Situated at the base of the Simplon Pass in the Swiss Canton of Valais is the small town of Brig which dates back to the Bronze Age. Here is the perfect departure point for many adventures around alpine Switzerland as well as into Italy. My Bernoise friend arrived about the same time as my train from Lausanne which goes all the way to Venice (if you stay on it). Many travelers stay on until Milan or Verona but we got off in Domodossola, Italy just after going through the Simplon Pass Tunnel where we changed to the local FART narrow-gauge train (Switzerland is a very Germanic country). After a long, but thrilling train ride curving slowly around 1’000 – 1’500 ft cliffs following the Melezza River into the Centovalli region, we arrived at our destination, the village of Intragna. The warm Swiss Italian Autumn sun welcomed us to this mostly unknown village.
Italian is spoken here and the only noun I know is cappuccino. When I saw the Hotel Stazione Intragna with its lovely terrace and view located just across from the train station, I was sure that I could communicate. The many starred hotel served the cappuccino with divinely expensive little cakes that were individually covered with glass domes. After freshening up in the “throne” room (our last indoor toilet), we explored the village just uphill.
The Campanile and Intragna village center is tightly integrated creating narrow fascinating allies with trades-people working at obsolete activities. This day there was a Medieval costumed young music group from Locarno playing at the village school. There were mini-train rides for the kids who showed no interest in men in tights and women with long skirts playing harps. Actually the best part was the fruit tarts homemade by the locals.
After being well fed on caffeine and pastries (oh, did I forget to mention the roasted chestnuts and beer?), we began our hike up to Pila, a hilltop unknown village (even by the Swiss) with no road and no stores and which is rarely seen on a map of any scale. It is only a 30-40 minute hike up but when you’re carrying all the food and supplies for 4 days and have to take on some tricky little up and down narrow wooden steps and sometimes muddy trails, it seems longer. There is a short cable car lift from Intragna but even that is not useful for heavier loads since you still have to walk the steep trails with the load to get to your Rustico. Furthermore, the cable car closes at 6:00 PM. If you want a ride up, you need to purchase tokens in advance and then you run the cable by yourself.
This isolated alpine plot of Rusticos is called Hostellerie Al Forno consisting of 7 different rustic houses with mostly antique décor and usually with 2 stories covered with local slate roofs. They are all absolutely different and each with unbelievable charm. The showers and the WCs are outside as well as the lovely grape arbors, gardens, tables, benches, forests and a river below. Ursula, one of the managers along with Hannes, brought us clean sheets but we had to bring our own towels, soap, food, etc. There are blankets but the only heating in the Rustico is by wood fireplace. The wood is already chopped (nice) but you have to replace it by chopping more wood for the next guests and clean the Rustico and the outhouse as well as pack out your own garbage. But this is part of the experience of this very unique hostellerie. In general, these ancient houses called Rusticos are highly prized by international visitors and Swiss visitors alike. They are usuallys very expensive to rent in Ticino but this particular group of Rusticos was founded by a woman who was a high official in the Socialist Party in the 1930s. The Socialist party still owns the Rusticos (thus the sharing of cleaning, etc, but for low rates).
Only seasoned guests know that at the Al forno you can call ahead to Ursula and order a limited amount of vegetables and meat which could improve your diet if all you had is what you can put in your backpack (especially if you travel with children). Ursula, who purchases from the locals has a special pantry for this service and weighs everything out and calculates the cost for you with a pencil. The Rusticos have stoves and refrigerators and people leave spices and other items for the next guests so you can actually eat quite well – if like me, you travel with someone who knows how to cook.
There are many other villages in the Centovalli to which you can walk and there is bathing in the river in the summer. A few minutes train ride down the valley will take you to the cable car to Monte di Comino where there is an enormous choice of hiking trails ranging from the more pastoral levels to the rugged Alpine peaks. After hiking this side of the valley, you can take the cable car (or hike) up the other side of the Melezza River to explore more trails and different views of the Alps. If you’re very ambitious you can even make a day of it and hike back from this point to your Rustico in Pila to continue experiencing the Swiss Italian life as it was centuries ago.
Article and photos by Sonja Holverson