The Land Before Time

Hovering high over both the ping of modernity and the sizzle of one of Europe’s hottest summers is Ticino in the Swiss Alps. It is a world and several generations away from the 40-degree heat and air travel disruption dominating the news pages. One of 26 Swiss cantons, this is a land of ancient stone houses, time-worn valleys, waterfalls and rivers, granite and slate, churches and hamlets and views galore. It is where life came to a peaceful, pleasant, slumberous stop.

Ticino sits right at the bottom of Switzerland, near the Italian border, and has an overall population of about 350,000 – about three percent of the country’s total. It is known, among other things, for its river which flows from the Alps and winds its way down through Lake Maggiore and onwards, south, passing Milan. As you might expect, Ticino makes for a popular holiday destination owing in part to its climate and its northern boundary, namely the 3,000m mountain peaks of the Gotthard Massif.

Technology and modernity have certainly left their mark here, not least with the world’s longest and deepest rail tunnel (57km, or 35 miles), which sends high-speed trains shooting under the mountains, connecting northern and southern Europe as they do. Those heading south can expect lively piazzas, lemon and fig trees, and beaches, as they pass some of the best hiking spots in the world.

Yet those who stay and wander may just stumble across an isolated village that hasn’t changed in 150 years, one that overlooks an alpine lake unreached by cars, where the air is crisp and fresh and clean, where the drinking water is drawn from a nearby river, and where electricity is virtually a rumored myth. Such a place exists. It trades in silence punctuated only by nature. In terms of distance, it is not too far from the highly developed, highly industrialized Switzerland that we all know. In terms of attitude, it is another planet entirely.

Out on a limb, the closest village is an hour’s hike away. Unhindered by others, the dwellings that there are sit steady and stubborn, clad in unaltered local stone. Most are small privately owned cottages called ‘rustico’ in Italian. One has its year of construction stamped into the granite: 1698.  In the past, this place has been used by famers living in the village below who would spend a hot summer month or two up here with their animals before heading back down. These days, most houses sit empty throughout the coldest winter weeks, before emerging as a sort of living museum to yesteryear when the weather warms.

To live here, even for a short while, is to lead the kind of slow and simple life that often comes with seclusion. It is this slow simplicity amidst stunning vistas that draws the tourists. One by one, the cottages are slowly modernizing, connecting to a water supply, perhaps, or installing solar energy panels. The days of having to carry water from the fountain, or use candles and petrol lanterns for light, are still of recent memory. Most cottages remain heated only by their fireplace. Wood also fuels the ovens with which people cook.

In the depths of winter, only one person lives here now - a farmer in his mid-20s. He, in turn, took over from a recently retired farmer in 2020 who had worked the land for 45 years. That man raised a family in the village. Growing up, his children had a one-hour daily walk down the mountain to catch the school bus, then a one-hour daily walk back up again. Years earlier, there had been many more families, but poverty and opportunity drove a 19th century migration, the villagers heading off to towns and cities first in Italy, then across the Atlantic, to the United States, Canada, and Argentina. One by one, their lanterns went unlit.

Today, every summer, tourists migrate back to where these mountain locals once left. By day, they busy themselves with the scenery. By night, they sit around a large stone table at the village’s entrance, drinking evening wine, sharing food, playing cards and music, and meeting their fellow travelers. Among the languages spoken are Swiss German, German, French, Spanish, Polish, and English. Among the professions to which these tourists will soon return are finance, engineering, security, film, academia, and music. It attracts all sorts. There is even a priest and a mayor.

The villagers who once lived here left to connect. The tourists who now make it their home for a week or two come to disconnect from modern life, and reconnect with nature, with the slower pulse of a life lived outside the fast lane. Whereas its unchanged nature might once have been off-putting, it is today both a boon and a bonus. To cook over an open wood fire, the nearest WiFi and TV a mountain range away, is to embrace the past and the real, the peace and tranquility. It is to forget the news, whether that be temperature records or post-Brexit queues or airport meltdowns. In this mad and spinning world of ours, village rarities such as this are the new luxe, as much untouched paradise as point of view. Talking of views, just look over there.