Travels in Ticino

Posted on: 01 May 2015

What am I doing here? - I feel like an interloper among all the tales of marathon glory! Especially as I'm about to regale you again with accounts of WALKING!

Not any old walking, however: I declare the MOUNTAIN WALKING season now open!

Taking advantage of my free days, we wanted to go away for a couple of days, and decided eventually to head south, to Ticino, the Italianate bit of Switzerland. As far south, in fact, as it is possible to go without actually being in Italy. (The reason behind this choice was that I have friends who live in Como, just the Italian side of the border, we hadn't seen them for several years, and we thought it would be a nice opportunity to meet up.) Chiasso, the border town, is not very attractive, but I booked a hotel in a village on the hillside above it. Sunday morning (19th April) bright and early(ish), off we went. A lovely train journey down the length of Switzerland - I never get tired of it. Enjoyed spotting the church at Wassen, which reappears 3 times, each time at a lower level, as the train, in a spectacular piece of engineering, goes through tunnels which literally go in circles.; and then the Gotthard tunnel, which I always used to think was a time tunnel: you go in on the north side, where it's still winter, emerging about 8 minutes later at Airolo, and find it's spring. The effect is most marked in about mid-March. Though it didn't quite work out that way this time - rather the reverse, with northern Ticino swathed in low cloud and looking quite gloomy when we emerged from the darkness. But it brightened up as we got further south, and by the time we reached Lugano, there was dazzling sunshine. We had to change trains there, so took the opportunity to ring our friends (who were at a skating competition in Como with their teenage daughter) to say we were on our way. This definitely feels like another country, it's so different from the Switzerland north of the Alps: the landscape of densely wooded hills, the architecture, the palm trees and camellias............ it truly feels like being on holiday. You can see the Eiger and Jungfrau from the train too!........... but only in miniature, at Swissminiatur; you can just see the tops sticking up as you pass Melide, which always amuses me somehow. (As do lizards sauntering like dinosaurs down the main street of Appenzell, and sparrows perching pterodactyl-like on roofs.) Chiasso was a bit of a blight on the otherwise picturesque surroundings, but we weren't there long - just enough to check the Google map I'd printed off of our route. Sunday buses being rubbish, we'd opted to walk the 1.7 kms up to Vacallo. No trouble finding the way. A bizarre construction which we christened 'the Silver Doughnut' (discovered later that it's a shopping centre) was the chief landmark en route. A 25 minute uphill slog, and we were there. There was a note for me on the door of the hotel, with instructions for getting the key (typing in a code to retrieve it from a metal box on an adjoining wall; it worked!) as there was currently no-one there to let us in. A slightly odd feeling, wandering round a silent and deserted hotel in search of our room. Having found it, we dumped our bags, and went out again to explore the village, which straggled up the hillside, past a church and a closed restaurant......... hmm, not the liveliest of places on a Sunday afternoon.......... J. checked his phone, and found a message from Paul, saying the skating contest was now finished, and they would meet us at Chiasso station at 4. As it was now 20 to 4, this meant a fairly brisk walk (luckily downhill now) back to Chiasso; rendezvous successfully accomplished (lovely to see them again!), it was off in the car over the border (we had our passports, but no-one was remotely interested in seeing them) and to Cernobbio on Lake Como. A walk in the lakeside park thronged with Sunday visitors; an English pub/tearoom(!) for tea and cake; another short wander through the park; back in the car, and a short drive to a restaurant, and massive pizzas. Neither J. nor I could finish these, so I secreted the leftovers in a 'Robidog' bag (these are intended for disposing of dog-s**t, but I find them handy for other purposes, and generally have one in my jacket pocket) as our projected lunch the next day, much to the amusement of teenage daughter! "Nothing to declare except some dog-s**t!" I quipped as we passed the bored-looking customs officials on our way back again. Paul drove us back to Vacallo to save us the trek up the hill again, and with the insistence that they must visit us in Luzern some time, we waved them off. It was not yet quite dark, so we resumed our exploration up the hill, to where the road curved round and flattened out, and spent a few minutes looking out over the valley, and all the lights now twinkling in the dusk. Then back to the hotel (which was still silent and deserted - were we the only visitors?), and an excellent night's sleep in our very comfortable room.

Monday 20th April: ah, there ARE other people here - a friendly waitress serving our breakfast; the very helpful hotel owner, who supplies us with a map and brochure, suggestions for walks, and a quick sketch of how to get to a nearby gorge; but seemingly no other guests, as ours is the only table set. (By a window, and with a view of green hills, sunshine, and swallows swooping across a cloudless sky.) The gorge excursion sounds like something which could be fitted in at the end of the day, so we decide instead to go back to a cluster of signposts we spotted at the top of the hill the previous evening, and head further afield. (I have already decided on our destination, in fact: Monte Bisbino, a mountain just over the border in Italy.) One thing was soon clear: this was going to be a day involving a LOT of uphill. The first 7 kms involved the best part of 1,000 metres of climbing, and only 27 metres of descent (4 of those kms involving no descent whatever!) if Garmin is to be believed, and I think he is. Up the road through the village; up a zigzag path through woodland (including thousands of baby palm trees - wish I could have brought one home with me, but didn't think it would survive a day of being stuffed in a rucksack); more road; then a steep, rocky, rooty ridge through more woodland; what looked to be the top of something, but proved not to be, when we got there, the path just went on climbing........... but now our destination was visible, and it still looked a long way up! We paused here for some water (a bit worryingly, our bottle was already half empty - foolishly we'd only brought the one, assuming we'd be able to refill it en route) and a few photos.


Then onward, Monte Bisbino looming ever higher above us. At something that looked like a crossroads, though the 'roads' were only grassy tracks, a van was parked, with a group of workmen sitting by it eating their lunch. A signpost pointed us to the right. A little further on, a very large building stood shuttered and seemingly purposeless, literally in the middle of nowhere; far too big and grand to be a farmhouse, with its 3 high storeys and wrought iron balconies. We could only think it might once have been a customs post, back in the days of pack horse transport, when this unassuming path had perhaps been a significant thoroughfare. Speaking of the path: it soon became apparent where the Italians took over! - their signposting was dire, and the path maintenance worse. We were virtually left to find our own way up a steep, severely eroded slope perilous with loose earth and stones. A faded red sign with a cryptic 3 letters, which we couldn't make any sense of, was the only indication that this 'might' just still be the right way. At this stage, this was very discouraging! - I WANT MY LUNCH! But after a few minutes of very slow progress, we happened on something that looked more convincingly like a proper path......... and indeed, it led to the top. Not sure what I had expected, but it was something of a surprise: a wide, flat area, with a large building in the middle of it, ex-military by the look of it, but with a religious sanctuary integrated. Apparently it was now a restaurant.........! but not today. All closed and deserted. We walked all round it, hoping to find a tap to refill the bottle, but there wasn't one. We saw, though, that there was a road up on the Italian side, which is obviously how supplies (and most visitors) arrived. There were also four metal masts (radio? mobile phone?) around the summit, and another enormous one a bit further down. A rudimentary bench stood against one wall, so we parked ourselves on it and had our belated lunch. A rather DRY lunch, thanks to the lack of water, but the pizza was still very tasty, and an apple and a banana helped the hydration a little. A cyclist arrived just as we were leaving - the only other person we encountered there. He seemed impressed that we had walked up. (I was impressed that he had CYCLED up!)

Back down the way we had come up. I was dreading the steep, slippery part, but by hanging onto bushes (one had thorns on, alas, which made for a few choice words) and taking it very slowly, I made it. Past the mysterious building......... and now I spotted a blue line painted across the path, which I had missed on the way up, which must be the border, making the 'customs post' idea even more likely. The workmen and their van were no longer there. We pondered the signposts, having ascertained that our next destination was Bruzella: one, pointing left, indicated 'Bruzella 1 hour'; the other, pointing in completely the opposite direction, 'Bruzella 2hrs 30'. We agreed that in view of our water shortage, it would be wise to take the shorter route.......... so we turned right! Well, it looked a more inviting path! (And we suspected the shorter one might prove very steep, in the light of how much descent was needed to get us down to Bruzella.) It proved a good decision. A very enjoyable path, losing height steadily but comfortably in a series of wide meanders as it made its way round the head of a valley. Not only that, but it provided one of those improbable bits of serendipity that turn up completely out of the blue. We came to a farm, miles from anywhere in a remote valley in deepest Ticino. It looked sleepy, a bit ramshackle, and centuries old, with a few animals in the sloping fields, hens scratching in the dust, a huge cockerel giving us the evil eye, a dog pretending to be asleep by the door.......... The path went through its yard, and continued beyond; and just as we were about to leave it, a notice to the effect that it was an Eco-establishment caught J's eye. Underneath was written the name of the farmer.......... a Weggis name. In fact, said J, he had known someone of that very name; could it possibly be the same person? Remembering that there had been a couple of men working in a field above the house, he went back to ask. And unbelievably, it WAS. He reappeared several minutes later with Jonas, (blond dreadlocks, bushy ginger beard, definitely looked like an Eco-farmer), and they chatted for a while, while I made friends with the 4 border collies. There were also a couple of peacocks; the male, Jonas said, liked to sit on the windowsill with his tail hanging down, while the peahen scratched around on the ground underneath (pointing them out to me.) He doesn't have a car - he works the fields with a couple of horses, and fetches supplies from the nearest village (not very near at all!) the same way. There is no electricity, apart from what some aged solar panels provide. He's moving soon, apparently, as his daughter is just coming up to school age, and there is no school near enough for her to attend; moving to the other end of the country, to Jura, in western Switzerland. But he gave me the impression of someone very content with life. Just before we left, he showed us a local curiosity - a 'nevera', a snow-house. ('Neve' is snow.) These are peculiar to this area of Ticino, and were how they preserved things in an age before refrigeration. A roofed cylindrical shaft, 6 metres deep, with a stone spiral staircase, which they would fill with snow in winter. Apparently there are 10 still in existence, and this was one of them; a couple have been restored, but the rest, like this, are semi-derelict.


Setting off again, along the path Jonas takes his horses shopping(!), I had a thought: "Didn't you want to buy some cheese?" Mention cheese to J, and his eyes light up - he hurried back; but no luck, all the cheese was currently sold. I can't believe we didn't think on to get our water bottle refilled, but that we forgot, and were soon regretting it. In northern Switzerland, water is readily available - every farm and village has a trough; there are streams everywhere. We never have to carry much. But south Ticino, we discovered, is a dry place, and they are not prodigal with water in the way that the rainy north is. Crossing a bridge over a completely dry stream bed, above what elsewhere would have been fairly generous waterfall, but here was just a barren flight of stone steps, I felt thirst like a cruel mockery. It was a lovely path, through woods again, and lined in places with wild cherry trees, but it began to seem long (what a way to go for the weekly groceries!) - I was looking forward to reaching Bruzella, which I was sure must have a restaurant. But my dream of a cold beer (or water, water would do; or ANYTHING wet!) was rudely shattered; Bruzella did indeed have a restaurant........... but it was closed. (EVERYTHING seems to be bloody closed on Mondays!) I thought I might cry! Well no, I didn't, I just sat at the bus stop, drank the last few tepid millimetres left in the water bottle (thankyou, J) and resolved never to be so stupid again. There was a bus due in 20 minutes, so we decided to catch it, and ask the driver where there was a restaurant. (It went through several villages, so surely there was one SOMEWHERE?!) Oh indeed there was!!! He put us out in Morbio Inferiore, and there, like a mirage, I saw an Eichhof sign - Eichhof is a Luzern brewery. And where there is an Eichhof sign.......... there is Eichhof beer! The bus driver had actually suggested a grotto (a wine bar) a bit higher up the road, but this Eichhof place looked perfect: a raised terrace above the road, with tables and chairs set out on the gravel, and a big wisteria bush blasting out great wafts of perfume.......... we practically ran there, plonked ourselves at a table in the warm evening sun, and beamed at the elderly waitress who now materialized at our side. I swear that first beer didn't even touch the sides! J. made similarly short work of an improvised Schorle - a bottle of pear juice and a big glass of water. I ordered a second one, and as I was drinking it, the church bells began to ring, totally 'holprig' and unco-ordinated - they were the worst bellringers in the world! I began to laugh......... and in that moment I experienced one of those magical moments of total, utter happiness, and caught it as it happened. Life is so wonderful sometimes.


From Morbio Inferiore it was a 3 km easy walk back to Vacallo. (Would have been even easier if we had not not gone up an unnecessary hill and come back to the village from the top end again............. but heigh ho, there are worse things than hills; and this one was nothing compared to the monsters we'd been climbing up earlier.) BOTH of Vacallo's restaurants were closed (Mondays!!!), so we took our hostess's recommendation and walked back down to one in Chiasso. It was very pleasant, and I much enjoyed my plate of Tortellini and a nice glass of wine. Just the walk back up to Vacallo! (past the Silver Doughnut all lit up and sparkly) - then our welcoming room, a lovely shower, quick phone call to my brother to wish him happy birthday, and my very comfortable bed. I was ready for it - it had been quite a day.

This has turned out so long (it doesn't matter if no-one reads it - I just loved writing it), I'll have to make it a two-parter.

(Sorry about varying font size - don't know how that happened.)

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