The Smelliest, Freakiest Little Island in Italy
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the country has its own Loch Ness monsters.
Rising majestically out of a grayish lake, the fairy-tale island of Montisola is one huge mountain, formerly a glacier. This jewel in the center of Lake Iseo in northern Italy draws tourists year-round. But its breathtaking scenery betrays what you can’t see — and what you can smell.
With an area of about eight miles, Montisola is the biggest lake island in Europe. From this green jewel, with red-roofed buildings nestled around its base, you can view the snowcapped peaks on the mainland, plus two other tiny isles nearby. But there’s also a sinister side to the island: When strong winds, dubbed Sarneghera, blow across the mountains, small-scale tornadoes form and the sky turns black. And you would never imagine how deep the lake gets: up to 820 feet. There’s an underwater valley that cuts along the lake bed and can trigger nasty currents.
Oh, and Montisola smells bad. Like nasty. Here locals have built a fortune on breeding and selling sweet water sardines. They’re yummy — with a decidedly strong taste — but they stink. If you can train your nostrils to the fishy scent — or bring along one of those perfumed handkerchiefs my gran used to carry in her bag — you can spend your time eating fresh fish, listening to fishermen spin tales of the good old days and strolling around picturesque villages where sardines are left out to dry under the sun. Fishermen go out at dusk to throw the nets for the night; the next morning they are pulled up, full of trout — a more “sweet-tasting” fish if you’re not a sardines lover.
Longtime residents are, of course, accustomed to the stench. Like Nando Soardi, an old fisherman who runs the tiny tavern Locanda al Lago — the only one open in winter — that overlooks the lake, and keeps heaps of dried sardines in his backyard. Here I tried little red fish with a strong salty taste that was surprisingly pleasant on the palate. Sardine dishes come at $16, a bit on the pricey side.
One single unpaved road winds around the island, all the way to the solitary monastery on top of the mountain.
The locals are known to be fiery people who across centuries have bitterly fought foreign invasions. But now they are battling against a nasty, deadly enemy. Because sharing watery real estate with the sardines and trout is another lake creature that inhabits the deep waters. It’s ugly, huge — weighing up to 660 pounds — and has a wide, scary mouth and big teeth. Plus, it tastes terrible. Locals call it the “nuke fish” because of its destructive behavior, but its real name is a wels catfish or sheatfish, an illegal migrant from the cold waters of Russia and Germany. Soardi calls it their “Loch Ness monster.” It eats sardines, destroys nets and “breeds like a maniac,” he adds. Nobody knows how it got into Lake Iseo — it could have been a prank. But now the nuke is threatening the local fishing industry and scaring away swimmers who don’t fancy the idea of meeting one underwater.
Sooner or later, Soardi and his fellow fishermen might have to take drastic measures — Soardi half jokes about bombing the lake — even if that would mean killing their beloved sardines too. But as Italians say: “To extreme evils must correspond extreme remedies.”
Still, if you don’t mind holding your nose and keeping a cautious eye out for deadly currents, tornadoes and freaky fish, Montisola is a pretty place to visit. About 60 miles from Milan, you can get there in just over two hours. One single unpaved road winds around the island, all the way to the solitary monastery on top of the mountain. The pastel lakeside houses have direct access to the water — there are dinghies and tiny gondolas everywhere, attached to wooden poles sticking out of the water. It’s like a little slice of Venice.
*An earlier version of this article misstated the maximum weight of nuke fish and misspelled Nando Soardi’s last name.