Friday, January 9, 2015

Centovalli Railway: Switzerland’s most romantic train trip

The Centovalli Railway passes through Switzerland and Italy  (wikipedia)
TICINO, SWITZERLAND The Centovalli Railway is a bit of a paradox.  On one hand it is arguably the most romantic rail journey in Switzerland.  On the other, it’s real name in Italian is Ferrovie Autolinee Regionali Ticinesi.  Otherwise, affectionately known as the “FART” train.

Once the laughter subsides, the jokes made and the pictures taken however, this picturesque two-hour train excursion through Italian Switzerland and the northern tip of Italy is a gem.

Every place has a view on the Centovalli train  (wikipedia)
The Centovalli, which translated means “Hundred Valleys,” connects Locarno, Switzerland on Lake Maggiore with Domodossola, Italy.  The line was built in 1923 when a team of Italian workers from one terminus met another group of Swiss laborers at Santa Maria Maggiore.  For nearly 90 years the privately owned sections of the narrow-gauge service have been administered by separate companies.

With 83 bridges and 31 tunnels, the Centovalli Railway is a source of perpetual delight.  Food services are not available aboard the trains, and there are no reservations.  Best of all, passengers with a Swiss Rail Pass or a Eurailpass travel free.

Railway station on the Centovalli line  (wikipedia)
Many travelers begin in Domodossola after a visit to the Matterhorn in Zermatt, transferring between the German-speaking part of the country to the balmy Mediterranean-like Italian region.

From the other direction, the Centovalli Railway departs from a stunning mosaic-lined underground terminal in Locarno before it surfaces into brilliant sunlight just outside of Ponte Brolla.  No matter which way you choose, bring your passport because there is a check at the border.

Diversity is the secret to Centovalli’s charms.  Plunging rocks dive into canyons of cascading streams.  Tracks twist.  Rails sing.  Waterfalls hide behind each bend, delighting passengers who rush from one side of the coach to the other to catch a glimpse.  Crystal lakes glisten below towering trestles that disappear into tunnels before re-emerging into sun splashed forests and vineyards.

There are fresco-covered villages, ancient stone cottages and historic churches all blended with Swiss efficiency and Italian flair.  The sleek, cream-colored coaches with blue trim feature over-sized windows for maximum viewing.  Trains with panoramic cars, however, do require a small additional fee on the Italian portion of the journey.  The supplement can be paid to the conductor during the ride.

One hundred valleys plus waterfalls, lakes and mountains  (wikipedia)
Locals regard the railway as a lifeline.  Visitors, however, use it primarily as a transfer route and, in the process, often fail to realize much of its value as destination unto itself. 

The way to enjoy the Centovalli is to make a day of it.  Hop on and off now and then and savor the rewards of its riches.  There is no real advantage to taking the train from east to west or vice-versa, although the right side of the carriage is probably best from Domodossola and the left is generally better when riding from Locarno.
Centovalli train traveling through Intragna  (wikipedia)

Departing from Domodossola, the Italian village of Santa Maria Maggiore, population  approximately 1,200, nestles about 10 miles down the tracks.  The town features a couple of small museums, but the cobblestoned, tree-lined streets filled with ancient architecture and wrought iron balconies are a highlight.

Next stop along the line is Re which lies just 4 miles from the Swiss border. It’s a popular site for the faithful who make pilgrimages to the church to view the miracle of its bleeding Madonna.

At Verdasio, take the picturesque cable car up to the remote village of Rasa.  There’s not much to do there, but the ride to the summit, and its peaceful isolation, is worth the trip.  Adventurous travelers often hike to Rasa from Locarno.

 The parish church of Intragna reaches above the treetops in the town regarded as the gateway to the Centovalli.  Completed in 1775, the church tower remains the tallest spire in the region and  is a popular landmark along the route.

The tiny stone village of Borgnone  (wikipedia)

Just before the train reaches Ponte Brolla, where it ducks into the underground that arrives in Locarno, the Centovalli Railway passes through Verscio.  The village of fewer than 1,000 inhabitants is home to the world famous Dimitr Theatre School which was founded in 1975.  Applicants come from all over the world, but the school only admits 12 students each year.

Locarno is a great place for the grand finale of the trip.  The lovely little holiday resort lies on the northern shores of Lake Maggiore.  Palm trees gently sway along the perimeter of the lakeshore promenade.  Sidewalk cafes ease the day into twilight as the shimmering lake reflects the rising moon.

Castles, museums, gardens and nearby Ascona are also there, waiting for another day.  Patience is a virtue.  Why rush?  They will still be there for a happy tomorrow.  Forget the checklist and the “been there, done that style of travel.  Absorb the surroundings through your pores.  There are memories to be made.

Everywhere you look there are charming villages and churches on the Centovalli Railway  (wikipedia)
The Centovalli Railway may indeed be the most romantic rail journey in Switzerland.  After all, it’s the perfect way to travel if you just want to FART around Switzerland and Italy.