Bleary-eyed, I left French-speaking Geneva at daybreak. At lunchtime, I switched trains in Zurich, stammering through my rusty grammar-school-level German. A few hours south through the Saint-Gotthard Massif – at almost 11,000 feet, a once formidable obstacle between northern and southern Europe – and, via the longest railway tunnel in the world, I stepped into a balmy summer afternoon in Ticino, the only Italian-speaking canton in Switzerland.
In just a few hours spent in the resort town of Locarno, just about six miles from the border with Italy, it was clear that Ticino’s reputation as the sunniest canton was completely warranted. Lush palm trees, dark-green camellia shrubs and pastel-colored facades give it a gentle Mediterranean feel. But that was not what I was seeking. After too much time in New York, I was aching for Alpine meadows, ancient forests and the rural landscape of my Swiss childhood. What I found were vivid traces of an ancient mountain people’s enduring struggle against the rocky backdrop of their lives.
I recently stumbled upon the writings of mountaineer and author Douglas W. Freshfield, who, in 1875, published “Italian Alps: Sketches in the Mountains of Ticino, Lombardy, The Trentino, and Venetia” and wrote, “We feel disposed to cry out with delight before a figure of Michael Angelo or this view in Val Maggia.” Even though I had been to Ticino before, I had never heard of that particular valley. It was enough to send me packing.
A main artery for the Maggia River, the valley leads from the high summits of the Lepontine Alps to Lake Maggiore below, but it also breaks into more than 10 smaller canyons. The small