Italian Lakes (2013)
INSIGHT: LAKE MAGGIORE EXPRESS
This train ride is a perfect way to explore the hills and breathtaking scenery around the lake.
Two countries, two trains and a boat make up a triangular day trip that has become a Lake Maggiore classic. Take a day or a more leisurely two days, start from Ancona, Stresa or Locarno and choose which way round you go according to where you want to spend more time. Whichever option you choose, the Lake Maggiore Express is a perfect way to explore the beauties of the upper lake. The journey is possible mid-Mar–mid-Oct Thu–Sun.
A scenic tour
From Stresa, take the mainline train north past the wild country of the Parco Nazionale della Val Grande to Domodossola. Here, you link up with the scenic Centovalli Railway (100 Valleys Railway), which winds east through the hills via Santa Maria Maggiore (where you cross into Switzerland), heads back to the lake at Ascona, then follows the lake shore round to Locarno. Take time to explore this delightful Belle Epoque retreat before hopping on a ferry back down the lake. Run by the gloriously acronymed Swiss FART, the Centovalli railway has been operational since 1923, a twisting triumph of technology climbing across bridges and viaducts, puffing through tunnels and winding around precipitous hills through chestnut forests and ravines, including the 75-metre (250ft) Isorno Gorge near Intragna, where bungee-jumpers have been flinging themselves from the rail bridge since 1993.
Bizarrely, the most famous traditional export of the Centovalli region is chimney sweeps, who fanned out from here across the globe to rid it of its soot. There is a museum dedicated to the spazzacamini in Santa Maria Maggiore, and in 1997 the first Sweeps’ Parade was held. Since then, this has grown into a huge international event, hosted by different towns in the valleys and attracting hundreds of chimney sweeps from across the world who descend on Centovalli to celebrate their vocation. A statue of a chimney-sweep boy stands at the entrance of Malesco on the road from Santa Maria Maggiore.
For more information, contact the Associazione Nazionale Spazzacamini, Piazza Risorgimento 28, Santa Maria Maggiore, tel: 0324-905 675.
Domodossola is an ancient city with a fabulous Saturday market that first received its charter in 917. There are lovely old streets to explore, and just above the town, on the once fortified Monte Mattarella, the Sacro Monte Calvario (tel: 0324-242 010), one of the nine Unesco-listed Sacri Monti of Piedmont and Lombardy (for more information, click here ), was built in 1657 by Capuchin friars, with a processional way following the stations of the cross up the hill.
Domodossola is most famous as the Italian end of the Simplon (Sempione) Tunnel, built by Hermann Häustler and Hugo von Kager, that connects the railway between Switzerland and Italy. There are actually two tunnels: the first, 19.7km (12 miles) long, was opened in 1906 in Brig in Switzerland. The second (19.8km long) was only opened in 1922. For nearly 50 years, it was the longest tunnel in the world.
Centovalli Railway, Viaggi Fart SA, Locarno (CH); tel: 091-756 0400, www.centovalli.ch .
Navigazione Lago Maggiore, Arona; tel: 0322-233 200, www.navlaghi.it .