Solo hiking in Switzerland’s Ticino canton is all about enjoying magnificent scenery, old-fashioned hospitality and delicious Swiss-Italian cuisine.
This is my grandmother’s recipe,” says third-generation restaurateur Luca Besomi as he places a plate of warm, grappa-soaked milk pudding in front of me. I’ve been served regional drinks and dishes all evening here at Ristorante Stazione, each delivered with a story and with biscotti-dry humour. “It doesn’t mean it’s good,” says Luca, “it’s just from our grandmother.” Veglia Besomi, Luca’s nonna, took over this restaurant in 1930.
I’m hiking, solo and self-guided, for three days in south-east Ticino. Switzerland’s large southern-most canton, with a population of around 350,000, lies almost entirely south of the main crest of the Alps. It has 826 named peaks up to an elevation of 3,402 metres. Ticino shares far more than a border with Italy and when other Swiss people visit, it’s mainly for the Mediterranean climate, relaxed atmosphere and merlot.
My 35-kilometre journey began in the canton’s capital, Bellinzona. Overnights are in the mountain villages of Isone and, here, in Tesserete. Being May, there’s too much snow and ice for high-altitude hiking but these wooded and cultivated hills are challenging enough, grazie. The route passes historic medieval castles, monasteries and chapels, but I’m more about the here and now.
Earlier that evening, I’d stepped out of Hotel Tesserete and across the road to the restaurant where my table was ready and waiting. The hotel is also owned by the Besomi family and managed by Luca’s brother, Oliver. I ordered prosecco and agreed to Luca’s dining suggestions: handmade gnocchi, traditional osso bucco and for dessert, Veglia Besomi’s ‘cake made with bread’. After the day’s 11km hike, sitting here in this beautiful space is molto rilassante … very relaxing.
Black-suited Guido Besomi – Luca’s and Oliver’s semi-retired papà – swans in to work the crowd and wait tables. I watch him as I sip a powerful digestif, served in a glass that requires me to throw my head back for the last mouthful. Luca’s English is so perfect I feel the need to make a self-deprecating joke about my limited Italian. “How did you manage in Isone?” he asks. “Google and grappa,” I respond.
I’d hiked the 10-kilometre route between Bellinzona and Isone the previous day, ascending 840 altitudinal metres up through a forested reserve littered with coppery leaves and filled with birdsong. At 748 metres elevation, Isone is the highest settlement in the Upper Vediggio Valley with a population of just a few hundred people. It’s also the training base for an infantry division of the Swiss Army.
“A che ora è la cena?” I’d asked Vanessa Zanini after checking into her Isone hotel, meaning what time is dinner? “Le otto o le nove,” she replied. Eight or nine o’clock. By then, the bar was bustling with older men wearing outdoor clothing. Vanessa motioned me into an adjoining room and turned a light on over a table set up for one. “Siamo pronti per te.” We are ready for you.
The waiter, Rocco, and I mustered up as much as possible of each other’s language while he served me a multi-course meal prepared by Vanessa of local cheeses, thinly sliced rare roast beef, chips, bread and the most delicious merlot: Passo di Tambo. When I finished, Vanessa and her husband Tiziano invited me into the bar area for limoncello.
One of the older men who’d downed perhaps a few too many was determined to explain to me his valid concerns around Ticino losing its linguistic diversity. He told me via Vanessa’s Google Translate that his language (some may call it a dialect), comes from working the land. As he edged closer, in an effort to express himself, I comically jumped my chair back. When I shot Vanessa a look, she spoke quickly into her phone and held it up so I could hear, in English, “Come outside and let me show you the flowers I’ve just planted”. After the man had gone on his way, we returned inside for grappa shots.
The next day, I hiked in the warm sunshine to Tesserete. I sat under a chestnut tree near a stone farmhouse, photographed wildflowers and unfurling fern fronds, watched a multi-coloured lizard, talked to cows, and napped under a tree. In a birch forest, I skipped over creeks that ran across the trail and took in the panorama of alpine peaks.
My last day of hiking, from Tesserete to Lugano, is almost entirely in mist. From Cimadera, I follow a road then a narrow path up through open grassed areas dotted with small rocky outcrops. Eventually, I reach a misty ridge and weave between the bare geology of Denti della Vecchia (‘teeth of the old woman’), which one of the Besomi brothers had pointed out from Tesserete.
By now it’s teetering on a storm so instead of hiking all the way over Monte Boglia (1,516m), I follow Luca’s map of an alternative route. He’d checked the weather forecast then scribbled it down for me between main course and dessert. It takes me around the side of the mountain, through a forest of enormous old beech trees and into the elevated village of Bré.
The final climb is a long flight of steps to Monte Brè funicular, which links to the lakeside city of Lugano. Moments after I step into the station waiting room, it starts to pour. I remember Oliver made me a lunch roll and unwrap it to find half a fresh ciabatta loaf generously packed with tasty ham and literal chunks of cheese. If Ticino were a sandwich, this would be it, I think to myself.
Swiss International Air Lines, along with airline partners, offers daily connections to Zürich from Sydney via Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok. Find more details at: swiss.com
Zürich to Bellinzona is a 1.5 hour train ride. Or from Lucerne, take the Gotthard Panorama Express for a scenic boat and train ride to Bellinzona.
Swiss Travel Pass gives holders unlimited access to all of Switzerland public transport system and discounts on mountain excursions: sbb.ch/en
Where to stay
In Zürich, Hotel Scheuble (Mühlegasse 17) is a modern boutique hotel in Old Town near the Limmat River. scheuble.ch
Highlights of Ticino route can be found on the Eurotrek website. The full 5-day route from Bellinzona to Mendrisio is on ‘easy’ hiking trails with a required fitness level of ‘difficult’. Luggage is transferred between accommodations.