The coronavirus pandemic and the fear of a new cross-border lockdown have convinced many living in Switzerland to head south to the Ticino, the country’s only Italian-speaking canton, rather than risk travelling to the South of France or Spain. As with other regions heavily reliant on tourism, the Ticino has had to re-think its strategy to adapt to the new ‘abnormal’. Tourism managers and hoteliers have been making special efforts to attract visitors by offering excursions and attractive prices. The Ticino Ticket, for example, which can be obtained at any hotel, youth hostel or campsite, offers free public transport as well as discounts on chair lifts for hikers and mountain bikers, but also cruises on the Ticino lakes.

The French version of this article can be found here: Edition Française. Global Geneva is including French-language articles on ‘international Geneva’ themes as part of its worldwide outreach to Francophone audiences. A reminder: our content is available free worldwide in the public interest. If you like what we do, please become a Support Member of Global Geneva Group, our Swiss non-profit association, or DONATE.

Locarno is an ideal starting point.  You can stroll, dine or enjoy a coffee at one of the terrace cafes or restaurants on the Piazza Grande, which is transformed during summer festival evenings into the most beautiful open-air cinema in Europe; a wonderful, relaxed way to start the day or the night, and then finish in style.

After this, a stopover perhaps at the Aparthotel Al Lago or the H4 Arcadia Locarno Hotel, overlooking the shores of Lake Maggiore, followed by a walk along the pier promenade a few minutes from the Lido and the train station, where you can plan your day’s excursions. Or lounge on your own, in pairs or with the family, by their swimming pools, one in a Mediterranean garden, the other near the terrace with its playground for children.

You can visit the historic heart of Locarno on foot or take the little blue train that winds through the alleys of the Old Town. Or take a boat to the Brissago Islands that form the Ticino Botanical Park with its wealth of more than 1,500 plant species. This is where on the main island, the Baroness of Saint-Léger turned her home in 1855 into a gathering place for painters, sculptors, musicians and writers. Nowadays, this lush garden allows one to admire a diversity of trees such as palms, banana, bamboo, fig, azalea, camellia and magnolia while children can embark on an exciting treasure hunt.

In 1927, the new owner of this beautiful island on Lake Maggiore, the Hamburg merchant Max Emden, built an elegant villa with its own dock and Roman bath. This has since been turned into a hotel with a restaurant and terrace. The rooms boast views overlooking a Mediterranean landscape, with direct access to the beach.

If cinema lovers deplore the fact that the 73rd edition of the Locarno Film Festival this summer was not able to take place physically – thanks to Covid-19 – the organizers of the most important Swiss film event of international renown have offered a complete redesign.

Competitions and feature film screenings have been organized from August 5 to 15, 2020. Its artistic director Lili Hinstin and president Marco Solari have provided an initiative aimed at the Festival’s continued support for independent cinema, enabling spectators to discover the works of talented filmmakers. In the past, this has been the case for now renowned legendary directors, such as Marco Bellocchio, Stanley Kubrick, Claude Chabrol, Raoul Ruiz, Ken Loach, Abbas Kiarostami, Alice Rohrwacher or Spike Lee.

Directrice artistique Lili Hinstin du 73e édition du Locarno Film Festival/Lili Hinstin, artistic director of the Locarno Film Festival. (Photo: Locarno Film Festival)

Ascona: the Ticinese den of the Dolce Vita

A few kilometres from Locarno is the town of Ascona, which continues to seduce visitors from all over the world. In addition to its enticing cafe and restaurant terraces that border the Swiss shore of Lake Maggiore (an Alpine lake also shared with Italy), the gently sloping alleys of Ascona allow you to browse through elegant boutiques and to take a break for a snack under the pergola of a grotto. You also can stroll through the charming historic district of Borgo concentrated around the Church of San Pietro and Paolo, a 16th century columned basilica whose bell tower serves as Ascona’s emblem.

A chic location for both culture and vacations, Ascona boasts the Teatro San Materno, the only Bauhaus era European theater built between 1927-28 by architect Carl Weidemeyer. From Ascona, a hiker can climb a few hundred metres to reach a hill, dubbed the Monte Verità, or Mountain of Truth, back in 1900.

Vue d’un lac au Tessin, canton suisse italophone/Lake view in Switzerland’s Italian-speaking Ticino (Tessin) region. (Photo: Luisa Ballin)

According to Kaj Noschis, author of the fascinating little book Monte Verità, Ascona and the genius of the place (Arts & Culture, Collection Le Savoir Suisse, 2011 and 2017), it all started with the arrival of five young people at the dawn of the 20th century. They had discovered this place, he notes, “after touring the lakes of northern Italy on foot, in sandals and in unbleached cotton togas, passionate about their project to embarking on a new life and seeking where to build their utopias.” This return to Mother Earth exerted an extraordinary attraction for a host of diverse people: young idealists, naturists, vegetarians, life reformers, hippies before their time, and women struggling to free themselves from machismo and patriarchy.

The founders of the Monte Verità colony soon attracted eminent personalities, such as the writer and Nobel Prize winner for Literature Hermann Hesse; religious historian Mircea Eliade; psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung; choreographer Rudolf Laban; dancer Isadora Duncan; Olga Froebe-Kapteyn, soul of the Rencontres d’Eranos, and German baron Eduard von der Heydt, a banker and art collector, who was also the penultimate owner of this hill endowed with its magnetism for attracting new ideas, trends and experiences.

Iles de Brissago. L’élégante Villa Emden est un hôtel-restaurant avec terrasse et dont les chambres ont un accès direct à la plage / The elegant Villa Emden is a hotel-restaurant with terrace, whose rooms offer direct access to the beach (Photo: Luisa Ballin)   

Locarno-Ascona’s fame, coupled with the lures of the Lake Maggiore region as a welcoming land for revolutionaries, anarchists and refugees, including Jews fleeing persecution, is also due to the presence of Friedrich Nietzsche, aged 27, who finished drafting The Birth of Tragedy as well as libertarian anarchist Mikhaïl Bakunin, who arrived from Geneva in 1869 to spend his last five years between Locarno and Lugano following his escape from a Russian prison.

“Many people from Northern Europe, and from Germany in particular – long before 1900 and well after – testified that they had experienced strong and unique experiences in this sun-drenched area as a gateway to the south. This is where you emerge after having passed through the Alps via the Gotthard, the railway tunnel opened in 1881 as well as the Simplon tunnel which was inaugurated in 1906. Other visitors were transported by steamboat from the Borromean Islands along the Italian coast of Lake Maggiore,” writes Kaj Noschis, evoking a tolerant environment, where church folk, anarchist artists and Asconian citizens learned to live.

Today, the traveller wishing to consult photos, works and archives is free to do so by visiting Casa Anatta, where one can watch a video retracing the epic of Monte Verità as Europe’s unique avant-garde experience. Before accompanying me to Ronco sopra Ascona, otherwise known as “the balcony of Lake Maggiore”, Yanica Gisler, a guide with the Ascona and Locarno Tourism Office, invites me to taste a green tea ice cream at the Tea House nestled on Monte Verità. We also visited an exhibition in a room of the Bauhaus Hotel built in 1927-29 by the architect Emil Fahrenkamp commissioned by Baron von der Heydt.

Castelgrande à Bellinzona dans le Tessin – un exemple extraordinaire de structure défensive de la fin du Moyen Âge. The Castelgranda of Bellinzona in the Tessin, an extraordinary example of a defense structure from the end of the Middle Ages. (Photo: Office du Tourisme du Tessin)

The castles of Bellinzona: a world heritage

For adults keen on history and children dreaming of visiting a fortified castle, head out to Bellinzona, capital of Ticino. The fortified complex of Bellinzona is an extraordinary example of a defensive structure from the end of the Middle Ages located at a key strategic crossing point of the Alps. “The castles of Bellinzona are among the finest examples of medieval fortified architecture in the Alps” It is with these words that the three castles of Bellinzona, the surrounding walls and the great wall, were inscribed on the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage List on 30 November 2000.

A visit to the castles of Castelgrande, which were restored between 1984 and 1991 by architect Aurelio Galfetti (who worked with Mario Botta during the creation of the Academy of architecture in Mendrisio), then of Montebello and Sasso Corbaro, allows us to better understand why these fortresses were built. These towering fortifications controlled the passage through the Ticino valley as well as access to the Alpine passes, and hence trade to and from the Gotthard. A lunch break at the Grotto San Michele, located within the walls of Castelgrande, gives one the opportunity to taste zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta or the Godena del mezzogiorno, a business lunch created every day with fresh seasonal products.

“The Locarno Film Festival combines intellectual standards and pleasure of the senses”

The Locarno International Film Festival, which was founded in 1946, is a veritable Swiss institution. Its artistic director Lili Hinstin and president Marco Solari, former director of the Ticino Tourist Office, explain to Global Geneva its importance. The Festival has become an unmissable event for those passionate about cinema, directors, actors and actresses as well as for industry professionals and the Swiss political and business class.

“For me, who has frequented the Locarno Film Festival both as a spectator and a professional for years, it is characterized by a unique mixed atmosphere: a strong and pleasant mobilization of the senses coupled with the convivial side of a summer festival in addition to the lake, the mountain and the Piazza Grande. It serves as a relaxed way to meet people and discuss movies with colleagues. But you also have a community of passionate moviegoers who expect demanding programming, and therefore high quality films. The Locarno Film Festival is an exceptionally rare combination that combines high intellectual standards with powerful pleasure for the senses. This is the best you can expect in life!” enthuses Lili Hinstin, a French citizen who has directed the Festival since 2019.

La Piazza Grande a Locarno, site du Locarno Film Festival/The Piazza Grande in Locarno, location of the Locarno Film Festival. (Photo: Office du Tourisme du Tessin)

How does one explain Locarno’s prestige as a world festival – the most demanding in Europe? “For radical creators, the Locarno Festival is like their home. It is only in Locarno that certain films can get off to a good start. This large-scale festival has high-level global fame, which means a guarantee of important international press coverage. For film-makers less inclined to this radical requirement, showing a film in Piazza Grande is a unique moment, an incomparable experience. The filmmakers, actors and actresses have told me they have fond memories of their time in Locarno,” says Hinstin.

For its director, the Locarno Festival is also an essential place for political leaders, diplomats and representatives of the world of Swiss finance. “It has become a kind of kick start for a lot of people, a smooth way to see each other before the summer is over. And for the film industry, the Festival is crucial “.

As with many organizers of cultural activities over the past six months, the management of the Locarno Film Festival has been forced to impose the strictest health regulations due to the pandemic. “We have adapted the Festival so as not to give up organizing it this year. We asked ourselves how we should continue to exercise our role under radically different conditions. Our goal has always been to help launch new works, to nurture them from childbirth and then to ensure that they survive under the best of conditions. We enable them to meet the public, the press and the representatives of the cinema industry who will help the film to circulate and give the creator a boost so that he or she can possibly finance his or her next film,” maintains Hinstin as she welcomes me into her office.

For her, the key importance is to highlight the experience of online proposals and interaction with the public. “Will we be able to reach spectators who live far away? What will happen here in Locarno, with the reopening of cinemas?” These are questions that both Hinstin and her team have been asking themselves, ask themselves, including Marco Solari, President of the Festival.

Lili Hinstin, Marco Solari et deux collaborateurs du Festival/ Lili Hinstin, Marco Solari and two Festival collaboratorrs . (Photo: Locarno Film Festival)

The impact of the Locarno Festival on Ticino

“The Locarno Film Festival has a huge impact on the region and local communities, both culturally and economically. It is an international event funded mainly by the Swiss Confederation, in particular by the Federal Department of the Interior (FDHA), the Canton, the City of Locarno, the Municipalities of the Locarno region and private sponsors. We also receive a large sum from the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs to carry out a joint programme with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (DCC) each year,” Solari told me in a written message.

The Locarno Film Festival is therefore an essential tourism event for Ticino. “On the one hand, it relies on solid collaborations with local and Swiss partners, and on the other, it enjoys a very high international reputation. During the eleven days of August, the City of Locarno becomes the meeting point for important national and international guests. It is no coincidence that the Piazza Grande with its large screen is also featured on the 20 Swiss franc note.”

“It is a great honour for us,” he adds, “because it is a symbolic recognition of the work that the Festival does each year for the region, in terms of economic performance and image. We of course take into account the interests of Ticino, as shown for example by the many initiatives aimed at young people. At the same time, although the Festival has solid roots in Ticino and Switzerland, we always try to look to the world,” he maintains.

The roles of Lili Hinstin and Marco Solari are complementary. “The President of a Festival must ensure that its artistic direction can work in complete freedom and independently with regard to political, financial and economic logic. The general framework of the Festival needs to be ideal for supporting its artistic direction, in close collaboration with the operational direction…He must support their initiatives and their work, but always with a watchful eye on finances.”

Passionate about literature and cinema, Solari confronted Covid-19 not without emotion. “I experienced this pandemic head-on, especially because it touched me personally in a very hard way. They were difficult and intense days, during which I felt close in my thoughts to those who still suffer and to those who have lost relatives and close friends. I am very grateful for the doctors, nurses, nursing staff and orderlies in Ticino hospitals. And it was certainly very difficult to take the decision to cancel the Locarno Film Festival, but following the regulations issued by the Federal Council, it would have been impossible for us to organize an event of this level in its canonical form.”

Lili Hinstin and Marco Solari have therefore opted for an alternative version of the Festival, Locarno 2020 – For the Future of Films. “It is a hybrid edition made up of digital events and physical projections in three venues in Locarno, which will of course respect the health rules set by the Canton and the Confederation. Locarno 2020 will grow thanks to various new and solidarity initiatives, such as The Films After Tomorrow, a competition dedicated to feature film projects unfinished due to the health crisis. But there will also be some Festival “classics”, such as the selection of short films from Pardi di Domani and the films from Open Doors, which will be shown online and in physical versions in Locarno. And much more,” promises Solari.

Marco Solari, le président du Festival/ Marco Solari, the Festival’s president . (Photo: Locarno Film Festival)

In addition, the Locarno Film Festival and the University of Italian Switzerland will jointly create, in Lugano, in 2021, a cinema and visual arts chair, devoted to theoretical reflection on the future of cinema and festivals.

The second part of this report on Ticino will be published in mid-August. It will give pride of place to Mario Botta, the internationally renowned Swiss architect whom Global Geneva met in his office in Mendrisio. The builder of Evry Cathedral and other sacred buildings will notably evoke one of his most emblematic recent works: Fiore di pietra (Stone Flower) designed on the crest of Monte Generoso.

This report benefited from the support of Ticino Turismo and Switzerland Tourism.

For further information on the 2020 Locarno Film Festival, see: LINK  

Italo-Swiss journalist Luisa Ballin is a contributing editor of Global Geneva magazine.

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