Switzerland: Postcard ... from Ticino

Forward-thinking. Progressive. Vegetabilist even. These were the inhabitants of Ascona in the Italian-Swiss canton of Ticino at the turn of the 20th century. Truly, this was the last resort.

Forward-thinking. Progressive. Vegetabilist even. These were the inhabitants of Ascona in the Italian-Swiss canton of Ticino at the turn of the 20th century. Truly, this was the last resort.

Set above the resort of Ascona, at the northern end of Lake Maggiore, is a wooded parkland called Monte Verita, the "Hill of Truth". It contains a peculiar collection of buildings. Dotted around the hillside are wooden cabins, not unlike Russian dachas. There is a flat-roofed house with exposed stonework at the first level and wooden cladding above, apparently built to a recipe of equal measures of Arts and Crafts style and European Rationalism, with just a dash of Frank Lloyd Wright. Dominating the site is a tall, narrow post-Art Nouveau tower.

This architectural fun-park owes its existence to the peculiar collection of people who colonised Monte Verita (previously known as Monescia) at the beginning of the 20th century. Henri Oedenkoven, the son of a rich Antwerp industrialist, and his wife, a Montenegrin piano-teacher, were the prime movers in the "Vegetabilist Monte Verita Co-operative" that bought the land in 1900. In pursuit of the "reform of life", the community committed itself to a vegan diet, naturism, the hygienic practices of outdoor life, free love and various other forward-looking measures, such as the removal of capital letters from the alphabet.

The vegetabilists, mostly northern Europeans, ended up in Ascona partly because of its mild climate. The crowd included Hermann Hesse, James Joyce and Isadora Duncan. The vegetabilists had their own theories, among them one that iron deposits underneath Lake Maggiore caused a (literally) magnetic attraction.

These days, Ticino is no longer a hotbed of social and artistic revolution, but the small canton, set between lakes Lugano and Maggiore to the south and the San Gottardo pass to the north, remains culturally and economically marginal. I hesitate to say that it represents a perfect combination of Italian and Swiss sensibilities, because that is the claim the Ticino Tourist Board makes, yet it's true. The ferries, for example, that criss-cross Lake Lugano run perfectly to time, even though the crews appear to regard chatting up girls and amusing children as their main responsibilities. On one memorable crossing they lifted kids up to a microphone, one by one, to announce the name of each stop through the ferry's public-address system.

In local terms, the capital Lugano is a big city, housing two out of every five inhabitants of Ticino. But even there the canton's dual personality is obvious. The parking controls enforce a strict Swiss regime, and shopkeepers are restricted to the same opening hours as Zurich. But within these constraints, life still ambles along in an Italian way. I once watched the driver of one of Lugano's promenade "trains" making an unscheduled halt, leaving his passengers to stare at the passers-by, while he sauntered across to a kiosk to buy a packet of cigarettes.

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