Spring in the step

Debashree Majumdar | Updated on March 10, 2018

High on a hill: Locarno and Lago Maggiore as seen from Madonna del Sasso. Among other things, the church is home to Bramantino and Ciseri paintings.   -  Shutterstock

Locarno’s claim to fame is the eponymous film festival. But if you’re easily put off by crowds and flashbulbs, plan a trip to this otherwise quiet corner in spring

It started like it always does — packing of bags, waiting for trains, and then soaking in everything that comes with the journey. The rigours of travel remain mostly unchanged save for the destination. This time I was headed to Locarno. As the Centovalli (Italian for ‘a hundred valleys’) snaked through nearly 60 km on narrow-gauge tracks, it revealed a landscape with deep ravines, roaring waterfalls, snowy peaks, lived-in hamlets surrounded by chestnut forests, opaque tunnels and impossible bends. Looking out the panoramic windows of the carriage, it felt like motion in suspension. One chance derailment and we’d be descending into an afterlife in the ravines. It’s a good thing that the Swiss are meticulous with their machines.

And then just like that the Centovalli cut across Domodossola in Italy into the Swiss canton of Ticino, where I was greeted with the Mediterranean splendour of fresh palm fronds, blue lakes and a soft, caressing sun. It seemed as if a screen had lifted to reveal a film I did not quite expect.

Located in the Italian-speaking Ticino, Locarno sits at the southernmost tip of the Swiss Alps, along the northern shore of Lago Maggiore. The ribbons of jagged rocks that rise along the lake’s edges give this tiny town a feel of a bird’s nest, fragile and petite, requiring care and cushioning. It’s early evening in April and spring is in full swing. Giant camellias, magnolias, rhododendrons, and peonies abound, colouring Locarno in a manner that makes me, a social media misanthrope, reach for my phone with the enthusiasm of a selfie addict. The sun has set, the air is cool, the town square, which is alight in a salmon-tinged glow, is bereft of tourists. I applaud myself for picking the best time to travel.

Locarno shot to fame in 1946 with the birth of the eponymous international film festival. Held for 10 days in August each year in the central square of the town, Piazza Grande, the Locarno Festival draws as many as 8,000 cinephiles from across the globe. Towering over the open-air gala, at the centre of all action, stands a 364-sqm movie screen. The fest comprises an extended party that mirrors, what the world calls, the good life, and in some cases a refined taste in cinema. For the 2017 edition, organisers have promised the inauguration of Palazzo del Cinema and the reopening of the historic Ex Rex.

But it’s April still. And the spring air is as tangible as the magnolias that carpet the streets. Beyond the city square, Locarno has its residential buildings stacked up along the hills with a funicular slicing the slopes. As I rode up to the magnificent Madonna del Sasso, a 15th-century Renaissance church, I noticed a solitary man step out of his Mercedes and disappear into a private elevator that carried him to his doorstep in the hills.

Along the residential area of the town are forested roads leading up to Cardada, one of Locarno’s best-known hiking and viewing points. The climb felt steep when I attempted it the following day and found myself breaking for breath and water frequently. The peak of Cimetta in the distance taunted me — I ignored it and focussed instead on the scrunch of dried leaves, twigs, forlorn mounds of dirty snow still waiting to melt into the sodden earth. Rows of pines dominated the skyline allowing the sun only a peek. I kept my ears perked up for the sudden arrival of a mountain biker from the slopes above — they seemed to compensate for my utter neglect of horror movies lately.

Back in town, thankfully, there’s no such thing as a ‘spring mob’ (like the ‘European summer mob’). As a result, the few hanging around the landscaped waterfront running along Lago Maggiore, seemed just right. There were people reading, sleeping, fishing. I took a stroll by the still lake and, along the way, lost my heart to a little Italian girl who surprised me with two yellow camellias.

Between a vanishing day and an approaching dusk, Locarno revels in its timelessness. While on the trip, I rarely doubted that it would be unrecognisable if I were to visit in the 1980s. The town square is peppered with quiet cafés and shopfronts — nothing jarring, nothing bling. The buildings retain their old European style and the invasion of shiny steel architecture has been contained to the outskirts. On a radiant spring day, this town by the lake seems to have given mindless modernisation a miss. And yet it remains quixotically modern.

Travel log

Getting there

Fly to Geneva or Zurich and take the Centovalli Express from Domodossola. There are regular trains stopping at Domodossola every day.


If the hum and activity of town is what you’re after, choose Hotel Garni du Lac (http://du-lac-locarno.ch) or Hotel Arcadia Locarno (www.hhotels.com/de/h4/hotels/h4-hotellocarno).

Pick La Barca Blu (www.barcablu.ch/de/13/home.aspx) if you prefer a hilly perch overlooking the lake.


Make time for the15th-century Madonna del Sasso, a Renaissance church and pilgrim point in Orselina.


Pick a sunny day to hike along the Cardada-Cimetta range, which overlooks the region of Switzerland’s two extremes: the lowest point, Lake Maggiore, and the highest, the Dufour point, on the Monte Rosa range.

Debashree Majumdar is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Geneva

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Published on March 24, 2017
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