Bring me flesh, bring me wine

Stephen Wood visits an architectural fun-park in the Italian-Swiss canton of 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 Verità, 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 - and 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 Verità (previously known, more humbly, 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 Verità Co-operative" that bought the land in 1900. In pursuit of the "reform of life", the community committed itself to a vegan diet, nudism, the hygienic practices of outdoor life, free love and various other forward-looking measures, such as the removal of capital letters from the alphabet.

Quite why one member of the community, Maria Adler, was not called upon to respect the manifesto in full is not clear; a night of not-free love with Oedenkoven earned her a plot of land on the Hill of Truth. Like a city-centre developer, Adler made the most of her small plot by building high: she commissioned the site's dominant structure, a hotel erected in 1909. It provided an excellent vantage point, so Adler sold tickets to day-visitors excited by the prospect of watching naked people working the vegetable plot or indulging in hygienic practices. In the end, Adler was paid off again, when Oedenkoven bought the land (and the hotel) back from her. Not bad business for a night of pleasure.

The vegetabilists, mostly northern Europeans, ended up in Ascona partly because of its mild climate - an essential, obviously - and partly because Monte Verità's vendor was a fellow seeker-after-truth, a leading theosophist. But what brought so many other marginal figures to the area? Mikhail Bakunin and Piotr Kropotkin, the Russian creators of the two main strands of anarchist philosophy, both lived there; and among the crowd of other experimentalists drawn to Ascona were the writers Hermann Hesse, James Joyce and Erich Maria Remarque, the artists Paul Klee, Hans Arp and El Lissitzky, the dancers Rudolf van Laban, Isadora Duncan and Charlotte Bara.

The vegetabilists had their own theories, among them one that iron deposits underneath Lake Maggiore caused a (literally) magnetic attraction. The least fanciful explanation of all however is that Ascona lies in marginal territory, the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino.

These days, Ticino is no longer a hotbed of social and artistic revolution, unless the activists have moved further into the hills. 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. So, for example, the ferries that criss-cross Lake Lugano run perfectly to time, even though the crews appear to regard chatting up girls and amusing children as their primary 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.)

Few Britons go to Ticino - we are outnumbered by US visitors - but it is very popular among the Swiss: a friend told me that although the German, and French-speakers in the north argue about everything else, they agree that the Italian-speakers occupy the best part of the country.

The German-speakers' presence is quite marked - notably on restaurant menus - in the Lake Maggiore resorts of Ascona and Locarno. Lake Lugano feels much more Italian, perhaps because of the complex geographical relationship between the two countries: on a single circuit of the shoreline, you would cross the border six times. Even the Carabinieri seem confused by this, since in Campione d'Italia, an Italian enclave completely surrounded by Switzerland, they drive Swiss-registered police cars.

The border is more important than it seems, because Switzerland is not a member of the EU; but when my wife and I walked back through the hills to the (Swiss) city of Lugano after a short weekend at the estimable Hotel Stella d'Italia in (Italian) San Mamete, we couldn't tell where the agricultural subsidies ended and the numbered bank accounts began.

In local terms, Lugano, with a population of 120,000, 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.

Last weekend I took my bicycle to Ticino (it travelled by train from Zurich, hanging from a hook in a first-class carriage... the Swiss are so civilised) to ride around the superb, deserted hills behind Monte Verità and along the Maggiore shore to the Brissago islands, which a rich baroness turned into a botanical garden in the late 19th century. Another attempt to create a paradise within sight of Ascona, this one was very successful - and remains so.The islands are said to be the lowest point in Switzerland, at 193m above sea-level; but in October 1993 - as the 20th-century's high-water mark shows - they were largely below lake level. This may explain why the "aerial roots" of the garden's wild cypresses have flourished. These grow upwards around the trees in areas subject to flooding, standing on their hind legs (they look oddly reminiscent of meercats) to oxygenate the immersed root system.

The vegetabilist paradise has not fared so well. Now municipally owned, it has been turned into a conference centre: had I stayed another day, I could have taken part in a workshop on "Rilke in the Light of Scholarly Discourse at the Turn of the Millennium".

Most of the buildings have been tarted up for their new use, except for one of the original cabins, dating from 1901. The curious stone-and-wood house, Casa Anatta, is now a museum of the Monte Verità community, or more accurately, an archive.

There is a substantial collection of dull-looking books displayed in glass cases, but also some very jolly photographs on the walls, among them one of a group of vegetabilists in 1914 celebrating what must have been a particularly joyous occasion for them, Carnevale (its name is derived from an old Italian word meaning "taking away meat").

But like most created communities, this one soon started to fall apart; and in 1920 even Oedenkoven departed, following his wife to Brazil.

By then Monte Verità had become primarily a sanatorium, offering treatments based on "the principles of hygiene", including warm- and cold-water therapy and exercise. It was effectively a spa, although gardening was also included in the regime, presumably to boost vegetable production.

In one corner of the site some remnants of the spa's equipment still remain: a couple of baths in a field, a four-man outdoor shower unit and even the gymnastic beams, the crossbar and supports rusting away like some rigorously geometric sculpture.

Stephen Wood flew Heathrow-Zurich with Swissair (0845 601 0956, www.swissair.com), which has fares from £147 return; it also flies from Manchester to Zurich. Other airlines with flights from Britain to Zurich include British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.britishairways.com) and easyJet (0870 6 000 000, www.easyJet.com).

The return train fare from Zurich airport to Locarno costs Sfr100 (£40); accompanied bicycles are carried at a fixed rate of Sfr15 (£6) per day.

An alternative is to fly to Milan Malpensa airport, for £78 return from Stansted on Go (0845 60 54321, www.go-fly.com) or £110 from Heathrow on Alitalia (www.alitalia.com, 0870 544 8259) and take a connecting bus direct to Lugano.

Stephen Wood stayed at the Albergo Moro in Ascona (00 41 91 791 1081), where double rooms start at Sfr90 (£36), including breakfast. Double rooms at the Hotel Stella d'Italia in San Mamete (00 39 03 44 68139) cost from L180,000 (£58), including breakfast.

The Monte Verità museum (00 41 91 791 0181) is open Apr-Oct, Tue-Sun 2.30-6pm (3-7pm July/Aug); entrance Sfr6 (£2.40). The Brissago botanical garden (00 41 791 4361) is open daily Apr-Oct, 9am-6pm; admission Sfr6 (£2.40). Ferries run regularly to the islands from Porto Ronco, Sfr6 (£2.40).

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