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

Chapter XXV


We left Locarno by the conveyance which leaves every day at four o’clock for Bignasco, a ride of about four hours. The Ponte Brolla, a couple of miles out of Locarno, is remarkable, and the road is throughout (as a matter of course) good. I sat next an old priest, an excellent kindly man, who talked freely with me, and scolded me roundly for being a Protestant more than once.

He seemed much surprised when I discarded reason as the foundation of our belief. He had made up his mind that all Protestants based their convictions upon reason, and was not prepared to hear me go heartily with him in declaring the foundation of any durable system to lie in faith. When, however, it came to requiring me to have faith in what seemed good to him and his friends, rather than to me and mine, we did not agree so well. He then began to shake death at me; I met him with a reflection that I have never seen in print, though it is so obvious that it must have occurred to each one of my readers. I said that every man is an immortal to himself: he only dies as far as others are concerned; to himself he cannot, by any conceivable possibility, do so. For how can he know that he is dead until he is dead? And when he is dead, how can he know that he is dead? If he does, it is an abuse of terms to say that he is dead. A man can know no more about the end of his life than he did about the beginning. The most horrible and loathed death still resolves itself into being badly frightened, and not a little hurt towards the end of one’s life, but it can never come to being unbearably hurt for long together. Besides, we are at all times, even during life, dead and dying to by far the greater part of our past selves. What we call dying is only dying to the balance, or residuum. This made the priest angry. He folded his arms and said, “Basta, basta,” nor did he speak to me again. It is because I noticed the effect it produced upon my fellow-passenger that I introduce it here.

Bignasco is at the confluence of the two main branches of the Maggia. The greater part of the river comes down from the glacier of Basodino, which cannot be seen from Bignasco; I know nothing of this valley beyond having seen the glacier from the top of the pass between Fusio and Dalpe. The smaller half of the river comes down from Fusio, the valley of Sambucco, and the lake of Naret. The accommodation at Bignasco is quite enough for a bachelor; the people are good, but the inn is homely. From Bignasco the road ascends rapidly to Peccia, a village which has suffered terribly from inundations, and from Peccia it ascends more rapidly still — Fusio being reached in about three hours from Bignasco. There is an excellent inn at Fusio kept by Signor Dazio, to whose energy the admirable mountain road from Peccia is mainly due. On the right just before he crosses the bridge, the traveller will note the fresco of the Crucifixion, which I have mentioned at page 140.

Fusio is over 4200 feet above the level of the sea. I do not know wherein its peculiar charm lies, but it is the best of all the villages of a kindred character that I know. Below is a sketch of it as it appears from the cemetery.

There is another good view from behind the village; at sunset this second view becomes remarkably fine. The houses are in deep cool shadow, but the mountains behind take the evening sun, and are sometimes of an incredible splendour. It is fine to watch the shadows creeping up them, and the colour that remains growing richer and richer until the whole is extinguished; this view, however, I am unable to give.

I hold Signor Dazio of Fusio so much as one of my most particular and valued friends, and I have such special affection for Fusio itself, that the reader must bear in mind that he is reading an account given by a partial witness. Nevertheless, all private preferences apart, I think he will find Fusio a hard place to beat. At the end of June and in July the flowers are at their best, and they are more varied and beautiful than anywhere else I know. At the very end of July and the beginning of August the people cut their hay, and then for a while the glory of the place is gone, but by the end of August or the beginning of September the grass has grown long enough to re-cover the slopes with a velvety verdure, and though the flowers are shorn, yet so they are from other places also.

There are many walks in the neighbourhood for those who do not mind mountain paths. The most beautiful of them all is to the valley of Sambucco, the upper end which is not more than half-an-hour from Signor Dazio’s hotel. For some time one keeps to the path through the wooded gorge, and with the river foaming far below; in early morning while this path is in shade, or, again, after sunset, it is one of the most beautiful of its kind that I know. After a while a gate is reached, and an open upland valley is entered upon — evidently an old lake filled up, and neither very broad nor very long, but grassed all over, and with the river winding through it like an English brook. This is the valley of Sambucco. There are two collections of stalle for the cattle, or monti — one at the nearer end and the other at the farther.

The floor of the valley can hardly be less than 5000 feet above the sea. I shall never forget the pleasure with which I first came upon it. I had long wanted an ideal upland valley; as a general rule high valleys are too narrow, and have little or no level ground. If they have any at all there often is too much as with the one where Andermatt and Hospenthal are — which would in some respects do very well — and too much cultivated, and do not show their height. An upland valley should first of all be in an Italian-speaking country; then it should have a smooth, grassy, perfectly level floor of say neither much more nor less than a hundred and fifty yards in breadth and half-a-mile in length. A small river should go babbling through it with occasional smooth parts, so as to take the reflections of the surrounding mountains. It should have three or four fine larches or pines scattered about it here and there, but not more. It should be completely land- locked, and there should be nothing in the way of human handiwork save a few chalets, or a small chapel and a bridge, but no tilled land whatever. Here oven in summer the evening air will be crisp, and the dew will form as soon as the sun goes off; but the mountains at one end of it will keep the last rays of the sun. It is then the valley is at its best, especially if the goats and cattle are coming together to be milked.

The valley of Sambucco has all this and a great deal more, to say nothing of the fact that there are excellent trout in it. I have shown it to friends at different times, and they have all agreed with me that for a valley neither too high nor too low, nor too big nor too little, the valley of Sambucco is one of the best that any of us know of — I mean to look at and enjoy, for I suppose as regards painting it is hopeless. I think it can be well rendered by the following piece of music as by anything else:— 33

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One day Signor Dazio brought us in a chamois foot. He explained to us that chamois were now in season, but that even when they were not, they were sometimes to be had, inasmuch as they occasionally fell from the rocks and got killed. As we looked at it we could not help reflecting that, wonderful as the provisions of animal and vegetable organisms often are, the marvels of adaptation are sometimes almost exceeded by the feats which an animal will perform with a very simple and even clumsy instrument if it knows how to use it. A chamois foot is a smooth and slippery thing, such as no respectable bootmaker would dream of offering to a mountaineer: there is not a nail in it, nor even an apology for a nail; the surefootedness of its owner is an assumption only — a piece of faith or impudence which fulfils itself. If some other animal were to induce the chamois to believe that it should at the least have feet with suckers to them, like a fly, before venturing in such breakneck places, or if by any means it could get to know how bad a foot it really has, there would soon be no more chamois. The chamois continues to exist through its absolute refusal to hear reason upon the matter. But the whole question is one of extreme intricacy; all we know is that some animals and plants, like some men, devote great pains to the perfection of the mechanism with which they wish to work, while others rather scorn appliances, and concentrate their attention upon the skilful use of whatever they happen to have. I think, however, that in the clumsiness of the chamois foot must lie the explanation of the fact that sometimes when chamois are out of season, they do nevertheless actually tumble off the rocks and get killed; being killed, of course it is only natural that they should sometimes be found, and if found, be eaten; but they are not good for much.

After a day or two’s stay in this delightful place, we left at six o’clock one brilliant morning in September for Dalpe and Faido, accompanied by the excellent Signor Guglielmoni as guide. There are two main passes from Fusio into the Val Leventina — the one by the Sassello Grande to Nante and Airolo, and the other by the Alpe di Campolungo to Dalpe. Neither should be attempted by strangers without a guide, though neither of them presents the smallest difficulty. There is a third and longer pass by the Lago di Naret to Bedretto, but I have never been over this. The other two are both good; on the whole, however, I think I prefer the second. Signor Guglielmoni led us over the freshest grassy slopes conceivable — slopes that four or five weeks earlier had been gay with tiger and Turk’s-cap lilies, and the flaunting arnica, and every flower that likes mountain company. After a three hours’ walk we reached the top of the pass, from whence on the one hand one can see the Basodino glacier, and on the other the great Rheinwald glaciers above Olivone. Other small glaciers show in valleys near Biasca which I know nothing about, and which I imagine to be almost a terra incognita, except to the inhabitants of such villages as Malvaglia in the Val Blenio.

When near the top of the pass we heard the whistle of a marmot. Guglielmoni told us he had a tame one once which was very fond of him. It slept all the winter, but turned round once a fortnight to avoid lying too long upon one side. When it woke up from its winter sleep it no longer recognised him, but bit him savagely right through the finger; by and by its recollection returned to it, and it apologised.

From the summit, which is about 7600 feet above the sea, the path descends over the roughest ground that is to be found on the whole route. Here there are good specimens of asbestos to be picked up abundantly, and the rocks are full of garnets; after about six or seven hundred feet the Alpe di Campolungo is reached, and this again is an especially favourite place with me. It is an old lake filled up, surrounded by peaks and precipices where some snow rests all the year round, and traversed by a stream. Here, just as we had done lunching, we were joined by a family of knife-grinders, who were also crossing from the Val Maggia to the Val Leventina. We had eaten all we had with us except our bread; this Guglielmoni gave to one of the boys, who seemed as much pleased with it as if it had been cake. Then after taking a look at the Lago di Tremorgio, a beautiful lake some hundreds of feet below, we went on to the Alpe di Cadonighino where our guide left us.

At this point pines begin, and soon the path enters them; after a while we catch sight of Prato, and eventually come down upon Dalpe. In another hour and a quarter Faido is reached. The descent to Faido from the summit of the pass is much greater than the ascent from Fusio, for Faido is not more than 2300 feet above the sea, whereas, as I have said, Fusio is over 4200 feet. The descent from the top of the pass to Faido is about 5300 feet, while to Fusio it is only 3400. The reader, therefore, will see that he had better go from Fusio to Faido, and not vice versa, unless he is a good walker.

From Faido we returned home. We looked at nothing between the top of the St. Gothard Pass and Boulogne, nor did we again begin to take any interest in life till we saw the science-ridden, art- ridden, culture-ridden, afternoon-tea-ridden cliffs of Old England rise upon the horizon.

33 Handel’s third set of organ Concertos, No. 3.

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