Morning jogs along the villa cladded shores of Locarno's Lago Maggiore marked my introduction to Ticino several years ago. Palm trees in Switzerland? Yes, please. Rural grottos serving creamy polenta and grilled meats? Point the way.
Since my first visit, each time I've been seduced a bit more by hidden (and not so hidden) gems throughout the region. And while any season is a great excuse to explore Ticino, long summer days are ideal for soaking up the Swiss-Italian culture by renting a house in a quaint village or for a weekend city retreat.
If you're looking for ideas to explore the area, here are some of the top tips I've gleaned over the years. They'll have you wishing summer would never end.
Slowing down in Centovalli
From wooded hiking trails dotted with blue pools of mountain water to candlelit dinners off the tourist trail, if you're looking for rustic charm, Centovalli has it. Centovalli, or hundred valleys, was named for the hundred streams rushing down the mountains to create deep gorges. So get ready for some windy roads with steep cliffs that pave the way between stone villages and hiking trails.
For a four-day weekend escape, my husband and I packed our two sheepdogs into the car and made our way to a rental house in the sleepy town of Verdasio. It's a town forgotten in time with grey stone houses, winding staircases and only 20 permanent residents. It's quiet, sans the clock tower, which means this is not a getaway for you if you need shopping at your doorstep or a five-star hotel. However, the town is home to Al Pentolino — a 14 Gault Millau point restaurant. When the weather is nice, book a stone table on the terrace. The view of the valley below, combined with a modern twist on traditional fare, is a great way to kick-start a long weekend getaway.
In addition to the tasty, local restaurant, Verdasio is the perfect launch point for mountain bikers and hikers. For us, it was straight to the hiking trails. In Verdasio you can simply hop on the 11.7 km Centovalli Camendo-Verdasio-Intragna trail that is given a medium difficulty level. If you're not up for a long hike, the town's location is perfect to jump on the trail for a light walk — as we did with two tired dogs.
For a longer day on the trails, we headed down the road to the Monte Comino area. We caught a small cable car up the mountain and hiked for hours enjoying the great views of the Centovalli on relatively flat paths under a canopy of trees. While there, you can visit the small Madonna della Segna church or stop for a bite to eat at the grotto Alla Capanna.
By day three, we'd worked up an appetite from all the hiking and it was time to hop in the car and explore the region's grottos. Heading out on Via Cantonale (or Canton Street) alongside the blue-green hues of the Melezza River, we veered onto side roads to explore the villages and hidden grottos dishing up hearty fare including creamy risottos and homemade pastas.
With full bellies, it was time to put on our bathing suits and head down to the Melezza River's rocky bank for some afternoon sun and a dip in the glacier water. There are numerous spots along the road to pull over and enjoy, including in Golino or Tegna. It's the perfect way to enjoy your final hours in the area.
Don't have a car but still want to enjoy the region's scenery? You can hop on the Centovalli Railway departing from Locarno to Domodossola (nearly 2 hours each way) to catch views of tumbling waterfalls and mountains.
A taste of LocarnoIf you're not into hiking and need a bit more excitement than Centovalli, or are simply looking for some day trip ideas, Locarno's shores could be a perfect fit.
Perched on Lago Maggiore (‘Great Lake'), it's a better bet for those looking for a leisurely bike ride (there are even electric bike rentals available at the tourist office) or afternoon shopping. And of course there are cafés.
One of my favorites, Al Borgo (also called Casa Borgo) is off the main plaza so people watching is limited. However, this historic house dates back to the 1500's and boasts an enchanting courtyard perfect for enjoying a cappuccino or Aperol Spritz. Take heed, the inside sitting rooms may lure you to cuddle up with a book and forget the city outside. On my first visit to the café, I was a bit too enchanted and returned several months later to stay in the B&B portion of the house, a decision I highly recommend if you do not mind sharing a bathroom.
As for restaurants in Locarno, it's worth taking a stroll along the lake to find a spot with a view. Away from the lake and the main plaza, though, there are two great choices. The first is the tiny Osteria Borghese offering a retreat from the tourist traps and serving mouth-watering fresh pastas and for carnivores, tender steaks. As a side note, it is best to make reservations in advance and be warned; the owner will not take a table of one (as I sadly learned when I tried to return on a solo trip).
For seafood and a livelier environment (yes they accept solo travelers), book a table at Cittadella. The spaghetti alle vongole was al dente and delicious, while the classic tiramisu was worth returning for. Each summer Locarno hosts Moon and Stars (7-17 July 2016), a 20-day music event in the Piazza Grande. If you're interested, book your rooms and tickets early.
Is that Dizzy Gillespie?
Next door to Locarno, Ascona's narrow alleys are filled with boutiques and cafés that weave down to the lakeshore. Here, you will find Piazza G. Motta's stretch of brightly colored restaurant fronts. It's an ideal spot to enjoy an evening or weekend. And if you enjoy jazz, each summer (this year from 25 June through 4 July) the city hosts a 10-day jazz festival along the waterfront. During the event, various stages dot the piazza's lakefront with bands playing New Orleans jazz, swing and blues.
If you're interested in enjoying the music, tickets are free Monday through Thursday, and CHF 20 for adults Friday, Saturday and Sunday. As a sidenote, you will need tickets to enter the Piazza G. Motta during these two weekend evenings.
To make the most of the night, or any night really, just head to the piazza early and grab a coveted outdoor table at Osteria Nostrana for a crisp pizza and delicious beef carpaccio. Vegetarians fear not. There are many options for you including the rich gnocchi with mascarpone, tomatoes, basil and grana padano cheese.
So now that your appetite is whet, it's time to explore Ticino's hidden gems and uncover some of your own. Buon viaggio!
Photos: © Ticino Turismo_Christof Sonderegger, © Ticino Turismo_Remy Steinegger, Ticino Turismo_Remy Steinegger, © Al Borgo, © Ticino Turismo_Christof Sonderegger