In the very centre of Ticino, the most southerly Canton of Switzerland, the Verzasca river crashes it’s way through the steep sided valley, carrying melt water from the peak of mount Pizzo Barone through lush woodland towards Lake Maggiore. As it cuts it’s way through the valley floor, the torrent has carved and sculpted boulders as big as houses creating the graceful hollows and crests which attract so many visitors here. Waterfalls cascade down the sheer walls of the valley and the celestial blue water pools in deep and dangerous rapids. Strange patterns have been worn into the stratified rocks, which glow with the blue light reflected from the cold, clear, water below.
An old muleteers trail runs from the village of Lavertezzo, almost 16 kilometres to the small town of Sonogno, a gentle climb of almost 600 vertical metres, and is perfect for five or six hours of gentle hiking. The path criss-crosses the river via suspension bridges, opening up views with a backdrop of mountains and picturesque villages that cling to the wooded slopes. The most famous and picturesque bridge is the medieval double arched stone bridge at Lavertezzo, known as the ‘Ponte di Salti’ where fearless visitors make stomach churning jumps into the deep pool that lies beneath.
Scattered Along the trail are the abandoned cottages which once housed the population of the valley. Built with dry-stone walls, and roofed with stone shingles, they blend into their woodland surroundings, and illustrate clearly the difficulties of scratching a living in this beautiful but inaccessible environment. Where once farmers struggled to subsist growing crops and making hay on the difficult high pastures, many of these rustic dwellings have now been restored in luxurious style as holiday homes for the wealthy city dweller and tourist. At times the trail leads you directly through these small holdings, with their squat wooden doors, stone water-butts, and slab topped chimneys, where, retaining most of their original features, it is only the blooming window boxes and cotton lace curtains that give an indication of current habitation.
The trail today, features a series of art installations set against the background of nature; a collection of metal ‘shield bugs’ crawls up a cliff face; a series of old doors and windows are nailed around the trunks of trees; a suspended metal cobweb casts a moving shadow on the rock slab beneath it. It is not a new idea, as the path is also dotted with abundant chapels and shrines featuring ancient religious frescos providing comfort to the thinly scattered population, and possibly the modern hiker.
Further downstream, the Verzasca Dam, is a breath-taking man made edifice supplying a hydro electric power station, the fourth tallest dam in Switzerland standing 220m high. The dam has become famous, not only for the incredible feat of engineering required for its construction, but as the location of the famous bungee jump featured in the James Bond film Golden Eye. Intrepid visitors can recreate this jump at their leisure.
This verdant corner of Switzerland, surrounded by Italy, is a real gem, where a long day’s hike along the blue-green river, striped rocks and shaded woods, is rewarded by delicious pizza fresh from the oven, and a cold beer.