The Centovalli railway: Scenic travels in Ticino

Matthew Teller enjoys lush hillsides, lofty bridges and schoolboy jokes in the Centovalli
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The Independent Travel

One of the most unfortunately named companies in the whole history of travel - to speakers of the English language anyway - must be the firm running the local buses and trains for the city of Locarno, in Switzerland's Italian-speaking canton of Ticino. "Ferrovie Autolinee Regionali Ticinesi", or Ticinese Regional Buses and Railways, sounds a decent, reliable sort of enterprise - and indeed it is. However, the ill-advised firm chooses to make an acronym from its name, and so Locarno is blessed with FART buses and FART trains and all kinds of slick publicity for excursions by FART.

Worse still, they often don't bother with capital letters, so as a bus passes, you get a flash of the single word "Fart" lettered neatly above - yes, it's true - the exhaust pipe.

The locals, of course, are oblivious, since the word means nothing in Italian. I explained the joke once, to some Swiss German friends in Lucerne; they fell about laughing, partly in disbelief, after which I pointed out that Lucerne's summer jazz festival rejoices in the equally unbelievable name "Blue Balls". Instead of more chortles, I got only blank looks. Cross-cultural humour is a slow way to pass an evening.

Schoolboy sniggers aside, Locarno is one of Switzerland's more beautiful holiday towns, nestled into a forested bay at the northern end of Lake Maggiore, which extends some 66km south into Italy. It is also one of Switzerland's sunniest corners, basking under blue skies for well over 300 days a year. The Piazza Grande is a splendid affair, an alluring combination of meeting-point, sun terrace and catwalk: wandering the narrow lanes of the adjacent old quarter with an ice cream is a perfect way to blend in with local life.

Locarno has several fine old churches and a noteworthy art gallery, but the countryside all around is too beautiful to ignore, characterised by steep, wooded valleys, quiet, stone-built hamlets and sensational views. Several routes head out from the town; the most celebrated is the narrow-gauge Centovalli railway, run by FART, which heads due west from Locarno into the high Centovalli - so named for its web of a hundred (or more) side-valleys - and on across the Italian border to Domodossola.

The line dates from 1923, when twin teams of workers, Italian and Swiss, laying track from either terminus, met in the middle at Santa Maria Maggiore. To this day, the Italian part of the line is administered by a separate company, the Società Subalpina di Imprese Ferroviarie, or SSIF. Services are frequent - every half-hour during the summer months (April to October) - so it's easy to break a journey at any point along the line.

The pint-sized trains start out from dedicated platforms beneath Locarno's main station, emerging above ground for the pull into Ponte Brolla. This small town stands at the mouth of the great Valle Maggia system, which penetrates high into the Lepontine Alps north of Locarno. The train line continues west, entering the Centovalli proper.

From here on the ride is truly spectacular. Most of the time the little trains wind their way slowly around the forested hillsides on precarious bridges and viaducts, teetering above ravine-like depths - sit on the left for the best views. A good indication of the terrain is that in the 17km-stretch between Locarno and the Italian border, the train passes over seven bridges and through 22 short tunnels.

Just after Ponte Brolla comes the quiet village of Verscio. Tucked away in the cobbled alleys off the main piazza is the unusual Teatro Dimitri ( www.teatrodimitri.ch), founded by one of Switzerland's best-loved clowns, a protégé of Marcel Marceau. You may spot "Dimitri" around the theatre, a little man with a pudding-bowl haircut and a rubbery face: despite being into his 70s, he still performs regularly on stage, here and internationally. As well as a little museum of clown memorabilia, the theatre also houses a highly acclaimed school for the performing arts, offering short courses and three-year diplomas in mime, movement, acrobatics, improvisation and all kinds of clowning: it's an entertaining place to explore, and there's a continuous cycle of performances, almost nightly throughout the year.

A few kilometres out of Verscio, the train clanks slowly over an iron viaduct spanning the 75m-deep gorge of the Isorno torrent - the scene of Switzerland's first-ever bungee jump, in 1993, and still a prime spot for leaping (see box). Intragna is next, another photogenic village tucked into a fold of the hills beneath craggy mountains, and marked by the 65m steeple of its parish church, the highest bell-tower in Ticino, built in 1775.

The train rolls on through dense chestnut forests to the quiet border village of Camedo and crosses the Ponte Ribellasca into the Italian Valle Vigezzo for the climb to Santa Maria Maggiore, the highest point of the line (830m above sea level). The terminus lies 20km on, at the workaday valley town of Domodossola, from where Swiss high-speed trains run through the Simplon Tunnel to Bern, Basel and Geneva, and Italian ones speed south to Milan.

Regional trains serve every halt on the Centovalli line, but FART also runs several quicker, tourist-oriented trains each day, which stop only at Ponte Brolla, Intragna and Camedo. The Lago Maggiore Express day-pass (SFr44/£19.50) covers the Centovalli line to Domodossola, a fast train to Stresa on Lake Maggiore, then a hydrofoil back to Locarno, in a leisurely, scenic day of cross-border travel.

Finally, if anyone from FART is reading this and thinking about marketing in the UK, do please start with a focus group. Reactions to the company name may be of interest...

For more information on the Centovalli, the Lago Maggiore Express ticket and Locarno, consult Ticino Tourism (00 41 91 825 7056; www.ticino-tourism.ch) and FART (00 41 91 756 0400; www.centovalli.ch).

Matthew Teller is author of The Rough Guide To Switzerland (£12.99).

The hills are alive for hiking, canyoning and bungee-jumping

The Centovalli is well set up for hiking, and trails for all abilities cross the hills around and between stations on the line. One walk starts from Intragna station, crossing a medieval bridge and joining a mule-track which climbs gently across the meadows; from Rasa, an isolated stone-built hamlet with no access by road, a tiny cable-car swoops back over the valley down to Verdasio train station. Reckon on two-and-a-half hours for the walk. From Verdasio, another cable-car scales the opposite, northern valley wall to Monte Comino, 600m above; from here you could follow a two-hour circuit of the summit, or a more taxing 6km path to Intragna, which drops quite steeply in parts. Intragna has more walks - including a scenic five-hour trail shadowing the train line to Camedo - but is more famous for its adventure sports. Trekking Team (00 41 91 780 7800; www.trekking.ch) offers bungee jumping all summer long from the Intragna viaduct, as well as half- and full-day canyoning adventures in the nearby Valle Onsernone: a package for both in a day is a bargain SFr195 (£85).

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