Well, Switzerland, you’ve outdone yourself again. My previous list of most adorable towns has been shown up by Ticino, where Switzerland and Italy collide, and it’s as wonderful as you might imagine when two of the most incredible places on the planet are combined. Once on the other side of the Gotthard Base tunnel, the world’s longest tunnel at 35-mile/57km (20 minutes at full speed), the mountains become lush and green, palm trees start appearing in the foliage, and the houses are painted in colorful Mediterranean pastels. The vibe is completely different than the rest of Switzerland, but soon the immaculate trails, down to the second on-time transportation, and high quality food (and prices) remind you that you’re still in the same country. Ticino is putting serious effort into boosting tourism, and I have to admit that it worked like a charm on me. From Lucerne I began to see many attractive Swiss women walking the station platforms and train aisles offering advice and information on the area. When I inquired about a hike, I was immediately shown an app called “Hike Ticino” that details 150 hikes in the area by length, difficulty, and geographic features such as nature, castles, mountain huts, etc. My jaw dropped, but I should know by now to expect such wonders from the Swiss.
Five hours after I left Geneva, a bright yellow postal bus met me at the train station in Tenero and began a steep winding ascent into the mountains towards the Verzasca Valley. We passed many a breathtaking hillside town during the 40 minute ride, and when we arrived at Lavertezzo it was as dazzling as any of them. The centerpiece of the compact stone village is an ancient clock tower, set on the edge of the shockingly blue Verzasca Gorge, its cool water pooled between smooth striped rocks forming a thousand natural water slides. I had called for a room a day earlier at the friendly Osteria Vittoria, perfectly situated next to a turquoise waterfall facing the church tower. Their flower-covered terrace faces out over this view, while the inside offers a fireplace for cold nights and small but clean rooms on three levels.
Not wanting to lose any light, I immediately set out on the three-hour loop hike from Lavertezzo to Motta and back, connecting the two trails on either side of the river. The hike begins at the picturesque arched pedestrian bridge leaping across a large blue pool, before meandering along the waterside to Motta. The trail transitioned from dirt to sand to stone, with scenery alternating between glimpses of bright blue through the new green leaves of the trees, and gaps in the trees where hikers can make their way down to the boulders or beaches to sunbathe (and swim in the summer) and enjoy the tranquil water. Partway down the trail, a table with a red picnic cloth had been set on the side, offering freshly baked cakes, homemade jams, and painted rocks for a small fee to be left on the honor system in a tin can. It would be madness to pass up handmade baked goods in the middle of the mountains, and since all I had was a 5 frank coin, I also bought cake for the delighted fellow American hiker that had stopped next to me with the same mindset. Munching on lemon poundcake, I crossed over the river once more to the village of Motta. Here the path turned steeply uphill and headed into the trees.
After about 30 minutes the shady canopy opened up into a clearing with the first of many clusters of 16th century stone houses where farmers used to spend their time (the “transhumance”) while waiting to go up or down the Alps with their cattle. This is an area that used to have little water, and is also a showcase for the system of wells and basins carved from boulders ingeniously developed by the peasants to collect enough rainwater for both humans and cattle to sufficiently quench their thirst.
The path descended back towards Lavertezzo and I gratefully basked in the warm glow of the evening sun as it slowly sank behind the mountains, noticing that while this side of the valley still illuminated, the path I had come on now appeared dark and shaded. Leaving the woods, the red and white trail markings led me through the center of a small hamlet called Sambugaro, an undiscovered stone version of Rick Steves’ beloved Gimmelwald. This tiny village set in the hill above Lavertezzo oozed charm from every crevice. Purple irises lined the narrow stone street, only wide enough for pedestrians, and bright fragrant flowers poured over the walls, windows and gardens of each perfect house. As I continued, the attributes of Switzerland that I find most endearing seemed to all converge on this portion of the walk to creating a moment of ultimate contentment. The pungent smell of woodsmoke, signaling dinner, began to waft up from Lavertezzo below, cutting through the deep sweet wisteria fragrance perfuming the air. At the same time, the church bells in the grand tower awoke, melodically chiming 5’o clock, while the familiar bells of sheep grazing in the fields below tinkled chaotically in the background. Across the valley, soft beams of late light painted the mountains in shades of glimmering haze added the finishing touch. If I could freeze this moment in time, I would happily live in it forever.
The trail continued for 10 more minutes down to Lavertezzo, exiting under a stone archway of the church. Back at Osteria Vittoria, I threw off my pack and headed to the dining room for a cold beer and some hearty Swiss Italian food. The Osteria makes all its own pastas, and locally sources its meats, fish, cheeses, vegetables, jams and honey, so decisions were tough. I started with a locally brewed honey beer and ordered a main course of pan-fried trout, caught fresh that day in the Versazca Valle. I was not disappointed. My plate came out piled high with a whole crispy fish stuffed with fresh herbs, accompanied by grilled potatoes, peppers and zucchini. Everything was delicious. For dessert I had the homemade strawberry semifreddo with homemade strawberry sauce, which was equally satisfying. As usually happens after a full day of hiking and full belly, my lids quickly started to feel heavy, and soon I was wrapped in a down comforter drifting off to sleep.
A baby deer belonging to the property greeted me out the window with a high-pitched whine when I awoke, looking forward to a mountain breakfast. I piled my plate with the typical thick slices of warm bread with butter and jam, yogurt, cheese, and meats and poured a cup of strong fresh coffee and hot milk. By the time I was finished the sun had hit the water and I headed down the river in the opposite direction as the previous day, to a large, calm, turquoise pool where I instantly made a vow to return and swim later in the summer.
Eventually, the thought of castles pulled me away from the rock I was basking on, so I hopped on a bus to catch the train to Bellinzona, a UNESCO World Heritage site on my route home to Geneva, dominated by three large castles sitting smack in the center of town. Sure enough, as soon as I exited the train castles started popping out in every direction. The atmosphere was festive with the locals celebrating Switzerland’s annual “slowup” day, where the streets between two cities (this year Bellinzona and Locarno) close to traffic and only allow pedestrians for the day. I made my way through the crowd keeping my eye on the nearest and, in my opinion, most beautiful castle, Castelgrand, rebuilt in its current form in the 13th century. Following a steep climb, the striking architecture and stunning views of the castles, red roofs and bright green snow-capped mountains surrounding us were certainly worth the detour.
In just 36 hours Ticino has completely won me over. I’m sure I’ve only struck the tip of the iceberg, but I’m determined to come back and explore this strange and wonderful Mediterranean slice of Switzerland, before the rest of the world discovers what I now know.