I was slouched on the floor of my tiny London bedsit, with very little to my name, when I decided to head to Switzerland. My friend read out the first sentence in the Lonely Planet guide book before letting out a snort of laughter. “Switzerland is one of the most expensive countries in the world.” Luckily for me I had a friend there, however I’d made only tentative plans to visit. I decided to go and surprise her.
My friend Taña answered my call from Zurich Airport – “Andy, you’re here? You’re crazy”, she said, laughing, before telling me how to get to Lucerne. Here I arrived to warm hospitality, greeting Taña’s friends Claudia and Udi, and that evening plans for a week long trip in the country’s south were made over Swiss fondue.
After a spending a day strolling around Lucerne – a striking town on the edge of Lake Lucerne, amidst the Swiss Alps, we headed south towards Gotthard Pass. Here we found ourselves putting down a long and winding road which connects the German-speaking part of Switzerland to the Italian-speaking part. It was early summer, the fields were admirably green and snow was sliding off the mountains.
Continuing south, we drove through Bellinzona and past Locarno before hooking north to a charming village called Fusio, sitting roughly 1300 metres above sea level. Knowing very little about Switzerland, I had previously associated the country with meadows, mountains and happy cows with large shiny bells that clanged tunefully in the sunshine. Such thoughts soon materialised.
At Fusio, we camped in the hills, where a chorus of cows dinged, danged and donged all around us. In fact, these large placid beasts began coming close and in large numbers. It was only then we realised we were playing djembes made with cow skin. Maybe they knew? I began to have a mild attack of meadow panic, before a dog wandered up with a mystic looking case of heterochromia – two different coloured eyes – and, it seemed, saved us all.
Our stylish protector sat by us, the cows donged and dinged a little further back and I relaxed into a marvellous summer’s night in the meadow. The next morning we arose and made our way towards Al Forno, in the district of Intragna – a quiet, character-soaked place in the mountains. I spied an old, strong-looking woman, striding resolutely uphill in her gum boots, carrying a rake and a hulking cone of hay on her back.
Venturing into the woods, we camped for the next couple of nights by a little river with big stones, surrounded by lush alpine forest and waterfalls. The water and air felt so clean, unsullied – a far cry from the world of a London bicycle courier I’d left behind.
Deciding to head into Locarno for a hearty meal after our sanitary experience, I manage to watch Italy beat Holland in the European Cup semi-final. I sat on the edge of the street, not far from the Italian border and the scene was electric. Italia! I found myself bellowing with a mouth half-stuffed with al forno pasta.
The scene was perfect. Well, almost. I began to think about the mystic dog who appeared to have saved us a few nights earlier. If only he was here too, I’d share my pasta with him.