As I went to say goodbye to Cocoa, I found him basking in the afternoon sunlight and grooming his lustrous black fur. Occasionally, he would stop and gaze out the window at the Swiss paradise before him – a landscape sprinkled with palm, lemon, and olive trees framed by the brilliant blues of Lake Maggiore. When my eyes welled up with tiny tears, the pampered young feline reached for my hand, eager to play. I was pleased that he’d lightened the moment by wanting to get rough and tumble instead of sweet and cuddly. I chuckled as I wiped away the tears rolling down my cheek. “You lucky fellow,” I thought.
I realized that my sentimentality didn’t stem from a sadness about bidding farewell to Cocoa, rather I was touched that he’d literally gone from being in the trash to being treasured by a fantastic family. And in the process, he had introduced us to wonderful new friends, whom we otherwise might not have met.
Nine months earlier, we met Cocoa the kitten just as he was being tossed behind dumpsters in the gorgeous city of Lviv, Ukraine. Stunned, Shawn and I picked him up, took him back to our hotel, and formulated a plan. We named the little guy Cocoa since he hailed from a city renowned for its chocolate and coffee houses.
After a few visits to Ukrainian veterinarians, Cocoa would stow away with us on a 1,000-km (600 mile) journey on trains, trams, and buses through four countries. Once back at my parents’ home in the German Alps, we set out to search for a loving home for the kitten.
A few weeks after beginning our search, my dear Swiss blog reader, Claudine Giovannoni, passionately stepped forward to adopt Cocoa. Shortly thereafter, Shawn and I went to meet Claudine and her daughter for the first time and handed him over to his new family. Cocoa, it seemed, was destined to go from one destination to another known for its chocolate.
When we’d first plucked Cocoa off the street, Shawn had prophetically said that the kitten would “someday make someone very happy.” After bidding farewell to Cocoa that autumn afternoon, we kept in regular contact with Claudine and her family. They would send updates as to how much more weight he’d put on, which family member he’d chosen to sleep with at night, and how he was getting along with his new feline brothers and sisters. One of Claudine’s lovely email exchanges detailed how “Cocoa has stepped forward as a true prince, climbing on the soft and warm bedspread… falling asleep in (her) arms while (her) daughter Sara Luna was practicing her violin.” From all accounts, Cocoa had gone from homeless to highness.
From the beginning, Claudine warmly insisted that we come to visit her family and Cocoa at their home in Switzerland’s Italian-speaking canton of Ticino. Nine months after handing Cocoa over to Claudine, we finally accepted this gracious offer, spending a glorious summer week at Claudine’s home. To say that we were touched by all the love that surrounds Cocoa every day is an understatement. We were equally moved by the kindness and hospitality shown to us by Claudine, her husband, Massimo, and children, Sara Luna and Emanuele.
When we weren’t at their home and doting on ever-playful but affectionate Cocoa, Claudine and her husband whisked us from one Ticino attraction to another. A mini guide of our Ticino voyage follows, chronicling everything from gondolas that carried us to the top of Swiss mountaintops, to explorations of grey stone villages and a mystical island’s botanical garden. While these attractions were all stunning, it was the time spent with Claudine, Massimo, and the children that we will most remember. Cocoa is indeed living the life of a prince. Thank you, dear Claudine, Massimo, and family!
Despite grey skies and the occasional raindrop dancing from the sky, a cable car-ride to the top of Cardada Mountain offered the perfect introduction to Ticino and the adventures that awaited us.
Gliding above the hillside in the cable car, a carpet of chestnut trees eventually gave way to evergreens. I tried to look past the raindrops clinging to the window and imagine the lake and mountain landscapes bathed in Technicolor hues, not the muted tones before us. Still, the scene was beautiful in a way that is not often depicted in travel brochures. It was mysterious and refreshing.
Walking out onto an elevated walkway, Claudine pointed out the touristic highlights off in the distance, but also those that were important to her family: the car-less village where her husband, Massimo, grew up, and the islands where her children had just taken sailing lessons.
Riding the cable car back down to the village of Orselina, we stopped in to the Madonna del Sasso, a well-known pilgrimage church perched above the city of Locarno. Like much of Italy and Ticino, the complex has gorgeous frescoed paintings, many of which reminded me of the buildings in my parents’ village of Oberammergau, Germany. What left the greatest impression were the personal gifts left by church members over the centuries. These paintings lined the walls of the church’s interior and expressed families’ thanks for tragedies overcome or prayers answered. One painting featured a child falling out of the window; another showed a crashed 1930s vehicle precariously resting near the edge of a mountain roadway. I thought it noteworthy that these otherwise forgotten stories are still remembered today, thanks to these tokens.
“Eins, zwei, drei,” chanted the Swiss-German crowd to a young man standing on a platform, arms outstretched, staring down at a jagged canyon 220 meters (720 feet) below his feet. He wore a nervous smile on his face, and hesitated to jump, despite the cheers and a boisterous countdown.
I couldn’t blame him for waiting. We’d come to the Contra Dam, in Ticino’s Verzasca Valley, to see the spot made famous by the 1995 James Bond film, GoldenEye, and I felt a bit uneasy just walking along the massive dam’s rim. In the opening scenes of the movie, actor Pierce Brosnan’s stunt double leaped off the dam, and in the years that followed, bungee jumpers flocked to the same dam for the opportunity to follow in Bond’s fictional footsteps. (You can do so too for about 255 Swiss Francs ($258 USD)).
Eventually, the reluctant jumper took the plunge, causing the spectators to applaud as he plummeted from the platform. His screams echoed through the valley. Soon, other adrenaline-seekers followed his lead, with one young woman notably making the leap without any hesitation or sounds.
Leaving the famous dam, we set off to explore one of the Verzasca Valley’s other most celebrated structures – the Ponte dei Salti. While the Contra Dam was constructed more recently in the 1960s, the stone Ponte dei Salti was built in the 17th century. The graceful bridge, comprised of a pair of arches, is often mistaken for being from Roman times, perhaps because of its architectural style and the fact that an ancient Roman bridge once stood there. It traverses the Verzasca River near the village of Lavertezzo, a spot renowned for its crystalline water.
We strolled the popular spot just long enough to capture it on film. Claudine and Massimo also collected a few pinches of herbs there along with a fistful of four-leaf clovers. When we left Ticino a few days later, Claudine presented these good luck-charms to us, pressed neatly among the pages of the book she’s recently authored.
Doing a bit of research before our Ticino adventures, I was especially intrigued by Bellinzona’s three castles, dramatically positioned at the meeting of several valleys. I envisioned spending a sun-drenched afternoon exploring them, but on the day of our visit, Mother Nature seemed determined to drench us in other ways. The resulting rain and cloud cover created a moody atmosphere, but Claudine, Shawn and I made our own sunshine.
Aside from their handsome beauty, what’s particularly noteworthy about the structures is their history. It’s believed, for example, that human settlements in the Castelgrande area go as far back as Neolithic times (5500-5000 BCE)! The structures that you see today generally date back to the 13th to 15th centuries.
Despite the beautiful scenery, the three of us were distracted by the day’s most important appointment: picking up newly-neutered Cocoa from the veterinarian clinic. As we awaited the appointed hour to rescue our little buddy, we dodged raindrops and drove from castle to castle, briefly exploring each of their grounds on foot.
The Valle Maggia, literally ‘magic valley’, is a captivating area replete with centuries-old villages, lanes carpeted with emerald-green moss, pristine waterfalls and fanciful frescoes. Hopping into Claudine and Massimo’s electric car, we silently motored into the valley, passing by stone quarries, pagodas fashioned out of granite posts and wooden beams, and roadside prayer shrines. Ever curious, I also marveled at the meter of the electric car, watching how our remaining energy reserves ebbed and flowed as the automobile glided up or down Ticino’s mountain roads.
The Valle Maggia has been shaped by the River Maggia, and life hasn’t always been as idyllic there. During the mid-19th century, food shortages and economic challenges caused many Valle Maggia residents to immigrate to North and South America and Australia.
We visited the town of Cevio just long enough to amble about and admire the peaceful town’s natural and manmade beauty. On the way back to Locarno, we popped into Punto Verde, a roadside shop brimming with antiques, traditional Ticinese food products, and handmade art made of the area’s ever-pervasive granite stone. At nearby Ponte Brolla, we marveled at the sheer cliffs and aquamarine waters, where daredevil divers go to show off their graceful athleticism.
We were craving the meeting of Switzerland’s azure lakes and flora, but not the crowds that so often cluster in lakeside towns.
“Why not explore the Isole di Brissago?” Claudine asked one afternoon. Claudine had thoughtfully accompanied us on all our Ticino excursions so far, but now she had to return to work.
Sara Luna and Emanuele, it turns out, had just spent several days on the Brissago Islands, learning how to sail. Their week sounded so idyllic that I had to smile when I recalled Sara Luna’s mention of wanting to spend time in Los Angeles instead of Switzerland. The grass is indeed often “greener on the other side”.
A short bus ride from Locarno transported us to beautiful but bustling Ascona, and from there all became more tranquil. As our ferry to the Brissago Islands broke free from the colorful port of Ascona, the clouds acquiesced, giving way to brilliant sunbeams. Lake Maggiore went from grey to sapphire, and soon the lake breeze was flirting with my hair.
Brissago’s botanical gardens proved just as alluring as the islands themselves: more than 1,500 types of flora coming from six continents, a bamboo forest cloaked in a manmade mist, a ‘Roman bath’, and an elegant villa towering over it all. Walking the paths, a blend of mint, sage, and oregano scented the air.
In Ascona, we’d picked up some Mediterranean olives, a peppery Italian cheese, gluten-free bread and fruit, which we enjoyed on a rocky wall, overlooking the amphitheater of mountains encircling the mighty lake. Aside from a quintet of ducks, a gecko or two, and a contingent of ants craving our crumbs, it was a private picnic.
Imposing clouds on the horizon encouraged us to hop the next ferry, and we returned back to Claudine’s home just as raindrops danced down from the sky.
Imagine a village with a mere 20 residents, accessible only by cable car or by foot, with no cars, markets or shops.
Claudine’s husband, Massimo, spent many of his formative years in just this type of remote, but enchanting environment, in a tiny town called Rasa.
Tucked away in Ticino’s Centovalli, in a landscape where one valley opens to another, Rasa is located about 15 km (8 miles) from Locarno. The town is part of a route that has long connected Italy and Switzerland.
Hopping on a train that would take us through the Centovalli’s lush valleys and villages dotted with rows of grapevines, we disembarked at the Verdasio Station. There, a small but mighty blue and white cable car whisked us up to Rasa. Thankfully the cable car wasn’t full to the brim with passengers: there was just me and Shawn, a Swiss-German set of parents, and their wide-eyed little boy.
The youngest passenger seemed unfazed by the mature trees and burbling brook becoming more and more dwarfed below us. To distract myself from my aversion to heights, I exchanged pleasantries with the Swiss-German tourists, and snapped pictures of the ever-expanding panorama surrounding us. I couldn’t wait until we reached the top, though! Logically, I knew that the cable car ferried passengers up and down, a few times each hour. Still, it is an awkward feeling dangling from a cable high above a jagged and dramatic landscape.
Once we arrived at the summit of Rasa, it was, not surprisingly, another world. A few stone lanes wound through the village, past gardens brimming with zinneas, hydrangeas and spider mums. The church had just enough pews to accommodate the village’s residents, with perhaps a few spots for visitors. We struggled to find an open café, eventually discovering a quaint business that catered to visitors and hikers. There we enjoyed a beer and Latte Macchiato, and savored the pastoral views of pretty peaks before us. With no car or motorcycle traffic, tolling church bells were the only occasional sound. We chatted with a few part-time locals, with one woman expressing how imperative it was to be “very organized” if you live in Rasa, since everything you need to survive must be painstakingly brought up by cable car.
We spotted a few mountain goats who divided their time between soaking up the sunshine and nibbling on mountain grass. Fortunately, we’d foreseen the need to be organized and had packed our own snacks, which we enjoyed on a bench overlooking doll-house-sized villages below.
And then it was time to leave peaceful Rasa and its brilliant flora and weathered stone homes. Our trip was a glimpse into a somehow timeless way of life.
The Ticino Tourism Agency provided us complimentary Ticino Discovery Cards, which we used to independently explore the canton of Ticino.