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The Italian Connection (Part 2)

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The latter is famous for its dam, featured in the opening, 220-metre bungee-jumping stunt of the 1995 Lames Bond film GoldenEye, which anyone can now repeat (apart from the hit at the end where Pierce Brosnan shoots a piton into the rock to stop himself springing back up) thanks to the commercial bungee-jumping operation set up there in the wake of the film. But it’s the section of the Val Verzasca upstream of the dam and its reservoir that offers the true landscape thrills. Here around Lavertezzo, the river has scoured its way down through blocks of dazzling white limestone to create a series of natural pools, separated by little cascades or rapids. What really stops you in your tracks is the translucent green of the water, which seems more Caribbean than Swiss. Bathers splash in the bracing stream and scuba divers explore the three deep pools that the river has carved out, just a few metres from haystacks and grazing cows.

Description: Lavertezzo - Swiss

Lavertezzo - Swiss

Lugano and Locarno live in symbiotic harmony with the valleys and mountains that surround them. The classic Sunday jaunt from Lugano is to take the little funicular to the summit of Monte Bre, the mountain that dominates the city and the lake to the east. When it was inaugurated in 1912, the funicular was designed according to one local newspaper, “to give to Lugano a summer village where the inhabitants could, without abandoning their businesses, enjoy the cool during the dog-days, the delightful walks and the marvelous view”. A century on, its function is unchanged: not abandoning their businesses but fitting Monte Bre in before or after work, the inhabitants are still touchingly loyal to their own bit of Alpine scenery and workout space.

Description: Morning mood over Lake Lugano

Morning mood over Lake Lugano

Locerno also has a funicular, which ferries the faithful and the curious up to Madonna del Sasso, a hilltop shrine that keeps the city and the church under its protective eye, and traditionally (though not infallibly) stops the rain falling during the spectacular open-air screenings during the Locarno Film Festival in August. But Locarno is also the jumping-off point for some of Ticino’s most unspoilt valleys. To the north lie pretty Valle Maggia and its more rugged offshoot. Vat Bavona; to the west are the Centovalli (or “hundred valleys’), best experienced on one of the trains that ply the little narrow-gauge railway between Locarno and Domodossola in Italy, and wild, remote Valle Onsernone with its jagged landscapes, other-worldly atmosphere and resident population of ageing Swiss-German flower children.

Description: Madonna del Sasso

Madonna del Sasso

Perhaps it’s the cross-fertilisation of town and mountain that explains Ticino’s easy sashay between the profane and the sacred. Lugano’s most straight to the town’s (and perhaps Ticino’s) most ravishing cultural and religious monument, the church of Santa Maria degli Angioli with its early 16th-century frescoes by Bernardino Luini. After the window dressing of Prada and Hermes comes a marvelous, cast-of-thousands Crucifixion scene, painted by Luini as if observing the naïve but genuine amateur dramatics of a village Passion play. Only Mary Magdalene lacks a theatrical touch: kneeling with her back to us and arms outstretched, she appears transfixed by wonder and devotion. Or maybe she’s just the best actress of the lot.

Description: the church of Santa Maria degli Angioli with its early 16th-century frescoes by Bernardino Luini

the church of Santa Maria degli Angioli with its early 16th-century frescoes by Bernardino Luini

Up on the slopes of Monte Tamaro, accessed by a vertiginous cable car that ascends more than a thousand metres from Rivera, between Lugano and Bellinzona, kids whoop as they try out Switzerland’s longest “flying-fox” ride, or career with dad down a snaking, switchback bob ride that runs on metal tracks. Right next to this Alpine playground, however, is that rarest of things: a modern church that manages to be genuinely moving. Designed by Mario Botta, Ticino’s best-known architect, the chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli is dug into the hillside like one of those platforms from which hang-gliders leap into the void. Inside, Enzo Cucchi’s monochrome murals hit just the right note, poised between child-like wonder and ancient wisdom.

Description: between Lugano and Bellinzona, kids whoop as they try out Switzerland’s longest “flying-fox” ride

between Lugano and Bellinzona, kids whoop as they try out Switzerland’s longest “flying-fox” ride

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