Craving sunshine, good wine and a Mediterranean way of life, Juliet Linley headed for Locarno and its surroundings. She found sun-soaked vineyards and a Riviera-like atmosphere along the shores of Lago Maggiore.
I started my tour of the city in canton Ticino with a stop at one of the traditional 'grotti', not to be mistaken for restaurants. "The word grotto comes from the Italian word for cavern, 'grotta'," Dario tells me as we settle down to a plate of 'formaggini', they're little fresh cheese patties, drenched in extra virgin olive oil and heavily sprinkled with freshly ground pepper.
He and Gianni are local journalists who have long written about, and filmed the region. "They were cool places where farmers left their wines and their maturing cheeses. Originally, the farmer's family and friends went there to eat, drink and play cards. Only later did they become public eateries, like 'trattorie' in Tuscany, and they still only serve a very limited menu: wine - of course - plus cold cuts, 'formaggini', and the thick vegetable soup called 'minestrone'."
Anyone expecting to be served a fancier meal will often be disappointed at a grotto. We went there for a light snack, and a refreshing drink of 'ciciarada', which in the Ticinese dialect means 'a little chat'.
That was the advice of my host at Grotto America (rather splendidly named after one of the founders who migrated to the Land of the Free) as he poured a lemony fizzy drink ('gazzosa') into a glass of local Merlot to create the Sangria-like mixture.
Most grotti are on the outskirts of the city, this one is just 10 minutes from the city-centre and sits atop the banks of the River Maggia. "In the 'Locarnese' (the area around Locarno) the grapevines grow on steep rocky south-facing slopes," Dario tells me above the rushing sound of the nearby river, "and that's why the wine is particularly good here. The vines absorb so much sun during the day, that even at night the grapes drink up the lingering warmth."
But I'm not just here to pay tribute to Bacchus, so we reluctantly make our way to the city-centre for our next stop. It's a rather anonymous building, which nonetheless has made its way into history: the Police Headquarters.
Having wound our way through endless dull corridors, we reach a large room with wooden panelling. Paintings of some familiar faces hang on one wall, while another displays an engraved plaque.
This is where the Treaty of Locarno was signed in 1925, in a bid to avoid another world war. Against a backdrop of Belle Epoque hotels, Benito Mussolini, Austen Chamberlain and Aristide Briand tried and failed to secure peace for Europe. "It was a farce," Dario tells me. "As Mussolini was signing the treaty, he was already thinking of linking up with Hitler and the Nazis."
The famed Piazza Grande is just a short walk from here. Home every summer to the world's largest cinema screen, the arcaded square lined with sidewalk cafés is as much of an attraction when the Locarno film Festival isn't hogging the limelight, as when it is. It's one of the only remaining piazzas of northern Italy and Ticino to be still completely covered with natural egg-shaped stones. Their shape comes from having been smoothed and rounded by the waters of the rivers of canton Ticino for thousands of years. The square is a market place during the day and buzzing meeting place on warm summer evenings.
It is often said that the pity about Locarno - and the nearby lakeside town of Ascona - is that, because of the large influx of sun-starved visitors, there's more German than Italian spoken here. Locals like to claim signs saying 'We even speak Italian here' are becoming increasingly common. But, the people seem to have found a way to happily live side-by-side with the foreign contingent.
"The people are very cordial, but individualistic," Gian Carlo Bertelli, director of the Theatre of Locarno, tells me as we sit on a bench just a stone's throw away from the Piazza Grande. "Many live a life far removed from the crowds of visitors, and in the past they have happily ignored even the queerest of visitors to the area."
One such group of eccentrics were those that stayed on the Monte Verità, perched on the hill above Ascona, just three kilometres from Locarno. In the 1920's and 1930's, it was home to an esoteric, vegetarian colony. The handful of buildings provided refuge for the Dadaists, among others, and it was where artists famously practiced nudism for a fashion. The main building, a prime example of Bauhaus architecture, has been turned into a conference centre, but the nearby Casa Anatta, has been preserved as a museum.
It's no coincidence that Monte Verità was established here; Locarno has and continues to be a magnet for all things cultural. The 'Settimane Musicali di Ascona' brings together young musicians from around the world for a fortnight, at the end of which a range of concerts is put on. The city of Locarno theatre boasts the same programmes as those performed in Rome and Milan, plus there's a vast array of festivals covering everything from Funk to New Orleans Jazz.
Gianni insists we visit the striking ochre-coloured Madonna del Sasso sanctuary. I find the 15th century church is well worth the 20-minute climb up through the Torrente Ramogno (we choose not to take the cable car).
From the main entrance, the view over Lago Maggiore and the Brissago Islands is spectacular. Inside, the church's walls are rife with 'quadri ex voto', paintings of car accidents, for instance, commissioned by people who believe their prayers to the Virgin Mary were answered (she is said to have appeared here 500 years ago, prompting the sanctuary to be built).
The sanctuary's complex is now partially inhabited by Capucine monks, or Frati Cappuccini. As we stepped out into the blinding afternoon sunlight, Gianni explained to me how the drink 'cappuccino' came to have its name. "You see, the monks wear a brown robe and hood, and often have white beards. That combination is similar to the brown of the coffee and the white of the milk..."
True or not, I'll be taking a closer look inside my cup the next time I order a cappuccino. And, of course, I know how to order a Merlot when I next visit a grotto in the Locarnese - mixed with the bubbles of a chilled 'gazzosa'.
by Juliet Linley