Switzerland in a Mini Cooper 4:4
Part 4 of 4: Verzasca and the Best Valley
We missed the bus to Verzasca, but we had the Mini Cooper.
My last full day in Switzerland started with a two hour walk through Locarno, a cup of coffee in Piazza Grande, and a traditional Ticinese picnic lunch of Merlot, bread, cheeses, and salumi by Lago Maggiore. I got a little spoiled, I think. Liv informed me that for my last day we would take the car to see the James Bond dam, Valle Verzasca and the Roman Bridge, and end the day in The Best Valley in Switzerland. I looked around at the hedges of snowy peaks crowning the sun-drenched lake that seemed to glitter with silver foil. How was there a “Best”? How do you pick one valley out of dozens, or hundreds?
The man knows his valleys…
First, to be tourists. My father could tell you exactly in which James Bond film the Verzasca dam appeared. It was, however, his chicken daughter toeing baby steps up to the stone barrier at the top and peeking over the edge. Holy crud. Bond made the 720-foot bungee jump look so simple. I peeked over the side and my stomach swam between my ears. “Do you feel like you have vertigo?” Liv asked. “Um…something like that.” For those who aren’t struggling with a fear of heights or a burdensome comprehension of physics, you can pay to bungee jump with a company stationed right at the dam.
The Roman Bridge is knife-blade thin. I don’t think you could fit two people side-by-side. We climbed down onto the massive rocks embedded in the river. During the summer, it’s a popular swimming spot, protected from the hot sun by mountains on all sides. Rustici, or stone farm houses, line the sides of the river, and some have been converted into vacation homes.
About an hour or so into our drive I began to think the Best Valley in Switzerland didn’t exist. It couldn’t, because I’m pretty sure we just drove past it. Nope. Maybe this is it, because it certainly looks like it’s the best. Nope. We kept driving while Liv’s Nonna Nadia pointed out the valley where his sister was born, the valley where she herself was married, the valley she had known for most of her life.
When we came to the end of the drive into the mountains, it all made sense. We arrived here.
I still don’t know what the name of this village is. I remember Nadia buying honey from two locals, their cheeks like pink mountain thistles and their hands gnarled like aged grapevines, like my own great-grandmother’s hands had been. We walked through streets that had been laid by hand, stone by stone, and sat in a café sharing chocolate bars Nadia bought for us. The March sun split silver rays over the crest of the mountain, freezing everything in time for just long enough. Not long enough. This was the Best Valley in all of Switzerland.
In my world of cul de sacs and P.O Box addresses, we identify our home as a street address or a town. The people in Ticino pointed out valleys with a twinge of belonging, security, and identification, saying “That’s my valley,” or “You see down there? That’s my parent’s valley.” They knew they could go anywhere in the world, and that valley would still be theirs and they would belong to it. It made my chest pinch a bit, to think of how grounding and natural and right that feels. My Northern Italian great-grandmother would recall to us, when we were too young to appreciate it, how she walked from her valley to the next on market days. She married a man from a different valley. Scandal. Her family had been in her valley for almost 1,000 years. Their farm is still there, and my cousins still live in it.
For my friend, The Best Valley was where he was born. Where his grandfather had herded cows up an impossible mountain every day for years. Where family roots stretched as deep as the roots of the mountains. For me, it was the unnamed end of the road, walking through cobblestone streets and peering up at houses that could have been my great-grandmother’s. To be in someone’s valley felt more intimate than walking into their home. It was like walking into the fiber of who they are and who their people have been for centuries. I was a little quiet on the ride home to Locarno; lots to mull over.
That night, we ate horse for dinner, which was like the best steak you’ve ever had, but better. We took one final walk to Da Vinci’s castle with wine in our bellies and a shared cigar, and the next morning I was going home. I had a whole train ride through Northern Italy, a flight to NY, and a train ride upstate to process Switzerland. It took so much longer than that. The juxtapositions of ancient and modern; of four uniquely opposing languages and numerous individual cantons all united in a singular staunch patriotism; of the sharpest technology in the world beside hand-carved farm equipment on a stone road; of people who have no idea who you are welcoming you like you’re family who never left. It’s a lot to chew on, impossible to sum up. So many times during my trip, I would ask a question about why something was the way it was. The reply was “It’s because we’re Swiss” or “It’s because we’re Ticinese.” Agreed. It’s because you’re extraordinary.