano .

iStock_41371082_XLARGE_ItalianLakes_EC

View over Marone.

iStock

Iseo

Just south, the town of Iseo 6 [map] can also be reached on an attractive train journey from Brescia. Now the elegant lake capital, Iseo was a significant port until the 1870s, shipping grain from Val Camonica and steel from the industrial depots on the lake. Iseo is more irredeemably bourgeois and self-assured than its rival, Lovere, on the Bergamo bank, a town the locals dismiss as “provincial”. Sandwiched between the waterfront and a feudal castle, Iseo retains its cosy medieval street pattern as well as a sweeping promenade and handsome squares. The bustling shops display a slice of local life with huge Parmesans, salamis and mounds of fresh pasta. The clumsily remodelled church of Sant’Andrea boasts the finest Romanesque bell tower on the lake. Porticoed Piazza Garibaldi is the liveliest part of town, dominated by a statue of the patriot perched on a mossy rock, one of the few horseless statues of him in existence. The square’s cafés, particularly Ariston, make an appealing spot for people-watching and wine-tasting. Shaded by plane trees, the waterfront promenade is a soporific spot from which to watch the lake traffic.

Iseo is not simply the most attractive town on the waterfront, but a stepping stone to lakeside beaches, including the Lido di Belvedere .

Tip

The Treno Blu is a delightful train-bus-boat summer excursion from Bergamo to Lake Iseo, that takes in Palazzolo and Paratico, as well as a ferry crossing to Monte Isola on Lake Iseo (some Saturdays and Sundays in May, June, September; tel: 030-740 2851; www.ferrovieturistiche.it ).

iStock_80454783_XLARGE_ItalianLakes_EC

Piazza Garibaldi, Iseo.

iStock

Franciacorta

Just inland from Lake Iseo is a neat green patchwork of villas, extensive vineyards and monasteries that makes this Lombardy’s most mellow wine-growing area. It helps that Franciacorta produces the country’s most prestigious sparkling champagne-style wines, a world away from supermarket Spumante.

The path to prosperity was set by the medieval monks who colonised this once desolate corner in return for privileges. In the 11th century, the nobility called on Cluniac monks to drain the marshes, resulting in a building boom and grand crenellated monasteries. From 1277, tax concessions caused the area to be known as Corte Franca (“free court”) and spurred patrician families from Brescia and beyond to build castles in these low hills. During the Renaissance, these castles were converted into patrician villas and noble wine estates. Ambitious restaurateurs and wine-makers have since moved in, making Franciacorta the sought-after rural retreat for bons vivants it is today.

IMG_7650_ItalianLakes_EC

The Franciacorta wine district.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Franciacorta Wine Trail

The blend of superb wines and harmonious landscape finds favour with foodies and wine buffs alike, making Franciacorta a sought-after spot for a lost weekend.

This prestigious wine-growing region produces sparkling champagne-style signature wines, which are subject to a slow fermentation process. Known as Franciacorta DOCG, the wines run from Pas Dosé (exceptionally dry) to Brut (classic dry), Sec (dry) and Demi-Sec (dessert wine).

Given the connection between wine and wealth, the rolling countryside is dotted with wine estates spilling out of castles, villas and manor houses. While some estates have attached wine museums, sophisticated inns or simple farm-stays, virtually all producers offer wine-tasting. (Book directly, or through the Strada del Franciacorta association; www.stradadelfranciacorta.it ; tel: 030-776 0477.) This well-developed wine route proposes tours as well as a handy wine map. Given the number of superb estates and the desirability of booking, the following is only a taster of the most emblematic estates.

Wine estates

Unassuming Erbusco lies at the centre of the wine district. Bellavista (tel: 030-776 2000; www.bellavistawine.it ) is a highly rated estate of Brescian magnate Vittorio Moretti, now president of the Franciacorta Consortium. You can also browse Franciacorta wines in the village’s Cantine di Franciacorta wine shop (Via Iseo 98; tel: 030-775 1116), which also sells local honey, cheeses and salami.

In neighbouring Adro , the Contadi Castaldi estate (tel: 030-745 0126; www.contadicastaldi.it ) in a former brickworks is noted for sparkling Saten Brut, made from Chardonnay with a dash of Pinot Bianco. Nearby, the Ricci Curbastro estate in Capriola (tel: 030-736 094; www.riccicurbastro.it ) offers tastings and a tour of the wine museum, as well as an antique shop in its farm-stay. Near Corte Franca, Barone Pizzini (tel: 030-984 8311; www.baronepizzini.it ) is Franciacorta’s first fully organic estate, in a castle with a small museum, tasting rooms and restaurant. In Borgonato, just over the hill, Fratelli Berlucchi (tel: 030-984 381; www.berlucchi.com ) is one of the best-known producers, owned by five brothers. In Monticelli Brusati, further east, the Villa estate (tel: 030-652 329; www.villa-franciacorta.it ) occupies its own hamlet, with 16th-century cellars, a rustic inn and farm-stay apartments. In neighbouring Camignone di Passirano, Il Mosnel (tel: 030-653 117; www.ilmosnel.com ) is a welcoming family-run estate run by the dynamic Giulio Barzano. A wine-tasting can be followed by lunch chosen to complement the wines.

If visiting Ome, be sure to try Azienda Agricola Al Rocol (Via Provinciale 79, tel: 030-685 2542; www.alrocol.com ), a rustic inn on a family-run award-winning wine estate and farm. In autumn and winter order traditional spit with polenta e osei , washed down by a glass of the excellent local Grappa Chardonnay (Franciacorta DOCG). Also in Ome, stop by the Majolini winery (Via Manzoni 3, tel: 030-652 7378; www.majolini.it ) run by the same family since the 15th century and producing excellent Brut and Demi-Sec Franciacorta DOCG wines.

Monasteries and wine estates

Foremost among the monks who drained the lands were the Cluniac brothers from the Monastero di San Pietro 7 [map] (Via Monastero 5; tel: 030-982 3617; Sat–Sun Apr–Oct 10am–noon, 3–6pm, Nov–Mar 10am–noon, 2–5pm). Built over a Roman temple and enveloped by moody marshes close to Lake Iseo, the monastery still feels aloof, but exudes a gentle charm, from the Romanesque bell tower to the tiny cloisters and school of Romanino frescoes. (An oddity of Franciacorta is that, while you can risk simply turning up, all places prefer booking, even churches; details available on www.stradadelfranciacorta.it . )

At the foot of the monastery is the nature reserve of Torbiere del Sebino 8 [map] (always open). This is birdwatching territory, as well as being the watery preserve of perch, trout and eel, and home to happy predators from herons to kingfishers. Paths wind through the peat bogs, providing sightings of white swans gliding between the water lilies, or the swoop of a marsh falcon onto its victim in a clump of ferns.

Tip

To see frescoes by Romanino (1484–c .1559), the region’s finest Renaissance painter, visit the churches of Santa Maria della Neve in Pisogne, Santa Maria in Bienno, Sant’Antonio in Breno, as well as the abbazia di San Nicola in Rodengo-Saiano and Brescia’s best gallery, the Pinacoteca Martinengo (closed for restoration but some of its works are being hosted by the Museo di Santa Giulia).

IMG_7658_ItalianLakes_EC

Monastero di San Pietro.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Provaglio d’Iseo , once part of the Cluniac estates, leads to Monticelli Brusati 9 [map] , where vineyards stretch for as far as the eye can see. This is the delectable setting for the Villa wine estate (Frazione Villa; tel: 030-652 329; www.villa-franciacorta.it ), complete with wine tours and a welcoming rustic inn.

Culture-lovers should call in at Rodengo-Saiano to see the restored Abbazia di San Nicola ) [map] (Via Brescia; tel: 030-610 182; Mon–Sat 9am–noon, 3–6pm, Sun from 12.30pm). Founded by the Cistercians in the 10th century , but later Olivetan, this is one of the most impressive monastic complexes in northern Italy. The abbey displays 15th- and 16th-century frescoes by the greatest Brescian artists, including Romanino and Moretto. The monks still reside here and, in traditional monastic style, restore antiquarian books and manuscripts as well as concocting liqueurs, such as Sambuca, which you can buy. Fashionable visitors will also enjoy the designer boutiques at discounted prices in Franciacorta Outlet Village ( www.franciacortaoutlet.it ).

Passirano is dominated by Franciacorta’s most striking crenellated castle, which conceals a Renaissance villa and wine estate. Another crenellated castle and Renaissance villa awaits at Castello di Bornato ! [map] (Via Castello 4, Bornato; www.castellodibornato.com ; mid-Mar–mid-Nov Sun 10am–noon, 2.30–6pm). The Italianate gardens open onto the estate vineyards, providing a pretext for another wine-tasting. In its previous incarnation as a medieval castle, Bornato once welcomed Dante, but the poet’s views on divine Franciacorta wines are unrecorded.

Tip

These are the best sources of information on: Val Camonica rock art ( www.vallecamonicaunesco.it ); Adamello park ( www.parcoadamello.it ); summer sports and skiing ( www.adamelloski.com ); and the Franciacorta wine route ( www.franciacorta.net ). For an overview, Bresciatourism ( www.bresciatourism.it ) remains the most useful.

dreamstime_m_6573831_ItalianLakes_EC

Val Camonica.

Dreamstime

Rovato

Rovato @ [map] , Franciacorta’s main centre, lacks the charm of the wine hamlets but has an impressive Servite convent. Clear your head by walking up Monte Orfano for sweeping views from the hilltop and a visit to Sant’Annunziata (tel: 030-772 1377; daily 9am–noon, 3–6pm), which displays a fine Annunciation by the Renaissance master Romanino (for more information, click here ).

Back among the vineyards, Erbusco £ [map] , the wine-production centre, is both earthy and elegant, much like sparkling Franciacorta itself. Despite the Romanesque church of Santa Maria Assunta and the Palladian Villa Lechi, Erbusco is indelibly associated with L’Albereta , the lovely villa-hotel and gastro-haunt. In gourmet Franciacorta, convents inevitably lose out to feasting.

Yet the good life also proved attractive to worldly prelates. The village of Borgonato $ [map] , near Corte Franca, even became the summer residence of the high-born sisters from Brescia’s Santa Giulia nunnery. Today, Borgonato is better-known as the home of Fratelli Berlucchi (Via Broletto; tel: 030-984 381; www.berlucchi.it ; daily; guided tours in English at 2pm), a renowned wine estate, slightly belittled locally as being “too industrial”. Neighbouring Nigoline offers an escape from wine in the form of the Franciacorta Golf Club (tel: 030-984 167; www.franciacortagolfclub.it ) which, unlike most clubs in the locality, accepts non-members.

Adro is bristling with churches, but the noted Contadi Castaldi wine estate (for more information, click here ) is also worth visiting. Capriolo , named after the deer which once roamed here, is near the lake. Consider roaming around the Ricci Curbastro wine estate and museum located nearby (for more information, click here ).

Fish-lovers should time any Franciacorta outing to finish with supper in Clusane % [map] , a foodie haunt, known for its baked tench. Crowned by an abandoned castle, Clusane overlooks a port full of bobbing boats setting out in search of fish including tench, pike, chub and lake sardines. If this all sounds too fishy for your tastes, head for the hills overlooking the lake, which offer a romantic, rural setting – and a sparkling mineral water.

Val Camonica

Unpolished, underrated Val Camonica is one of the least explored but most rewarding stretches of Lombardy. Traditionally, the region was known for its witchcraft. In 1510, hundreds of “witches” were burned at the stake, accused of “copulating with the Devil”. Burning witches turned out to be a business, as their chattels were confiscated by the Church. More recent “sightings” of witches on broomsticks at Passo Tonale could be linked to the local grappa!

Fact

The rosa camuna , the Camunian rose, is the symbol of Lombardy and found all over Val Camonica rock art. Although one of the oldest representations of the rose ever found, its meaning is enigmatic; it is likely to refer to a solar symbol or a warrior-like aura of invincibility than to ideas of sacrifice, love and eternity.

SuperStock_3153-743502_ItalianLakes_EC

Contemporary art at Accademia Tadini.

SuperStock

Today, the region’s bewitching appeal lies in its complex mix of prehistoric rock art, frescoed Romanesque churches, rural farm-stays and industrial archaeology. That’s without mentioning skiing, hiking and the swathes of wilderness and majestic Alpine scenery. The welcome may be a bit brusque, but that’s the nature of a valley only slowly coming to terms with tourism.

The Lower Valley, centred on Boario Terme, benefits from its closeness to Lake Iseo, while the Upper Valley draws the crowds to its ski slopes. The Middle Valley, centred on Capo di Ponte, has yet to reap the rewards of tourism, despite its magnificent rock art. Towards Lake Iseo, the views have been disfigured by a disregard for the environment. Green awareness is catching on but, given the valley’s industrial bent since the Bronze Age, metalworking and light engineering are in the blood. Even so, Lovere has turned its back on heavy industry, while villages such as Bienno manage to combine sleepy medieval charm and a rich industrial heritage.

Lovere

The lakeside town of Lovere ^ [map] is the stepping stone to Val Camonica, the valley north of the lake, but has a rewarding Renaissance centre of its own, thanks to the legacy of Venetian rule. The town’s transition from textiles and steel to tourism is not quite seamless, even though visiting boats bob on the marina and the appealing historic heart is well restored. The most impressive church is Santa Maria in Valvendra , with its majestic Baroque interior and Renaissance artwork. On the lakefront is the eclectic art collection of Accademia Tadini (Via Tadini 40; tel: 035-962 780; www.accademiatadini.it ; May–Sept Tue–Sat 3–7pm, Sun 10am–noon, 3–7pm, Apr, Oct Sat 3–7pm, Sun 10am–noon, 3–7pm). Count Tadini, a local benefactor, left his collection to the city in 1828 after part of his palace collapsed, killing his son and heir. Apart from a swathe of madonnas, including one by Bellini, the pleasure of the palace lies in the quirkiness of the founder’s personal tastes.

82611

Stone Age theme park

Darfo-Boario Terme & [map] , an uninspiring spa town and the producer of Ferrarelle mineral water, has yet fully to embrace tourism. Just outside town is Archeopark (Gattaro; tel: 0364-529 552; Mar–Nov daily 9am–5.30pm; www.archeopark.net ), an entertaining Stone Age theme park. Wide-eyed children can experience the Camuni civilisation of 10,000 years ago, sampling life in rock shelters or stilt villages. After they have tried corn-grinding in the stilt village and tending to the smelly wild boar, there is rowing in Stone Age-style flat-bottomed boats on the reedy lake.

In the neighbouring hamlet of Montecchio stands the Ponte Romano , the “Roman” bridge, an early medieval toll-bridge. Beside it is the parish church and the Chiesetta dell’Oratorio , covered by vivid frescoes attributed to Pietro da Cemmo, the greatest 15th-century painter from Val Camonica.

Bienno

Praised as one of the prettiest villages in Italy, Bienno * [map] has forged its identity out of metal and water. Benedictine monks were responsible for channelling the river into the Vaso Re canal, which powered the mills and foundries. The water-mills, introduced by the monks in the 10th century, functioned until the 1960s, while forges and foundries have been in operation here since antiquity. Prehistoric Val Camonica rock carvings depict blacksmiths and an array of metal objects, from spades to daggers, a reminder of the valley’s vocation for metalworking. Beretta handguns and hunting guns continue to be produced in a neighbouring valley. Today, several of the 60 original foundries still exist, even if the 150 watermills have shrunk to one functioning flour mill. You can call into Il Mulino , off Piazza Roma, to see a working flour mill, before strolling along medieval alleys, past tower houses and mansions with balconies trailing geraniums.

The Baroque parish church of Santi Faustina e Giovita , on via San Benedetto, incorporates a medieval tower, while the Gothic church of Santa Maria , on Piazza Santa Maria, is frescoed by Renaissance artists of the stature of Romanino and da Cemmo. La Museo Fucina (Via Artigiani; tel: 0364-300 307; Tue–Sun 9.30–11.30am, 2.30–4.30pm) is a gentle introduction to Bienno’s industrial heritage. With its soot-blackened walls, the evocative foundry displays one of the original water-driven forges: a waterwheel powers the mallet to strike the anvil and work the molten metal; smaller forges refashioned the metal into the pots, buckets and tools which made Bienno’s name.

Cerveno ( [map] , halfway up the valley, demands attention for the Santuario di Via Crucis , which displays Lombardy’s most memorable 18th-century woodcarvings. The distinctly kitsch Stations of the Cross present 200 life-size statues, which evoke the Passion with the familiar refreshing realism that typifies Val Camonica art.

IMG_8695_ItalianLakes_EC

Fresco in Santa Maria, Bienno.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

The rock carvings

Nadro , [map] is an intriguing hamlet, built around a medieval tower in a honeycomb of alleys overlying a prehistoric settlement. The compact Riserva Regionale delle Incisioni Rupestri (Regional Reserve of Rock Art; Località Nadro; tel: 0364-433 465; Mar–Oct daily 9am–5.30pm, Nov–Feb 9am–4pm) is a prelude to exploring the superb rock carvings, the prehistoric comic strips and the matchstick men known as pitoti (puppets), that have been drawn on these rocks for thousands of years. The magic of the landscape survives, enhanced by the mysterious symbolism of the rock art. Although clearly a sacred place, the site has no graves, so the supposition is that bodies were cremated and ashes scattered.

SuperStock_4449-87234_ItalianLakes_EC

Val Camonica rock carvings.

SuperStock

Reading Rock Art

“ Rock art has been described before, but it has never been read,” declared a triumphant Italian archaeologist recently, surveying a site which has obsessed him for 50 years.

Emmanuel Anati, the world’s leading authority on the Val Camonica site, believes that the prehistoric rock engravings are not just artworks but an early form of writing. “The turning point was to consider the rocks as messages – messages, which are legible ten or fifteen thousand years after they were written.” Professor Anati (b. 1930), an Italian archaeologist of international renown, was the first to recognise the scale and richness of Val Camonica in the 1950s. Having compiled a chronological framework of the site’s rock carvings, in 1961 he wrote Camonica Valley , a ground-breaking study of Val Camonica and in 1964 established the Centro Camuno di Studi Preistorici in Capo di Ponte ( www.ccsp.it ) with the aim to study prehistoric art. The centre has also founded the World Archive of Rock Art and was instrumental in having Val Camonica inscribed on Unesco’s World Heritage list in 1971.

At once rural and industrial, Val Camonica, north of Lake Iseo, has been inhabited since the Neolithic era, when the Camuni tribal civilisation first etched itself into existence. For generations, these hunters and farmers recorded everyday life and their relationship with the other world. As a tribal record of a civilisation, the valley offers a span of creativity stretching from Stone Age culture well into Roman times, when the Camuni, hunters rather than warriors, were easily crushed and assimilated by the Roman imperialists.

Dubbed “stick men” by modern valley people, the primitive carvings of people and shamans have always had resonance locally. The rock carvings date back to 6000 BC, with the earliest images featuring rudimentary animal figures in static poses, usually deer and elk, which represented local deities. More sophisticated narrative art emerged during the Bronze and Iron Ages, while the Etruscans, Romans and Christians continued in their ancestors’ footsteps: the practice was abandoned in the late Middle Ages. While there has always been respect for the art in modern times, ancient graffiti artists felt little compunction about erasing or embroidering their predecessors’ work.

Deciphering the rocks

Archaeologists began to work out the “grammar” of this proto-writing system using the concepts of pictograms, ideograms and psychograms. Pictograms are pictures resembling what they signify, ideograms represent concepts, while psychograms symbolise psychological maps. By deciphering a number of rocks, Anati has more sense of the messages being conveyed: “After managing to decipher an Iron Age rock, we concluded that the majority of the inscriptions refer to mythological accounts and information about initiation rites.” he explained.

The deciphering is ongoing, but the initial findings tap into a daring thesis: that there are universal themes in world prehistoric rock art: sex, hunting, food and the territorial imperative. The boldest conclusion is also the most mundane: that prehistoric peoples resembled each other; and our prehistoric ancestors were much the same as us.

Foppe di Nadro

Just behind the museum is the short trail to the prehistoric rock art of Foppe di Nadro (daily 9am–6pm). It is best to visit in the morning, when the light is clearer, or in the late afternoon, when the light is at its most mysterious. The main trail reveals around 50 rocks, which focus on Stone Age to Iron Age art, with clear Etruscan influences. Even if the carvings span 6,000 years, running from the Stone Age to medieval times, it is the prehistoric scenes that captivate, blending mythology with the mundane.

Foppe di Nadro looks much as it did in prehistoric times: a crest of a hill, gentle terraces, wooded slopes, smooth rocks, megalithic walls and the remains of a prehistoric fortified village. Only the Iron Age homestead is a reconstruction. The Camuni were hunter-gatherers, then farmers, who settled amid these chestnut groves, lived in primitive farmsteads and cultivated their crops, respecting the rhythms of the seasons, studying the movement of the stars and worshipping the sun and animal deities.

Rock 1 celebrates the sun cult with prayers, while Rocks 4, 22 and 23 attest to local metalworking skills with the depictions of daggers, axes and halberds. Rock 27, which stands out for its size and imposing setting, is inscribed with Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age scenes, running from Stone Age shamans and winged idols to Iron Age duels, by way of Etruscan script and symbols. Inscriptions in Latin and in Northern Etruscan appear mixed with scenes of farming, hunting and daily life on Rocks 1, 5, 6, 24 and 27. But Emmanuel Anati, the greatest living rock art expert, posits the theory of our shared linguistic roots, speculating that early Homo sapiens may have shared a “primordial mother language from which all the spoken languages developed”.

Shop

Known as Mostra Mercato , summer festivities in the valley are linked to craft markets, music and torchlit processions in Bienno, as well as in Pisogne and Pescarzo near Capo di Ponte.

HDPG_LOMBARDIA_0070_ItalianLakes_EC

Detail of rock carving, Capo di Ponte.

Fototeca ENIT

Naquane Rock Art National Park

Capo di Ponte is the gateway to the greatest rock art but has little of intrinsic interest other than San Siro , a striking Romanesque church in the hamlet of Cemmo .

The prehistoric rock carvings over the Oglio River in the Parco Archelogico Nazionale delle Incisioni Rupestri di Naquane ⁄ [map] (Prehistoric Rock Art of Naquane National Park, Località Naquane, Capo di Ponte; tel: 0364-42140; daily 8.30am–1.30pm; www.parcoincisioni.capodiponte.beniculturali.it ) make up for any disappointment. In this national park, also Italy’s first Unesco World Heritage Site, over 300,000 rock carvings are etched onto glacier-seared sandstone in an area covering 8km (5 miles). Given the bewildering array, focus on the impressive boulders near the entrance of the archaeological park.

Big Rock 1 remains the most important surface in the valley, and is engraved with over 1,000 drawings, which run from the Neolithic era to the Iron Age. It is a cavalcade of warriors, women, shamans and riders wrapped up in deer-hunting, weaving, warmongering, initiation rites and appeasing the gods. This rock is humorously entitled: “when food is also a god”, referring to the dual role of the deer as sacred symbol and venison snack. Nearby, the “horsemen of the rocks” is a common status symbol. But if civilisation is about progress, then look at Rock 23, with its four-wheeled wagon – a precursor to the car, or Rock 35, which depicts a blacksmith in his smithy, forging the definition of Iron Age man, and propelling the valley towards the industrial vocation that sustains it today.

Despite huge advances in deciphering the rocks, some remain a mystery. Rock 32 was probably selected for its soft, feminine contours. On these smooth surfaces, propitiatory rites merge into ploughing scenes, warfare and weaponry, all intercut with symbols of labyrinths, which may represent the passage from this life to the next. Hunting, praying, dancing, copulating, invoking the gods, indulging in sacrificial rites – all human life is here, but the key is still lost somewhere in these wild chestnut groves.

Although this open-air museum is linked by walkways, with numbered rocks and explanatory panels in English, a guide is still desirable to decipher a few of the mysteries.

HDPG_LOMBARDIA_0071_ItalianLakes_EC

Parco Archeologico Nazionale delle Incisioni Rupestri di Naquane.

Fototeca ENIT

Exploring the Upper Valley

Edolo ¤ [map] , the main town in the Upper Valley, is notable for the church of San Giovanni Battista , a Renaissance church frescoed by remarkable Renaissance images depicting Adam and Eve and the life of St John the Baptist.

Temù ‹ [map] , a slightly sombre grey-stone village surrounded by forest, is home to the Museo della Guerra Bianca (World War I Museum; Via Roma 40; July–Aug Mon–Sat 3–7pm, Sun 10am–12.30pm, Sept–Oct Sat 3–6pm, Sun 10am–12.30pm, rest of the year times vary). In 1914, Europe’s largest glacier became a battleground, the first conflict to be fought at such altitudes. On this forgotten front, the icy “White War” was waged in snowfields and glaciers above 3,000 metres (10,000ft), and cost the lives of several thousand Italian and Austrian soldiers. The modest museum still hits home with its machine guns, medals, sleighs, helmets, uniforms, flags and photos, all found around the glacier. Simply dragging one cannon up the mountain in conditions of -30°C (-22°F) cost 100 Italian lives. Today, keen hikers can explore the battlefields and inspect the artillery positions and trenches, including the secret Italian “ice tunnel”, a 5km (3-mile) passageway that was lit by electricity.

Tip

Siberian husky-trekking is available, winter or summer, in Ponte di Legno (Scuola Italiana Sleddog; www.scuolaitalianasleddog.it ), where you can learn how to lead the pack on wild trails in the Adamello-Brenta and Stelvio national parks.

IMG_7339_ItalianLakes_EC

Ponte di Legno.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Ponte di Legno

Villa Dalegno, an old-fashioned hamlet outside Ponte di Legno, is significant only for the Agriturismo Belotti, the place for a hearty rustic supper or overnight stay. Ponte di Legno › [map] itself, perched on a sunny plateau, makes the most charming base for exploring the Upper Camonica Valley. With its quaint wooden bridge, geranium-hung balconies, ornate parish church and Alpine chalets, it resembles a Tyrolean village. While plotting a long walk, retreat to La Rasega (via IV Novembre 74), a cosy wine bar in a converted sawmill overlooking the river Oglio, which feeds Lake Iseo. Dine in the San Marco, the valley’s finest restaurant. Even in summer, this is a lively resort, popular with the Milanese, who combine hiking with polenta dishes in rural inns. In winter, this is a ski area linking into Tonale via scenic runs through the trees, and is far prettier than its Trentino counterpart.

Case di Viso

The scenic hamlet of Case di Viso fi [map] to the north is arguably the loveliest spot in the Upper Valley. The stone-clad shepherds’ huts have been turned into summer homes, often by the former shepherds themselves. In winter, the devoted owners return on skis or snowshoes, drawn by the prospect of polenta and cheese rustled up in a cosy cabin. In summer, the sweeping Alpine valley views can be appreciated on a two-hour trail to Rifugio Bozzi (tel: 0364-900 152), a mountain hut open for rustic lunches, and the base for hikes to Alpine lakes, military outposts and the ruins of World War I forts.

IMG_7566_ItalianLakes_EC

The village of Tonale.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

GettyImages-158931217_ItalianLakes_EC

Parco dell’Adamello above the clouds.

Getty Images

Adamello park

Parco dell’Adamello fl [map] , which embraces Ponte di Legno and Tonale, is a wilderness area itself stretching from Lombardy into Trentino, and forms part of the largest protected area in Europe. The Adamello park climbs to 3,500 metres (11,500ft), passing from reed-beds and prehistoric terraces to woods of chestnut, mountain maple and fir, which gradually lose out to larch groves, Alpine lakes, meadows, glaciers and the craggy peaks.

The Adamello appeals to sporty types, with summer mountain biking and horse riding giving way as the snows fall to husky-trekking, snowshoeing and skiing ( www.adamelloski.com ). For information on farm-stays, hiking routes, mountain bike trails and wildlife, call into the Casa del Parco (Via Nazionale 132, Vezza d’Oglio; tel: 0364-76165; www.parcoadamello.it ).

Lofty Tonale ‡ [map] marks the end of the valley, and is littered with Austrian and World War I fortifications. The trenches and tumbledown forts can be visited on summer trails, but only mountain bike fans choose to stay there. It is in winter when treeless, charmless Tonale comes into its own as a popular ski resort . Daredevils ascend to the Presena glacier , home to year-round skiing, while the rest opt for the wintry slopes of Ponte di Legno, Tonale and Temù, which make one seamless ski area, linked by a cable car. Beyond is Passo di Tonale , the windswept Tonale Pass, which surveys the Lombardy–Trentino border. Any low spirits are soon dispelled by an Alpine inn serving mounds of polenta oozing cheese.