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Border patrol

The border guard had been tracking me for days on the internet. He finally pounced while I was having coffee at the Albergo di Stazione, my weekend rest stop in Campocologno.

First he confirmed my identity, then he asked me in French, "Would you like to see my photos of smugglers?"

It seems the guard, Giachen Decurtins, is an avid mountain walker and had been enjoying my border reports on swissinfo. He knew of my interests and that I would be passing through Campocologno. It was only a matter of time until he found me.

Yesterday he came by the B&B and we shared a beer as he poured through two thick binders of photos, old reports, and newspaper articles. It seems that smuggling cigarettes and coffee from Switzerland into Italy was a very big deal here until quite recently. The coffee came from Brazil (and elsewhere) to Basel by barge up the Rhine. It was roasted somewhere in Switzerland and then delivered to Campocologno by truck. From here it was brought toward the high border ridge (that I'll be hiking this afternoon) first by car to a specially built telepherique, then from the top of the lift it was carried by Italians over the ridge and deposited next to a road low on the other side.

Up to 1,400 Italians carried such loads here each day, making many times their usual wage. It was all organized by the Swiss, where it was perfectly legal to "export" in this way. Italian guards were paid to turn a blind eye. The smugglers would make up to two trips a day. They could have done more except that each time they had to enter Switzerland via customs down in Campocologno--they'd get in big trouble if they walked back into Switzerland the same way they walked out. In the 1960s some 20 to 30 tons of coffee per day crossed illegally into Italy, but in 1973 something changed in Italy and the bottom dropped out of the smuggling market. Cigarette smuggling continued into the 1990s. As to smuggling from Italy into Switzerland? Not that much, just fresh meats and clothes.

Mr. Decurtins then produced photocopies of a map of the west side of the valley, where he'd scouted the best route for me to hike up this afternoon. It was an extraordinary finish to an exceedingly restful weekend.

For meals and a bed I've been under the care of Sylvia Seiler in her boutique B&B hotel, the Albergo di Stazione, which she inherited from her grandfather. After a career in charge of costumes for the grand theater in Geneva, she retired to Campocologno, where she renovated the building into the very picture of comfort and charm. My sore legs and especially feet have been greatly relieved, but now my backpack is full of fresh food and I'm headed toward the toughest part of eastern Switzerland, the Bernina Group, where adventure awaits.

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