For some inexplicable reason, when I shared with friends and family that I was going on an exclusive press trip to Locarno, Switzerland to cover the film festival and the region in general, none of them had heard of this utterly charming Italian-speaking resort located on the northern shore of Lake Maggiore, nestled at the foot of the Alps.
A hidden gem, Locarno is in the Ticino Canton, the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland, and is famous for its sunny climate. Although its architecture, cuisine, and culture are quite similar to its neighboring Italy, Swiss Italians are clear in their distinction between Italy Italians vs. the Italian speaking Swiss, and all that implies. Other languages spoken in the region include German, French, and just a smattering of English.
Now, back to the beginning of the journey.
My flight began at LAX with a connecting flight in Philadelphia* to Zurich. All went smoothly until I landed in Zurich at which time I went through customs, retrieved my luggage and then had to figure out how to get to the train station, which became a challenge. I had one large, and I have to admit heavy suitcase, and a small carry on. I looked at all the signs and frankly became confused as how to find my way to catch the first of three trains. I finally found a porter and paid him to take me to the train station, which, although connected to the airlines terminal, does take some familiarity with the layout.
At last, after what seemed like a circuitous route, he led me to the platform to await the arrival of the first train. I found a bench and was prepared to sit for over an hour, but a very kind young lady sitting next to me pointed out that I could take the next train, and make the other two connections earlier. I took her advice and, after changing trains three times, arrived in beautiful Locarno much earlier than anticipated.
Armed with a map provided by Ascona-Locarno tourism, who were kind enough to host me, following a five-minute walk from the train station, I arrived at the 3-star Hotel Garni du Lac. The service and hospitality at the hotel was right up there with a 5-star hotel and although the folks at reception spoke very little English, we somehow communicated. I would suggest as a courtesy that you learn a few basic Italian phrases.
A lovely buffet breakfast was offered daily and you could either sit inside the cheerful dining room or on the outside patio and gaze at the luscious scenery before you. The hotel is centrally located for easy access to the Piazza Grande where most of the 293 films are shown on the largest outdoor screen in Europe.
That kind of falls under “good news” “bad news” as it appears that the screenings take place in what could be loosely described as the rainy season with very brief periods of torrential rain almost every night. Many of the festival attendees came prepared with slickers and umbrellas and most either sat through the pouring rain or took shelter in the arcade until the rain stopped. Nothing was going to prevent this enthusiastic group of movie lovers from seeing the films.
My wonderful host for this trip was Lorenza Scamara who would be my primary guide for the next week. She met me at the hotel at the exact time we had agreed upon and escorted me to the festival registration desk where I secured my press badge, followed by dinner at a local restaurant. Smoking is not allowed inside restaurants but smokers can puff away on the patios, which prevented me from enjoying outdoor dining most of the time.
Regarding the cuisine, local chefs have achieved success by re-interpreting the regional cooking of Lombardy. More than 15 of the region’s restaurants boast Michelin stars or Gault-Millau ratings, and over 20 are listed in premier gastronomic guides. Americans are accustomed to tipping so it should be noted that a service charge is included in restaurant and hotel bills, as well as taxi fares. An additional tip is not expected, but is appreciated for good service.
Something interesting is when I asked about an outstanding Italian restaurant, I was told there are no Italian restaurants in Locarno despite the fact that just about every restaurant I saw had an Italian name. I think the phrase must imply something that has to do with its neighboring Italy, but clearly it meant something very different from our version of an Italian restaurant.
Over dinner, Lorenza and I discussed some Locarno factoids. The city has a population of around 15,000 people, and with the warmest, sunniest climate in Switzerland, tourism is one of its biggest industries. Toward that end, there is free public transportation and reduced fares are offered for cable cars, ferryboats, and numerous tourist attractions. All guests staying at least one night in a hotel, hostel, or campsite receive a free Ticino Ticket, which cannot be purchased separately and is valid until midnight on the day of departure.
For art lovers, the region boasts 22 museums, seven theaters, and over 40 art galleries. The Ascona-Locarno Cultural Pass allows reduced admission to participating institutions. You pay full price for the first ticket with a 20% discount on additional tickets. With tourism being the major industry, a number of hotels and restaurants close at the end of summer and reopen in the spring.
Now, anyone who knows me is aware that I have a zero sense of direction and in fact I’ve figured out that I’m wired backwards because if where I should go is right, I generally will go left. Sharing this information with Lorenza caused her to be hesitant to leave my side, but after a few times, I actually found my way back to the hotel from the Piazza Grande, which was a straight walk through the arcade, where all the shops were decorated with the vibrant yellow and black color scheme of the 72nd Locarno Film Festival.
With an estimated 8,000 attendees, during the festival, the Piazza Grande is transformed into what is said to be the most famous town square in Switzerland and the site of the largest open-air cinema in the world. In between the festival, every Thursday the square transforms into a Farmer’s Market and becomes a hub for commercial and cultural activities. The oldest historic building in the city is the 14th century Casa del Negromante, which is now a bar and restaurant and is very popular with locals.
That evening Lorenza and I found seats and were looking forward to the world premiere screening of Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.” But alas, the skies opened up and there was a torrential downpour. Many people were prepared with slickers and umbrellas but I was not, so sadly I did not see the film. (But, on my way back from Switzerland, I stopped in New York to celebrate my birthday with family and friends and did see the film, which I absolutely loved.) By this time, it was almost 11:00 pm and since I had been up for over 24 hours, it was time to call it a night.
Regarding the screenings, I should point out that I was unaware that there are indoor theatres to accommodate attendees in case of rain so I’m sad to say that I missed most screenings which included films directed by Ethan Hawke, Jane Campion, Kent Jones, Aneesh Chaganty, Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra, Hong Sangsoo, Vianney Lebasque, Yolande Zauberman, Antoine Fuqua’s upcoming sequel “The Equalizer 2″, along with the second season of Bruno Dumont’s series “Coincoin and the Extra Humans.”
Following a welcome night’s rest and a satisfying buffet breakfast, Lorenza met me in the lobby of the hotel and we were off to explore the 15th century Santuario della Madonna del Sasso perched high on a hill overlooking Locarno.
This cultural center combines art, architecture, history, and spirituality. For centuries pilgrims have made their way to this holy mountain, where the Virgin Mary is reported to have miraculously appeared in 1480. Casa del Padre is an onsite museum housed in the Capuchin Convent. We took a beautiful uphill stroll on the path towards Orselina and paused every once in while to take in the beauty of the grounds. Access to this art-filled holy pilgrimage is by a fun scenic ride up by funicular railway.
I should like to point out how warm and friendly the people are in this region and men actually offer women their seats. While waiting for the funicular, I spotted a woman dressed with the colors of the rainbow. I told her how striking she looked and asked if I could take her picture and she graciously said yes. Bearing in mind the thousands of people at the Film Festival, there she was that evening and greeted me with a big smile and invited me to sit with her family.
Our next adventure was off to explore Cardada-Cimetta, the mountain above Locarno, which you reach by taking a cable car from Orselina to Cardada followed by a chairlift, which takes you up to Cimetta. The summit offers a spectacular 360-degree panorama view of both one of the lowest points in Switzerland – Lake Maggiore – to the highest point – Dufour peak in Monte Rosa, as well as some of the bucolic surrounding towns.
This tranquil setting was perfect for a stroll through the shaded woods where we saw small children at play in the Indian village. A sprinkling of lodges and restaurants are available where you can enjoy a typical local dish. The cable car and chairlift of are open from March 5th until October 28th so I would encourage you to start planning next year’s trip now.
Retracing our steps, we headed for lunch at Restaurant La Fiorentina and dined on paccheri freschi con pomodoro e mozzarella Ticinese. I’m sure you figured out that it’s a type of pasta with sauce topped with Ticino mozzarella. Following lunch we headed back to the Piazza Grande area to hear a speech from Kate Gilmore, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations. Her topic was the decline of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and sadly the take away was the dire condition of these rights for people around the globe. Although she didn’t mention America by name, she specifically cited Muslims and Latinos as targeted groups, clearly alluding to the current administration’s draconian immigration policies.
This fabulous day of getting to know the region was coming to an end and following yet another delicious dinner and another aborted attempt to see a film, I headed back to the hotel.
*On your return to America, I would strongly advise you to avoid the Philadelphia airport as your first “port of entry.” It’s a traveler’s nightmare as there’s no conveyer belt to recheck your luggage after going through Customs and my connecting flight to LAX was two terminals away. Passenger confusion was palpable.
Hotel Garni Du Lac
Via Ramogna 3
CH 6600 Locarno Ticino
Via Santuario 2
6644 Orselina Switzerland
Via Santuario 2