LOCARNO, Switzerland--If you judged a place simply by its post
office, then you might call this paradise.
The post office adjacent to the Hotel Muralto here, on the
lovely north shore of Lago Maggiore, is bright, almost cheerful,
with a spectacular view of the palm-tree-lined lake and the
pastel-colored buildings that give this area a Mediterranean
It took me 10 minutes to mail a large package to the U.S., but
eight minutes of that time was entirely my fault: I fumbled with
the packing tape and string. The clerk could not have been more
courteous. There was no line at the window. The package--sent by
regular mail--arrived at my office in San Francisco six days
I told Brigitte Naretto, director of the tourist office at
Ascona, the charming village next to Locarno in the Swiss-Italian
province of Ticino, what I thought as we biked on a path lined with
yellow and white roses, pink azaleas and neatly trimmed green
shrubbery, all against a backdrop of the deep blue lake and
"Do you ever think you live in paradise?" I asked. She nodded, a
little embarrassed by the question but clearly proud.
Over the centuries, others have thought of this area as idyllic,
even before the Swiss opened their post offices. Some of those who
settled here include actors, writers, performers and artists such
as Paulette Goddard, Hermann Hesse, James Joyce, Isadora Duncan and
On a press trip with Wild Women Adventures, the women's tour
specialist, we spent a few days in the area, soaking up the
sunshine and warmth for which the area is known and enjoying the
Swiss-Italian cuisine, such as fettuccine with an asparagus cream
sauce, followed by profiteroles, little cream puffs with chocolate
dribbled over and topped with whipped cream.
We also spent an hour or two having drinks and enjoying one of
Switzerland's highest-rated hotels, the Giardino in Ascona, a
72-room, Italian country-style wonder that is a member of the
Relais & Chateaux group. Its decor is colored entirely in
pastels, mostly pink.
Experiencing Locarno and Ascona can be done in a day or two, if
you don't linger too long at the lakeside cafes and piazzas and
spend too much time shopping along the winding streets of the
towns' old quarters, as we did. There are also music festivals in
both towns throughout the year.
When our group pedaled into Ascona that morning, we fell upon
another of the region's traditions, the annual Risotto Festival,
for which the menfolk of Ascona stir cauldrons of rice, broth and
parmesan cheese and serve plates of it on tables covered with
red-checkered tablecloths underneath the plane trees on the shores
of Lago Maggiore.
For lovers of the outdoors, the area has a wealth of mountain
scenery and hiking paths to explore. We took one excursion into the
nearby Maggia Valley, which tourists can visit by simply hopping on
the buses marked "PT." These are the postal service buses that make
regular trips up and down the remote valley.
The Maggia Valley is the most popular of several beautiful
valleys near Locarno because of its variety of scenery, which
includes waterfalls, tiny churches, villages of granite houses and
the raging Maggia River, which spills into Lago Maggiore.
The funnel-shaped valley covers a fifth of the entire Ticino
Canton and is a major producer of granite, the material used for
building nearly everything here. Each village seems to have been
preserved perfectly, with old peasant houses clinging to each other
and a pot or two of orange geraniums giving the scene color.
Our group was enchanted by the village of Foroglio, with its
small church, cafe, stone bridge crossing the Maggia River and
It was there that we met 84-year-old Camilla Zannini, who, like
other Foroglio residents, spends weekends in the summer in the
hamlet, living in a more modern home near Locarno but happily
returning to her childhood home.
She described the Maggia Valley as filled with well-populated
small towns in her youth. But poverty drove many people to emigrate
to California and Australia, leaving the valley deserted today
except for weekend visitors.
Lunch was also charming, providing the opportunity to try one of
the valley's grottoes. In Ticino, the word is used to describe a
casual restaurant that typically has a cool cellar carved into a
rocky mountainside in which to store food and drink.
As rain clouds approached and a chilly wind swept the valley,
the polenta with a creamy melted cheese and topped with a hearty
veal stew at Grotto Pozzasc on the banks of the Maggia was a
Then, on our return just a few miles down the river valley in
Locarno, we found the sun shining again on the shores of Lago
For information on Locarno and the surrounding area, contact the
Swiss National Tourist Office in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles,
or contact the Locarno Tourist Office at (91) 751-03-33.
Locarno's Web site is at www.lagomaggiore.org.