Why the charming Swiss canton of Ticino is a must-visit

The diminutive canton of Ticino is an enchanting combination of Italian and Swiss elements, with beautiful lakes, a unique microclimate and an eccentric past. Steve King tries not to get disorientated

A jasmine-scented air of enchantment lingers at Monte Verità. The beauty, the idealism. Some say its position on the fault line between the African and Eurasian plates accounts for its weird energy. HG Wells described it as a place ‘where all that is tangled and confused in human affairs has been unravelled and made right’. I could not help thinking that both Wells and the plate-mappers had a point. 

Two World Wars tangled human affairs up again. Yet not long after the naked dancers of Monte Verità were dispersed, another countercultural stronghold emerged nearby. Though barely half an hour’s drive from the lakeside cafes of Ascona, the Onsernone Valley is often said to be the remotest and wildest of all Swiss valleys. Puzzled-together stone hamlets, many of them all but abandoned, dot the sheer, thickly forested hillsides. 

The valley is home to an unlikely mix of centuries-old farming communities and financially independent, nature-loving Swiss-German dropouts, who came to live off-grid in the Sixties. The residents are so protective of their unspoilt valley that – with a purity of spirit and denial of common sense of which the denizens of Monte Verità would surely have approved – they voted against allowing it to become Switzerland’s second national park. 

I spent my last night in Ticino back by the water, in Locarno. After dinner I strolled around the Piazza Grande, where a huge screen is erected during the annual Film Festival. It was the wrong time of year for movie stars, though, and it was late. Scarcely a sinner stirred under the darkened arcades. Lights suspended across the square on a fine web of wires cast strange shadows on the cobblestones. It all seemed extremely lovely. With a head full of hippy-dippy goodwill, and perhaps a little befuddled by the auspicious tectonics and what have you, I swear I was that close to breaking into a few bars of Donna non vidi mai.

Ways and Means

Steve King visited Ticino as a guest of Switzerland Tourism. Doubles cost from £149 at Hotel De La Paix, Lugano (delapaix.ch); £155 at Monte Verità, Ascona (monteverita.org); and £270 at Hotel Belvedere, Locarno (belvedere-locarno.com). Swiss flies from six UK airports to Zurich from £155 return (swiss.com). A three-day pass on the Swiss Travel System for internal rail, bus and boat routes costs £186 (mystsnet.com). For more information, visit ticino.ch and myswitzerland.com

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