Switzerland in a Mini Cooper 2:4

Part 2 of 4: Locarno

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I knew two years of college Italian were good for something.

My first morning in Locarno, I woke up hours too early, still on East Africa time. I slipped on a jacket and boots, crept down the stairs, and scampered out of the B&B, feeling like a mischievous runaway. It was really all mine to explore. 6am walks are a bad habit I adopted in London. When you watch a city wake up, you know it with a new intimacy. It’s special to watch something come awake, to be part of its early hours, to see how the sun and emerging light reflect on its facade and change the space around it.

I spent every early Locarno morning walking for two or three hours through cobblestone alleys, in La Citta Vecchia, and along the waterfront, stopping for coffee in airy cafes crowded with elderly gentlemen and their morning papers. One morning, I ordered my espresso doppio, in what I thought was fair Italian, and sat down with the local paper, ‘20 Minuti’. The barista delivered my coffee, tossed a German paper onto the table in front of me, and cocked a knowing eyebrow before marching back to his post.

So my Italian sucks, but my German is non-existent. I might have told him English was my native tongue and asked for him to return the paper! But Locarno sees many waves of foreigners and tourists, and I know what it is to live in a holiday city. It can be exhausting and exasperating. I instead adopted the local standard of politeness, mumbled my Swiss German thanks, and pretended to read the lines of gibberish until my coffee was gone.

Locarno is like a sedimentary stone in a river bed: a colorful conglomerate of cultures, dialects, and landscape, pressed together to create something extraordinary and unique. The primary language is Italian, but few visitors will speak it to the locals (a slight that doesn’t go unnoticed). Snow-dusted Alps crown Lake Maggiore, but palm trees dot the city’s lawns and parks. A castle designed by Leonardo da Vinci stands embedded as one of Locarno’s treasures, just blocks from the Piazza Grande where each year thousands converge to attend the international Locarno Film Festival and Moon and Stars Music Festival. It’s a marriage of ancient and modern.

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The day before my 6am morning escape, we had spent the afternoon at the local futbol field. I was told numerous times by the young men in attendance that this was “football.” What we did in America was “Hands, sometimes foot, egg-shaped ball” and it was completely unacceptable. Fine, I don’t like watching it either. With beers in hand, we stood as a noisy mass at la curva, the rounded steps at the top of the field to watch a muddy match. So dedicated is the local fanbase, spectators know each other by first name, some having been teammates in their youth and played on this same field. It’s a family into which one is almost baptized, and the loyalty is ferocious. Their distinct cheers are rowdy, peppered with sing-song profanities, and led by someone elected by the group, a sort of honored ringmaster to the spectacle.

Locarno Monti was the next adventure, a day hike up the mountain that serves as a headboard to the city. I’ve hiked some big mountains in the States, but this was a decent challenge. It was a spectacular, hearty climb, with trails that wove into private yards and wild, chaotic footpaths carved by the occasional hiker. Coming off the mountain, we wound through a the stone halls, stations of the cross, and candle-lit shrines of a monastery perched high on a rocky embankment, and known for its homemade Merlot.

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Our lodgings were at Casa Borgo, a bed and breakfast run by my friend Liv’s family. Borgo is a labor of love, from the adjacent cafe, to the outdoor patio and garden, to each unique and ornate bedroom. Hand-selected books line the walls, restored frescoes and antique furniture in every space, even the glass bottles decorating the shelves have stories and they all belong to Locarno. Four generations live under this roof, dating back to the 16th century, and their rich hospitality extends beyond the B&B into the community, creating a space for local artists to share their work with the rest of the city.

Evenings in Locarno are quiet in the off-season. A walk through silver rain-gilded streets after dark, smoking a cigar and wandering down to the lamp-lit castle crafted by da Vinci’s imagination is substantial excitement for anyone. It’s gloriously soul-tickling, actually. On days when I was too tired to walk to Piazza Grande for a coffee, I retreated to one of Casa Borgo’s rooms to hide in a corner and write for hours. Solitude, silence, and reflection feel natural in a place like this. One morning, on one of my walks, I slipped into an empty church. Well, empty except for the organist practicing in some closed room. For half an hour, I sat and prayed amongst the dusty Bibles and lit candles; an entire Alpine church, flooded with rosy sunlight, music, and it was just God and me. It’s hard not to fall in love with that.

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I had the luxury of seeing Locarno not as a tourist per se, but through the eyes and experiences of the people who call it home. A luxury for which I am immensely grateful.

“People tell me ‘you’re so lucky to live in this most beautiful place,’” my friend’s sister-in-law said while we watched her little girls play one afternoon. “I know it is beautiful, but I guess I forget sometimes because this has always been my home.”

For a few days, I let it be my home as well, finding time to be still. To not rush from place to place, snapping photos like a frazzled tourist. To listen, taste, and watch without assumption or input. To just be silent in the midst of strangers, and let them think whatever they wanted to — even that I spoke German.

Samantha Bossalini