By Bob Bestor
Locarno, on the "Swiss Riviera," is full of La Dolce Vita, where the sweet life can mean a day's lake cruise to Italy, a long mountain tramp, or just an umbrella table on the Piazza Grande.
One of the things that sets Switzerland apart from other European countries is its diversity. Go from the German-speaking cantons in the north to Ticino in the south and a line from Monty Python comes immediately to mind: "and now for something completely different."
What's different? Just the language, the food, the architecture, the landscape, the climate, and the life-style. All are Italian. And, as thousands of not-so-politically-correct travel writers have pointed out before, you still get Swiss order and punctuality. It's a nice combination.
One of Ticino's most pleasant stops is Locarno on Lake Maggiore where, in our view, autumn is the best time to visit. At 197 meters (646 feet) elevation, it is the lowest city in Switzerland and, like a few other Swiss towns, claims to get the most sunshine of any place in the country. The summers are hot.
In the fall, however, the sun shines more gently and the masses of tourists who came for Locarno's great film festival in August have packed up and gone.
Life is easy by the lake. The vistas are breathtaking, the food and wine simple and comforting, and the sub-tropical vegetation luxuriant with palm trees and bright flowers (Locarno is famous for its several hundred varieties of camellias). There are cobblestoned, arcaded piazzas, narrow alleys, ancient stone churches, grand old Italian-style villas, and, of course, hundreds of umbrella tables at dozens of outdoor cafés from which to savor it all.
Scattered over the steep hillside above the town are its toniest suburbs and finest hotels. From the town center a funicular rises a few hundred feet to Orselina where the main attractions are the lake view and the striking Madonna del Sasso, a monastery and church precariously perched on a forested, outcropping of rock.
It was across Maggiore, from Italy to nearby Brissago, that Lt. Henry, a young American ambulance driver, rowed with his English lover, Miss Barkley, in Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. They stayed one night in Locarno where a customs official tried to convince them to settle because of the healthy climate. Despite his warning, "you will regret leaving Locarno," they went on to a chalet in the mountains above Montreux. There, of course, Miss Barkley died in childbirth.
Maybe Hemingway was saying don't just pass through, stay awhile.
Excursions from Locarno
Some of the best excursions from Locarno are into the mountain valleys to the north such as Valle Onsernone, Valle Maggia, Val Rovana, Val Bavona and, to the west, the Centovalli (100 valleys) region.
This is a rugged and somewhat wild country sprinkled with charming little villages with slate-roofed, stone houses and crisscrossed by a web of hiking trails.
The most extensive of the valleys is the Maggia with its branches, the Rovana, Bavona and Lavizzara valleys. Hard times in the 19th and early 20th centuries caused the abandonment of many of the villages. Some residents emigrated to America. The founders of the Italian Swiss Colony wines north of Santa Rosa in Northern California came from this region of Switzerland.
Now a few of these pretty hamlets are returning to life. Among the attractions in the Maggia Valley and its offshoots are the church of the Madonna delle Grazie in Maggia, the town square in Cevio, the marble sculpture school in Peccia, the church of Mogno designed by famous Ticinese architect, Mario Botta (designer of San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art), and some 700 kilometers (435 miles) of hiking trails.
Scenic Train Excursion
An interesting one-day excursion through the Centovalli and an extraordinary train ride is to take a morning train from Locarno to Domodossola in Italy and return in the late afternoon. One could, for example, board in Locarno at 9:35am, arriving Domodossola at 11:14am, then return at 3:18pm, arriving back in Locarno at 5:04pm. Roundtrip second class fare is 67 Sfr. ($45), first class is 111 Sfr. ($74). Of course, Europass, Eurailpass and Swiss Pass are all honored.
Lake Trips to Italy
A relaxing way to explore the lake and the towns on it is via the boats of the Navigazione Lago Maggiore (+41/091/751 1865, fax 751 3024). These large, sturdy vessels call at some 20 towns around the lake, many in Italy. Fares are based on the length of trip, but a one-day Lago Maggiore Holiday Card costs 33 Sfr. ($22) and allows unlimited travel as far south as Arona in Italy, near the lake's southern tip.
Special boat trips are also available to the Italian markets in Cannobio, Luino and Intra. Prices from Locarno range from 21 to 27 Sfr. ($14-$18), depending on the destination. Reservations are required. The Swiss rail passes are not honored on these boats. Take your passport if you'll be going to Italy.
Lunch with Agnes
If you do nothing else, take the train or drive to the town of Intragna for a meal at Stazione "da Agnese" where Agnes Broggini, co-owner and chef at this tiny hotel near the local rail station, makes the best risotto we've ever tasted.
Signora Broggini is also famous for her pepper strawberries, a delicious and amazing amalgamation of chopped fresh strawberries, a blizzard of ground black pepper, sugar, a couple of liqueurs and whipped cream.
In addition to the restaurant, there are 11 guestrooms ranging in price from 120 to 160 Sfr. ($80-$107).
"Da Agnese" is only a few kilometers from the Italian border on a "yellow" road just off "red" road 337 between Locarno and Domodossola. Use Die General Karte #2 for Switzerland.
Stazione "da Agnese" Intragna, CH-6655, tel. +41/091/796 1212, fax 796 3133.
One of the premium pieces of property in Locarno is occupied by the Hotel Orselina. The hillside setting high above the town is magnificent. On stair-stepped terraces below the hotel's main building are lush gardens, grape arbors, lawns, tennis courts, a large swimming pool and spas, even a putting green and a place for golfers to hit balls into a net. Of course, there is also an indoor pool.
As marketing and maintenance costs increase, the number of European family-owned hotels of this caliber are dwindling. Hotel operators like suave and charming Alberto Amstutz are a rare breed. Like a handful of others we have seen, his rate ability to make every guest feel special is coupled with the management skills and tireless energy necessary to keep his hotel among the finest in the country. Always immaculately dressed in suit and tie, he greets new arrivals with a smile and perfect English or French, or German, or Spanish, or Italian. He suggests excursions and gives directions. At dinner he drops by your table to recommend a wine or inquire about your day. At checkout, he sees to the luggage loading and sends guests away with a warm handshake and the belief that he's genuinely sorry to see them leave.
Such hospitality makes a hotel's physical elements seem less important. Still, the Orselina's guest and public rooms range from very comfortable to luxurious. Virtually every room offers panoramic views of the lake and mountains beyond. From a comfortable chair on your tiled balcony you can watch boats come and go in the harbor far below. Each room's end wall is just an expanse of glass. An overstuffed love seat and easy chair with coffee table are great for relaxing at end of day.
The hotel's dining room is a splendid affair which in good weather spills out onto the terrace overlooking the lake. The ceiling is vaulted and there are individual lamps at each table. Dinner at Orselina is a formal affair; men wear dark suits and ties, women are in long dresses and wear their best baubles. The half-board dinner was a five-course affair that started with Champagne cream soup, moved on to a choice of Danish smoked salmon or goose liver terrine or sweetbreads in puff pastry, followed by salad, then a choice of roast lamb or breast of Guinea-fowl and finally dessert and cheese. All was well-prepared and beautifully presented. Signor Amstutz's interest in wine is reflected in the extensive wine list.
Our only tiny quibble is the bathrooms are a little tight and one would hope for more substantial towels.
This is a wonderful hotel but by now you've guessed, it ain't cheap.
Daily Rates: Singles 180 Sfr. ($120), doubles 310 to 362 Sfr. ($207-$241), suite 452 Sfr. ($301). For half board add 24 Sfr. ($16) per day. Parking in garage 10 Sfr ($6.67), covered lot, 7 Sfr. ($4.67), outdoor 4.50 Sfr. ($3).
Rating: Quality 18 /20 Value /20
This is a popular restaurant in the old town that offers a few rooms to rent. You'll find authentic charm and clean, comfortable rooms with private bath that offer very good value.
There is no lift.
Daily Rates: Singles 60 to 100 Sfr. ($40-$67), doubles 100 to 150 Sfr. ($67-$100)
Contact: Hotel-Ristorante Cittadella, Via Cittadella 18, CH-6600 Locarno, tel. +41/091/751 58 85, fax 751 77 59
Rating: Quality 10/20 Value 13/20
Palm au Lac
A typical, four-star tourist hotel catering to groups. Though well-maintained, guest rooms need to be updated. A plus is its central location across from the lake front.
Daily Rates: Singles 120 to 175 Sfr. ($80-$116), doubles 230 to 310 Sfr. ($153-&207)
Contact: La Palma au Lac, Viale Verbano 29, CH-6600 Locarno-Muralto, tel. +41 091 735 36 36, fax +41 091 735 36 16
Rating: Quality 9/20 Value 7/20
Not just for young backpackers, this hostel at the edge of the old town offers a number of rooms with private bath for two, three and four persons. Renovated in 1997, it is exceptionally clean and bright and the staff professional and friendly.
A double room with balcony and private bath is 42 Sfr. ($28) per person, including breakfast. Nonmembers of the International Hosteling Association pay an additional 5 Sfr. ($3.33) per night. A cafeteria serves three-course lunches and dinners for 11 Sfr. ($7.33).
There are TV, telephones and a lift. A washing machine and dryer are available for 6 Sfr. ($4), including soap. Towels can be rented for 1.5 Sfr. ($1) and bicycles for 12 Sfr. ($8) per day.
This is a terrific bargain.
Daily Rates: Singles 52 to 77 Sfr. ($35-$51), doubles 74 to 84 Sfr. ($49-$56). Lunch and dinner 11 Sfr. ($7.33) extra. Bicycle rentals per day 12 Sfr. ($8), half-day 8 Sfr. ($5.33).
Contact: Ostello Palagiovani, Via Varenna 18, CH-6600 Locarno, tel. +41/091/756 15 00, fax 756 15 01
Rating: Quality 10/20, Value 15/20
Cozy and very charming three-star hotel high in the hills above town with the same great views as Orselina but at much less the price.
Guest rooms are slightly below average in size but nicely decorated and furnished. Ask for Number 30 in its own little cottage.
There is a warm welcome, an outdoor swimming pool, pleasant gardens and arbors, and an attractive dining room with large windows.
Daily Rates: Singles 80 to 120 Sfr. ($53-$80), doubles 140 to 196 Sfr. ($93-$131).
Contact: Mirafiori, Via al Parco 25, CH-6644 Orselina, tel. +41 091 743 18 77, fax 743 77 39
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 13/20
This restored villa, set among soaring palm trees in the hills above the town, offers the best combination of quality and charm for the money of all the properties we saw in Locarno.
Pauliska is best-known as a restaurant, but owner, Dahlia Togni, offers four open, airy guestrooms with high ceilings, tall windows, hardwood floors and pleasant bathrooms. The larger rooms are 150 Sfr. ($100), the smaller one 130 Sfr. ($87).
One drawback; there is no breakfast, only coffee. It isn't that it's not included, it's just not served.
Daily Rates: Singles 60 to 80 Sfr. ($40-$53), doubles 100 to 150 Sfr. ($67-$100). No breakfast served.
Contact: Villa Pauliska, Via Orselina 6, CH-6600 Locarno-Muralto, tel. +41 091 743 05 41
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 16/20
Dinner is elegant but informal in either of the two cozy dining rooms of this graceful, turn-of-the-century Italian-style house. Ceilings and windows are lofty, floors are wood herringbone, and attractive pictures adorn the walls.
All patrons are served a fixed-price, five-course, meal which changes daily. The portions are modest but at the end it is enough.
We began with a few fresh greens bathed in a light, vinegary dressing scattered with finely chopped egg yolk. Next came a small cluster of fresh shrimp, grilled zucchini and strips of red bell pepper topped with a smooth, not-too-thick, 1000-island style dressing. The zukes gave the dish an appealing smoky taste.
Risotto in Ticino is as common as Pommes Frites in Paris and the Pauliska's was perfectly al dente and laced with pungent cheese.
The main course consisted of four slender slices of veal with a fat dollop of pureed carrot and potato that, with a rosemary sprig stuck in one end, looked like a carrot.
Afterward came thin slices of hard cheese and, following that, little footballs of feathery chocolate mousse and tiny rounds of various flavors of gelato, sprinkled with shavings of dark chocolate.
At 51 Sfr. ($34) per person for the five courses, and considering the restaurant's considerable charm and wonderful food, Pauliska is a bargain.
Villa Pauliska, Via Orselina 6, CH-6600 Locarno-Muralto, tel. +41 091 743 05 41
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 15/20
Hotel-Ristorante Dell Angelo
Heartier, heavier but still satisfying food is served at Hotel-Ristorante Dell Angelo on the Piazza Grande.
The clientèle is shoppers, tradespeople and tourists, and ambiance is slightly reminiscent of a Denny's.
Mixed salads - red cabbage, beets, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, bell peppers, slices of hard-boiled egg, carrots and greens - at 8 Sfr. ($5.33) were a hefty, tasty start and either of the main dishes we chose would have been enough for two. The first third of Spaghetti carbonara (15 Sfr./$10), rich with smoky bacon, butter and eggs, was fine, but one quickly hits the wall. The same with broiler-finished crêpes bulging with porcini mushrooms (16.8 Sfr./$11) and cream sauce. Three deciliters of an everyday local Merlot cost 8.4 Sfr. ($5.60).
Hotel-Ristorante Dell Angelo, Piazza Grande, CH-6601 Locarno, tel. +41/091/751 8175, fax 751 8256.
Rating: Quality 9/20, Value 12/20
3 Days In Locarno
* Stroll the town, visit the Madonna del Sasso
* Take the cable car to Cardada from Orselina, then perhaps the chairlift to Cimetta where the view stretches from Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn to the Dolomites
Ente Turistico di Locarno e Valli
Largo Zorzi 1, CH-6601 Locarno 1
* Berlin 1204 km/753 miles
* Geneva 440 km/275 miles
* Milan 150 km/94 miles
* Munich 421 km/263 miles
* Zürich 215 km/134 miles
Two-hour Locarno city tours cost 10 Sfr. ($6.67) per adult, half price for children 7-16 and are offered Mondays from April 13 to Oct. 30. Meet at the Casino at 9:45am. Reservations required: +41/091/751 9070.
In addition to hotels, Locarno and environs offers a multitude of vacation rentals, from studio apartments to grand villas. Some are on or near the lake, some are centrally located, others are in the hills above the city and offer lake views and still others are in the countryside in small villages such as Aurigeno, Menzonio, Borglio and Peccia. Rentals range in price from about 30 Sfr. ($20) per person per night to about 260 Sfr. ($173). Prices at most properties vary widely by season.
Obtain the Case E Appartamenti Di Vacanaz 1998 brochure from the Locarno tourist office for a list of available rentals. Be sure to ask not only for the Locarno brochure but for nearby Ascona and for lists of rentals in outlying towns and villages. Because it has color photos of most properties, the Ascona booklet is the best of the lot. Choose rentals that fit your requirements and then contact the property owner(s) directly for further information and booking.
Almost all vines planted in this region are Merlot, the same grape which is blended in Bordeaux with the highly tannic Cabernet Sauvignon, and which, in the last 10 years, has become immensely popular in the U.S as a stand-alone varietal wine. Most of the Merlots in Ticino are soft and early maturing. You will see them on every wine list ranging in price from cheap to very expensive.
If you wish to purchase a few bottles, the shop Vino Veritas in Locarno has a huge selection. There is a wine museum in Tenero, at the northern tip of the lake.