So you know how I said this country is small and accessible and multilingual and surprisingly varied in weather, customs and culture? Or words to that effect!
Much as we can appreciate autumn weather, there is always that little temptation for the German Swiss to nip over the Alps to where the climate is almost Mediterranean and temperatures remain at summery levels for a good deal longer than in the north – hey presto, a couple of hours drive, a tunnel or two, and the gloomy grey rain clouds and dwindling degrees are exchanged for dramatic peaks, volcanic hills and glittering lakes: the Tessin (Ticino).
It’s surprising how many people still have the idea that Switzerland consists only of mountains and that we all live at high altitudes with year-round snow and skiing. Far from it, in fact, since we do have proper seasons for the most part and some very hot summers. This time, then, we crossed meadows of rather soggy snow on the mountain passes, to be rewarded by bright sunshine, millions of chestnut trees, grapevines, olives and even persimmon trees (something even I wasn’t actually aware of) on arrival south of the Alps. There are still enormous white peaches to be had and it’s an attractive proposition to sit on a piazza and while away the hours sipping Aperol Spritzer, people-watching, well-armed with dark sunglasses… Even if the wind whips white horses into the waves on the lake and the little white butterfly sails bob around quite wildly, there is still some summer serenity in being able to stroll along the lakeside promenade under palm trees and squint across to foreign shores – Italy is just across the way!
You can still lounge on the shore, sun yourself on a bench and just listen to the chatter of many languages milling around. If, like us, you have a cute dog on a lead, you will be guaranteed attention and fuss of the nicest kind and conversations in any language you can master, as well as the life stories of any other canines you may encounter. Nobody bats an eyelid as you shuffle through crowded cobbled streets, wander through specialised boutiques or a department store with your four-legged friend, even the cafés and restaurants are remarkably welcoming.
This time, we joined the tourists in a different way, taking the time to visit a small poster museum in Morcote. Tucked in under the arcades of some rather archaic buildings plastered to the steep slope, this little collection had some gems: pre-Raphaelite posters dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries which include the train timetables from London to Milan, others showing how healthy and bracing the air is in the 1930s and some more abstract advertisements for wine festivals in the 40s and 50s, persuading mostly Germanic travellers that some rustic colour was called for after the dull war years. One of my favourites, though, was a 1952 poster that shows Lugano as a small town, perhaps a third or quarter of its present-day size (population 55,000) and consisting of almost only red-roofed buildings – how often I have thought it must have been pretty without all the post-1960s high-rise blocks and the density of modern town planning. That was the period my father-in-law was growing up nearby and this helps me to understand why to some, the particular charm and flair of Lugano lives on, even if to me, it’s heavily smothered under Russian perfumes, banks and too much traffic!
But there is more to the Tessin than cosmopolitan mini-cities. Some of the more rural parts are particularly special, too, and in fact, probably provide evidence that some of the souvenirs that are so typical are actually based on reality.
The Verzasca valley winds up steeply from the Bellinzona-Locarno plateau, past the famous high dam featured in a Bond film (Goldeneye) and soon you feel as if you must be miles away from anywhere. The water streams through the valley, carving the stone tumbled by an ancient glacier into intricate shapes and stripes, especially at the double bridge of Lavertezzo.
It seems impossible that humans might have made a living in so remote a mountain valley, which unlike the rest of the Tessin often has very deep snowfall in the winter. But there is a history of sheep-farming and chestnut-collecting, small mean ways of surviving on very little and periods where the ancestors were forced to give up their attempts and emigrate to America or Australia…before returning with their small fortunes made, happy to retire back into their skilfully built stone huts with the open pergolas connecting them to each other, once again making the most of meagre pickings. At the very top of the valley is Sonogno, which boasts a population of about 150. In the summer. Come winter, only about 50 hardy inhabitants cope with keeping the hearthfires burning, still relying on skills like spinning, dyeing and cheesemaking to generate a little income in future seasons.
A perfect autumn day, a cold north Föhn wind, roast chestnuts, Merlot wine, goat’s cheese, genial company, friendly faces and a very special environment form the highlight of our short trip south. As the sun begins to float gently towards the high horizon, we are all amazed to hear the deep bellow of an Alphorn – a lone Bernese stands next to his dormobile and plays the plaintive melodies that call through the valleys and for a short while, we stand mesmerised.
PS there seems to be an editing problem I cannot solve…I apologise for the sky-blue text in the middle of this post!