There is no better way to describe the landscape and people of Ticino than Jonny Rieger put it in words and pictures in his book “A balcony over Lake Maggiore”. His detailed descriptions are almost like a declaration of love for this partly rugged, partly delight region, which culture extends to two countries: Switzerland and Italy. Accordingly, Italian is the first language on site, but German is also understood and spoken. And when you hardly understand anything, the locals speak the local dialect, the rest of the formerly old Lombard language.
When I was in the area recently, I felt like the aforementioned author. I have traveled half a life around the world to explore glaciers, magnificent mountain landscapes, oceans and lovely lakes with a tropical-Mediterranean ambience; and here you can experience everything together on a few square kilometers. You just have to fall in love with this landscape; no matter in the sunshine or in the autumn mist of numerous chestnut trees. No wonder, “Goethe’s lemon blooms” can be found here as well, and only in Naples or Sicily.
Speaking of culinary art. On this point, too, there is hardly anything left to be desired. In addition to kiwis and figs, you will find one of the most northern rice fields (dry cultivation) on earth. Have you ever drank a white Merlot? Hand on heart, didn’t you always assume that a Merlot is an exclusively red grape being fermented into red wine? But the amazement continues when you have the white liquid in the glass: it has hardly any color, but smells like a Gewürztraminer and tastes like a Chablis in my opinion.
But be careful, you should keep a clear head. In Ticino it is important to be able to walk well, because pretty much all places are on a slope and are criss-crossed by steep stairs. Surprising views await you around every bend and every stone climb; it’s like an addiction to climb higher and higher. Sometimes it’s a designer house made of glass and cement, sometimes some half-dilapidated stone huts that look more like abandoned stables. Behind iron fences and hidden gardens you may detect the lush splendor of mighty hydrangea bushes, rose bushes or venerable groups of palm and cypress trees. Leaves rustle, a beetle buzzes by, a water-drop falls from a pipe into a stone trough, a bell rings in the distance, then absolute silence again.
Rieger describes these moments of perception as “feverishly hot flowers between the cold, deep shadows of the stone walls. The damp breath from a stale time ”.
They have all been here: the troops of the Habsburgs, the armies of Napoleon. They all coveted this land, but in the end poor Ticino joined the Swiss Confederation in 1803. Today the canton’s capital is Bellinzona (with its three mighty castles), not something the bigger and better known, sophisticated Lugano.
Despite all its beauty and a tourism boom that has lasted for decades, it is still considered the country’s “poor house” in the eyes of the Swiss. Well, that is of course relative, because a scoop of ice cream on the Piazza Grande in Locarno costs around CHF 3.-, which equals around EUR 2.70. The rents here and in neighboring Ascona are sometimes exorbitant and can quickly reach CHF 2,000 to 4,000 per month for a 25 to 30 square meter apartment. Sure, you can find cheaper flats, but without a lake view in contrast to the snow-covered mountain peaks in winter, there is simply no sense of being here. Especially in the higher-lying communities such as Ronco sobre Ascona, Orselina or Brione, the balconies hang like swallow nests over the abyss. One view is more beautiful than the other. The two small Brissago Islands range deep down, and each has its own story.
As I am strolling through the old cobblestone streets of Vico-Morcote (above the actual village on the romantic shores of Lake Lugano) on a Sunday, I encounter a sympatic village festival at a small crossroad. The people are open-hospitable and like to invite the friendly stranger (even in Corona times) to their tables.
A must at this point is undoubtedly the nearby and free of charge accessible “Parco Scherrer“, a dream garden over several terraced levels, which unites different subtropical cultures. Asian bamboo grows there between watercourses and fountains, as well as Mexican cacti, enriched by Moroccan mosaic floors, Egyptian statues and Greek pillar temples, etc.
Sometimes it is intoxicatingly quiet at lunchtime between the stone walls of the villages and the gorges of the Maggia and Verzasca valleys. “The weathered walls in deep sleep take no notice of me; there seems to be no living soul here ”. Another example is the mountain village of Indemini – high above the lake not far from the Alpe di Neggia (at 1,400 meters above sea level) and only accessible via countless steep hairpin bends. After all, it can now be reached by car. My eyes keep searching around, everywhere only steep granite stairs and narrow passages. Stairs like ladders, almost straight up, or stair ramps that cut a stone arch from one house to the other.
It slowly begins to get dark and countless lights of the villages appear from all sides on the slopes and along the lake shore. The horn of a passenger steamer sounds a last time. I’ve long been back on my favorite balcony. “Buona sera” – the proverbial “blue hour” begins. I light a candle and pour myself a glass of “Nostrano-red wine”. Sip by sip, I review the scenery of the last few days: the spectacular Ponte Brolla over the Maggia gorge (often the venue for cliff jumping), the remote Grotto Pozzasc with its soot-blackened polenta kettles and the artists’ mountain Monte Veritá come to mind spontaneously .
What a privilege. At this moment, like Rieger in the 1950s, I am the happiest person in Europe.
This time I have deliberately refrained from using multiple illustrations in order to leave the magic of this area to everybodies own imagination. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lago_Maggiore