Alps and Sanctuaries of Piedmont and the Canton Ticino, by Samuel Butler

Chapter II


For some years past I have paid a visit of greater or less length to Faido in the Canton Ticino, which though politically Swiss is as much Italian in character as any part of Italy. I was attracted to this place, in the first instance, chiefly because it is one of the easiest places on the Italian side of the Alps to reach from England. This merit it will soon possess in a still greater degree, for when the St. Gothard tunnel is open, it will be possible to leave London, we will say, on a Monday morning and be at Faido by six or seven o’clock the next evening, just as one can now do with S. Ambrogio on the line between Susa and Turin, of which more hereafter.

True, by making use of the tunnel one will miss the St. Gothard scenery, but I would not, if I were the reader, lay this too much to heart. Mountain scenery, when one is staying right in the middle of it, or when one is on foot, is one thing, and mountain scenery as seen from the top of a diligence very likely smothered in dust is another. Besides I do not think he will like the St. Gothard scenery very much.

It is a pity there is no mental microscope to show us our likes and dislikes while they are yet too vague to be made out easily. We are so apt to let imaginary likings run away with us, as a person at the far end of Cannon Street railway platform, if he expects a friend to join him, will see that friend in half the impossible people who are coming through the wicket. I once began an essay on “The Art of Knowing what gives one Pleasure,” but soon found myself out of the diatonic with it, in all manner of strange keys, amid a maze of metaphysical accidentals and double and treble flats, so I left it alone as a question not worth the trouble it seemed likely to take in answering. It is like everything else, if we much want to know our own mind on any particular point, we may be trusted to develop the faculty which will reveal it to us, and if we do not greatly care about knowing, it does not much matter if we remain in ignorance. But in few cases can we get at our permanent liking without at least as much experience as a fishmonger must have had before he can choose at once the best bloater out of twenty which, to inexperienced eyes, seem one as good as the other. Lord Beaconsfield was a thorough Erasmus Darwinian when he said so well in “Endymion”: “There is nothing like will; everybody can do exactly what they like in this world, provided they really like it. Sometimes they think they do, but in general it’s a mistake.” 1 If this is as true as I believe it to be, “the longing after immortality,” though not indeed much of an argument in favour of our being immortal at the present moment, is perfectly sound as a reason for concluding that we shall one day develop immortality, if our desire is deep enough and lasting enough. As for knowing whether or not one likes a picture, which under the present aesthetic reign of terror is de rigueur, I once heard a man say the only test was to ask one’s self whether one would care to look at it if one was quite sure that one was alone; I have never been able to get beyond this test with the St. Gothard scenery, and applying it to the Devil’s Bridge, I should say a stay of about thirty seconds would be enough for me. I daresay Mendelssohn would have stayed at least two hours at the Devil’s Bridge, but then he did stay such a long while before things.

The coming out from the short tunnel on to the plain of Andermatt does certainly give the pleasure of a surprise. I shall never forget coming out of this tunnel one day late in November, and finding the whole Andermatt valley in brilliant sunshine, though from Fluelen up to the Devil’s Bridge the clouds had hung heavy and low. It was one of the most striking transformation scenes imaginable. The top of the pass is good, and the Hotel Prosa a comfortable inn to stay at. I do not know whether this house will be discontinued when the railway is opened, but understand that the proprietor has taken the large hotel at Piora, which I will speak of later on. The descent on the Italian side is impressive, and so is the point where sight is first caught of the valley below Airolo, but on the whole I cannot see that the St. Gothard is better than the S. Bernardino on the Italian side, or the Lukmanier, near the top, on the German; this last is one of the most beautiful things imaginable, but it should be seen by one who is travelling towards German Switzerland, and in a fine summer’s evening light. I was never more impressed by the St. Gothard than on the occasion already referred to when I crossed it in winter. We went in sledges from Hospenthal to Airolo, and I remember thinking what splendid fellows the postillions and guards and men who helped to shift the luggage on to the sledges, looked; they were so ruddy and strong and full of health, as indeed they might well be — living an active outdoor life in such an air; besides, they were picked men, for the passage in winter is never without possible dangers. It was delightful travelling in the sledge. The sky was of a deep blue; there was not a single cloud either in sky or on mountain, but the snow was already deep, and had covered everything beneath its smooth and heaving bosom. There was no breath of air, but the cold was intense; presently the sun set upon all except the higher peaks, and the broad shadows stole upwards. Then there was a rich crimson flush upon the mountain tops, and after this a pallor cold and ghastly as death. If he is fortunate in his day, I do not think any one will be sorry to have crossed the St. Gothard in mid-winter; but one pass will do as well as another.

Airolo, at the foot of the pass on the Italian side, was, till lately, a quiet and beautiful village, rising from among great green slopes, which in early summer are covered with innumerable flowers. The place, however, is now quite changed. The railway has turned the whole Val Leventina topsy-turvy, and altered it almost beyond recognition. When the line is finished and the workmen have gone elsewhere, things will get right again; but just now there is an explosiveness about the valley which puzzles one who has been familiar with its former quietness. Airolo has been especially revolutionised, being the headquarters for the works upon the Italian side of the great St. Gothard tunnel, as Goschenen is for those on the German side; besides this, it was burnt down two or three years ago, hardly one of the houses being left standing, so that it is now a new town, and has lost its former picturesqueness, but it will be not a bad place to stay at as soon as the bustle of the works has subsided, and there is a good hotel- -the Hotel Airolo. It lies nearly 4000 feet above the sea, so that even in summer the air is cool. There are plenty of delightful walks — to Piora, for example, up the Val Canaria, and to Bedretto.

After leaving Airolo the road descends rapidly for a few hundred feet and then more slowly for four or five kilometres to Piotta. Here the first signs of the Italian spirit appear in the wood carving of some of the houses. It is with these houses that I always consider myself as in Italy again. Then come Ronco on the mountain side to the left, and Quinto; all the way the pastures are thickly covered with cowslips, even finer than those that grow on Salisbury Plain. A few kilometres farther on and sight is caught of a beautiful green hill with a few natural terraces upon it and a flat top — rising from amid pastures, and backed by higher hills as green as itself. On the top of this hill there stands a white church with an elegant Lombard campanile — the campanile left unwhitewashed. The whole forms a lovely little bit of landscape such as some old Venetian painter might have chosen as a background for a Madonna.

This place is called Prato. After it is passed the road enters at once upon the Monte Piottino gorge, which is better than the Devil’s Bridge, but not so much to my taste as the auriculas and rhododendrons which grow upon the rocks that flank it. The peep, however, at the hamlet of Vigera, caught through the opening of the gorge, is very nice. Soon after crossing the second of the Monte Piottino bridges the first chestnuts are reached, or rather were so till a year ago, when they were all cut down to make room for some construction in connection with the railway. A couple of kilometres farther on and mulberries and occasional fig-trees begin to appear. On this we find ourselves at Faido, the first place upon the Italian side which can be called a town, but which after all is hardly more than a village.

Faido is a picturesque old place. It has several houses dated the middle of the sixteenth century; and there is one, formerly a convent, close to the Hotel dell’ Angelo, which must be still older. There is a brewery where excellent beer is made, as good as that of Chiavenna — and a monastery where a few monks still continue to reside. The town is 2365 feet above the sea, and is never too hot even in the height of summer. The Angelo is the principal hotel of the town, and will be found thoroughly comfortable and in all respects a desirable place to stay at. I have stayed there so often, and consider the whole family of its proprietor so much among the number of my friends, that I have no hesitation in cordially recommending the house.

Other attractions I do not know that the actual town possesses, but the neighbourhood is rich. Years ago, in travelling by the St. Gothard road, I had noticed the many little villages perched high up on the sides of the mountain, from one to two thousand feet above the river, and had wondered what sort of places they would be. I resolved, therefore, after a time to make a stay at Faido and go up to all of them. I carried out my intention, and there is not a village nor fraction of a village in the Val Leventina from Airolo to Biasca which I have not inspected. I never tire of them, and the only regret I feel concerning them is, that the greater number are inaccessible except on foot, so that I do not see how I shall be able to reach them if I live to be old. These are the places of which I do find myself continually thinking when I am away from them. I may add that the Val Leventina is much the same as every other subalpine valley on the Italian side of the Alps that I have yet seen.

I had no particular aversion to German Switzerland before I knew the Italian side of the Alps. On the contrary, I was under the impression that I liked German Switzerland almost as much as I liked Italy itself, but now I can look at German Switzerland no longer. As soon as I see the water going down Rhinewards I hurry back to London. I was unwillingly compelled to take pleasure in the first hour and a half of the descent from the top of the Lukmanier towards Disentis, but this is only a ripping over of the brimfulness of Italy on to the Swiss side.

The first place I tried from Faido was Mairengo — where there is the oldest church in the valley — a church older even than the church of St. Nicolao of Giornico. There is little of the original structure, but the rare peculiarity remains that there are two high altars side by side.

There is a fine half-covered timber porch to the church. These porches are rare, the only others like it I know of being at Prato, Rossura, and to some extent Cornone. In each of these cases the arrangement is different, the only agreement being in the having an outer sheltered place, from which the church is entered instead of opening directly on to the churchyard. Mairengo is full of good bits, and nestles among magnificent chestnut-trees. From hence I went to Osco, about 3800 feet above the sea, and 1430 above Faido. It was here I first came to understand the purpose of certain high poles with cross bars to them which I had already seen elsewhere. They are for drying the barley on; as soon as it is cut it is hung up on the cross bars and secured in this way from the rain, but it is obvious this can only be done when cultivation is on a small scale. These rascane, as they are called, are a feature of the Val Leventina, and look very well when they are full of barley.

From Osco I tried to coast along to Calpiognia, but was warned that the path was dangerous, and found it to be so. I therefore again descended to Mairengo, and re-ascended by a path which went straight up behind the village. After a time I got up to the level of Calpiognia, or nearly so, and found a path through pine woods which led me across a torrent in a ravine to Calpiognia itself. This path is very beautiful. While on it I caught sight of a lovely village nestling on a plateau that now showed itself high up on the other side the valley of the Ticino, perhaps a couple of miles off as the crow flies. This I found upon inquiry to be Dalpe; above Dalpe rose pine woods and pastures; then the loftier alpi, then rugged precipices, and above all the Dalpe glacier roseate with sunset. I was enchanted, and it was only because night was coming on, and I had a long way to descend before getting back to Faido, that I could get myself away. I passed through Calpiognia, and though the dusk was deepening, I could not forbear from pausing at the Campo Santo just outside the village. I give a sketch taken by daylight, but neither sketch nor words can give any idea of the pathos of the place. When I saw it first it was in the month of June, and the rank dandelions were in seed. Wild roses in full bloom, great daisies, and the never-failing salvia ran riot among the graves. Looking over the churchyard itself there were the purple mountains of Biasca and the valley of the Ticino some couple of thousand feet below. There was no sound save the subdued but ceaseless roar of the Ticino, and the Piumogna. Involuntarily I found the following passage from the “Messiah” sounding in my ears, and felt as though Handel, who in his travels as a young man doubtless saw such places, might have had one of them in his mind when he wrote the divine music which he has wedded to the words “of them that sleep.” 2


Or again: 3


From Calpiognia I came down to Primadengo, and thence to Faido.

1 Vol. iii. p. 300.

2 “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”—“Messiah.”

3 Suites de Pieces, set i., prelude to No. 8.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51