Three Italian Gems

Monte Isola

Modern society has been brought up to believe that size matters. But not here in Lake Iseo in northern Italy. Overshadowed by its lush mountains and more famous larger neighbouring lakes, Maggiore and Como to the west and Garda to the east, stunning s-shaped Iseo blows this conventional wisdom out of the water – pardon the pun. From any shore all eyes are on Iseo’s jewel, Italy’s largest inhabited island in a lake.

Monte IsolaMonte Isola sits like a dumpling in the middle of a clear blue stew. It dominates the lake cutting it into two channels – Brescia on one side, Bergamo province the other. The island is a microcosm of Italian life. Friendly, beautiful landscapes and of course strong fresh Italian coffee. Bars and ice cream parlours face the lake. And with the history and the architecture of Italy reflecting in the dappled lake it is the perfect place to leave work behind.

Most people arrive by ferry from Sulzano into the fishing port of Peschiara Maraglio and we did too. Its cobbled narrow streets almost run into the lake. In order to survive, the fishermen have had to diversify. Rooney and Messi have scored goals into nets provided by these craftsmen from Lombardy. Boats are handmade from wood here too.

Turn left and walk along the lakeside to Sensole. Carry on for a further 7km and you will have trekked around the whole island. It takes about three hours. Walking through vineyards, olive groves, small cobbled streets, tiny hamlets, hills and valleys is a beautiful way to while away the day.

Monte IsolaOnly a few public service 4-wheeled vehicles are allowed. Cars are not! Paraphrasing Orwell – two wheels good, four wheels bad. Scooters roam free in this modern day motorised Jurassic Park. Watch in amazement as mum and her two children and what looks like the weekly shop dangle desperately from every part of the bike. No health and safety here then, and no helmets too.

English is hardly spoken on ‘scooter island’ and this is where the international language of mime and smiling comes into its own. Signora waitress’s description of a tomato will long remain in my memory. Try the salami painstakingly hand made in the village of Cure – if you dare order it by hand movements!

Atmospheric, yes. Charming and tranquil. Beautiful and very special. An enchanting place. Still unknown by many. Monte Isola – the mountain on the island in the middle of the lake – deserves to remain so.

Bari

Bari is a lovely town, the second largest in southern Italy. It has a busy port and tourists are well place here to travel to Greece and Croatia. Now a worthy destination for cruise ships too.

BariIt’s a town for walking and exploring. Shops a plenty and full of hip, young students wearing clothes that students do wear. Walk and observe and mini Italian dramas unfold all around.

Old Bari – Vecchia Bari or Citta Vecchia is magnificent. Great architecture and churches. It is a warren of narrow streets with houses packed so tight that they seem to be stacked on top of each other.

This historic centre is situated on a headland jutting out into the Adriatic Sea. All the time sea breezes refresh the weary traveller as do the many gelato, ice cream, shops.

Our guide took us past Castello Svevo – the castle and deep into the maze of old town streets. It is so easy to get lost in here, but we were expertly guided through. Some of the lanes are full of souvenirs, some locally produced but more often from China. Choose with care. 

The Column of Justice where debtors were chained and whipped was interesting, as was the sight of ladies making traditional orecchiette pasta in the streets.

Saint Nicholas of MyraThe town has many squares which are ringed with touristy restaurants. Piazza del Ferrarese and Piazza Mercantile are the most popular. And as in Lecce they come alive at night.

As we finished our tour we were let into a shocking, disturbing secret. Don’t tell the children – but Father Christmas is dead. No ifs, no buts – Dead. We have seen his grave here in Bari. So, the guy dressed in red and white on Christmas Eve must be a quality tribute act.

The Basilica here, dating from the 12th century, was built to house the relics of Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick or Santa Claus. His remains were stolen by local fishing folk from Turkey in 1087 and brought back to Bari. He was the Bishop of Myra, an ancient Greek town in Lycia (present-day Antalya Province in Turkey). His remains lie in a shrine in the beautiful vaulted crypt below the Basilica di San Nicola. A sombre end to a wonderful tour. We consoled ourselves by having another ice cream.

Lucca

Tony Bennett lost his heart in San Francisco. Presumably he has never been to Lucca, Tuscany!

Like a flirty pubescent beautiful girl Lucca welcomes you with open arms. She knows she is gorgeous yet doesn’t need to brag. Beauty is all around and not just in the eye of the beholder.

LuccaTouch me, experience me she proclaims. And take away a part of me – memories, sights, smells that will linger forever.

You can feel the joie de vivre as you stroll through streets kept spotlessly clean by municipal workers. Washed daily taking away the comings and goings of mass tourism. The walls are breached daily by visitors eager to sample Italian culture. The history and traditions of the town are encapsulated in the DNA of all her Italian people.

Tourists swarm but not with the same ferocity as Pisa or Florence. Atmospheric. A remarkable city whose inhabitants are proud to be here.

Charming smiles greet you as you wander alleyways often as twisted as a bowl of pasta. Picture perfect postcard views of Italian life at every turn. Cobbled streets echo the feet of the tourist invasion and boneshake the endless streams of cycles. Bells used only as a last resort.

Torre GuinigiA hotchpot of architectural styles bizarrely works so well. The terracotta roofed city is a plethora of colour. Honey- coloured, pink, orange and multiple shades of lemon. And somehow as the sunshine picks out the colours the city becomes more beautiful. Quaint narrow lanes, lovely piazzas and churches add to the patchwork. Bohemian bars, sophisticated restaurants, handy takeaways. All cafe cool – Italian cool.

Torre Guinigi is a strange site. A fifteenth century tower soars above the rooftops. 44m (144 feet) high. Topped with a crowning glory of a tree – oak to be precise – which has left its mark on the city and roots in the room below. The view from here is incredible.

Lucca sits on the marshy banks of the river Serchio and has enjoyed prosperity since Roman times. ‘Luk’ means marsh in Ligurian. Fortifications began in 1544 and since completed they have never been stormed. Visitors today enter the city through one of 11 gates. The city walls are 4km in length and a massive 30m thick in places. Rows of trees are planted on top of these 12m high walls. One of the best ways of exploring the city and getting your bearings is to ride or stroll along the battlements. Bikes can be hired at the foot of the fortifications.

Piazza Anfiteatro, LuccaThe Piazza San Michele is the heart of the city from where the arterial network of streets disseminates. Once the site of the Forum in Roman times. The church is a beauty! Pisan-style, whatever that is. A wonderful tall tower. And all around are shops and cafes, museums and street theatre. Grab a coffee at Caffe di Simo, and a pastry or two. Puccini, Lucca born and bred often played piano here. Concerts are held throughout the year in churches and squares around the city.

Romantic Piazza Anfiteatro is one of my favourite places in the world. Fashionable and lively. Built on top of a 2nd century Roman ampitheatre. Cheek-by-jowl houses follow the lines of the arena and merge into one ring of human inhabitation. Shops selling everything Italian surround this large space, as do cafes and restaurants. Enjoy a drink or meal here or simply sit and observe. It’s not every day you can have a pizza, feet from where lions and gladiators strutted their stuff.

Cattedrale di San Martino (the Duomo)We stumbled across San Frediano Church by accident and so glad we did. A stones through away from Anfiteatro, the exterior mosaic features Christ and the Apostles below him. Magnificent and so unexpected.

Cattedrale di San Martino (the Duomo) is a fabulous mix of marble columns and intricate carvings. A medieval bell tower stands guard.

So much is happening in Lucca – street level and above. So do look up! Lucca has so much to offer. Wander slowly, observe and enjoy. Cool cobbles even cooler in the shade or inside the magnificent buildings.


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Dave Harcombe

Travelling pharmacist

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