Northern Italy’s largest lakes – Como, Garda and Maggiore – are beautiful and glamorous, but crowded in the summer. Smaller neighbours such as Orta and Idro are lovely, but lack grandeur and variety. “Just right? That’ll be Iseo,” Midway between Milan and Verona, this medium-sized lake attracts relatively few foreigners, yet packs in all of Italy’s quintessential charms – great vineyards, views of snow-dappled mountains, pretty towns, art, history, swimming and – partly because it is a popular weekend getaway for the wealthy denizens of nearby Bergamo and Brescia – a superb food scene.
It’s “budget friendly” too, with good train links and “pint-sized” ferries that often charge less than two pounds. The lakeside town of Lovere is reminiscent of Venice, from which it was ruled for centuries, with its “narrow, zigzagging warren” of alleyways, its clock tower with frescoed lion, and its waterfront dominated by the long neoclassical colonnade of the Accademia Tadini, which houses works by Bellini, Canova and others. But the lake’s most charming spot is Monte Isola, an island whose steep but rounded sides give it the appearance of a “giant green panettone”, a church perches on its summit, and villages cling to its shores. The largest, Peschiera Maraglio, sits between olive groves and “dinky” pebble beaches, and has a great restaurant, Hostaria Milago, where the antipasto platter of Iseo fish is “revelatory”.
Amid the Alpine foothills an hour’s drive north lies the Parco Nazionale delle Incisioni Rupestri, where there are thousands of prehistoric rock drawings. And to the south is the wine region of Franciacorta. You might stay at one of the vineyards there – Corte Lantieri and Al Rocol are excellent. And there is good, affordable accommodation beside the lake itself, including Agriturismo Forest, which has a “top-notch” restaurant, and the Ostello del Porto, a hostel in Lovere with “knockout” views.