Switzerland’s most southerly canton, is sun-drenched in the summer, even mild in winter.
Go down to the Piazza in Ascona, and you’ll notice something odd: it’s not square. Any other town would call it a rue, a strasse or via; perhaps even a promenade, on account of its water frontage and sidewalk cafes which add to the people-watching ambience. But then, Ascona’s an odd town, or rather a town at odds with expectations. Located on the banks of Lake Maggiore, it’s close enough to the Italian border to resemble those smart Lombardian resorts fringing Lake Como. However – and pardon the cliché – it works like clockwork, with that effortless efficiency for which the Swiss are justly known. Even the town clock appears to have been made by Rolex.
And yet, it’s a world away from the monochrome culture of Switzerland’s suit-and-business banking centres, or the multi-coloured jumpsuits of its swanky ski resorts. The only resemblance it bears to the latter – and it is distant – lie in the small (by Swiss standards) mountains flanking the lake and its vari-coloured Italianate mansions which face off the sparkling water in a kind of gentlemen’s duel of beautiful vistas.
And yet, and yet; behind the façade of this Prada-wearing sophistication beats the heart of a beast that refuses to play by the rules. Above Ascona sits the infamous Monte Verità, or Hill of Truth where, between 1900 and 1920, hundreds of Europe’s spiritual rebels came to escape. This had as much to do with the clean air and clear water that still leaves the town untroubled, as the sudden appearance of factories, pollution and “affluenza” in the industrial north. This was an age of experimentation. Surrealism, paganism and modern dance were on the move, and feminism was finding a voice.
The German writer Hermann Hesse was apparently so excited when he saw four long-haired, sandal-wearing men walk through his village that he followed them – today we’d call that stalking. Hesse found himself in Ascona, where a colony of people lived off the land and worshipped nature. They bathed, swam, hiked and slept outdoors. They refused to eat meat, milk, eggs and alcohol. Best of all, they did it all of this in the nude. It helped Hesse recover from his alcohol problems. But for others it was simply the microclimate – which allows olives, almonds and tobacco plants to flourish – that restored their faith in life and inspired them to great things. Paul Klee, Isadora Duncan, D H Lawrence and James Joyce; they all made the pilgrimage.
Today’s pilgrims are more likely to be of the well-heeled, Alfa Romeo-driving variety, seeking rest and recuperation through mild indulgence – at the isolated island spa on Isole di Brissago; in the grandly rustic rooms of the agriturismo Fattoria L’Amorosa, set in its own vineyard; or at the flamboyant Hotel Eden Roc.
From its unprepossessing exterior, the Eden Roc opens onto an extravagant foyer, designed by local legend Carlo Rampazzi, which sets the tone for rooms with implausibly welcoming colour schemes; key lime green, tangerine, lilac. A gleaming marble floor sits below antique chandeliers; crazy-shaped furniture dazzles the eye.
If you like what you see, check out Rampazzi’s Ascona shop, a veritable grotto of eccentricity (think Dalí crossed with American diner), where exquisite antiques sourced from around the world sit beside the designer’s own extravagant creations, including huge, luminescent gnome candles, ostentatious chaises longues and leopard-print umbrellas.
Rampazzi’s ties with Eden Roc have helped win it awards. But the title Hotelier of The Year belongs to general manager Daniel Ziegler, who presides over everything with an attention to detail that surpasses even usual Swiss standards of excellence. You’ll not find a spot of dust or chocolate-on-the-pillow out of place here. This model of brilliance continues in the hotel’s three restaurants, where chef Rolf Krapf offers menus of character, sourcing local produce as much as possible. Krapf was recently poached for a spot of moonlighting by Swiss, the national airline, for their transatlantic (and Business Class Europe) flights, but he’s still very much in residence at Eden Roc, where he serves up inventive dishes like the sublime Fusilli al Ragu di Coniglio (Fusilli in Rabbit Meat Sauce) at the alfresco lakeside La Cassetta. And, rather skilfully, if you can’t decide between the truffle risotto or sautéd duckling liver with cherry compote at the La Brezza lounge, you can sample up to six (smaller) courses from the extensive Carta Senza Prezzi.
For all this sensory overload – the joys of walking around Ascona’s pristine cobbled streets, replete with fancy galleries and tiny boutique shops, bobbing around on the lake in a smart yacht, or driving down to the retail outlet factory stores around Milan – there’s still evidence of the area’s free-spirited past. A week after my visit, Ascona’s streets would be jumping to the beat of the annual New Orleans Jazz Festival; each March, hundreds of pink camelias are strewn around neighbouring Locarno for the Camelia Exhibition (now that’s flower-power); and up in the mountains two former primary school teachers, who travelled across country 20 years ago with a couple of dozen goats, eke out a living making cheese, which they sell in the local markets (look out for the El Gasg label). They look like they haven’t been infected by the modern world ever since.
Of course, it’s a travel cliché to call a destination a “place of contrasts”, but have a simple lunch of braised pork at the hillside Grotto Al Tecett in Brissago, then drive along the glorious coastal road, stopping off to buy some Swiss wines (including an unusual white Merlot) at the small Delea winery, walk to the foothills of the Monte San Salvatore (where you’ll see rump-shaped mountains that have earned it nickname of Switzerland’s Rio de Janeiro), prior to returning to the Eden Roc for an hour by the pool and dinner at La Brezza, and then consider that sometimes clichés can be deadly accurate.
Swiss flies to Zurich from Heathrow and London City six times daily, and from Birmingham and Manchester three times daily. Tel: 0845 601 0956 or log onto www.swiss.com/uk.
From Zurich, the train to Bellinzona takes approx. 3 hours. Transfer from Bellinzona to Ascona takes 45 minutes to 1 hour by car. You can buy a Swiss Flexi Pass for travel on the trains from www.swisstravelsystem.com.
Hotel Eden Roc: 6612 Ascona, Switzerland Tel: 00 41 (0)91 785 71 71. www.edenroc.ch. Make sure you ask for a Rampazzi room and check out the four and seven-day absolute relaxation breaks.
The Grotto Al Tecett:, via Porbetto, 6614, Isole di Brissago. Open from April to October, Tel: 00 41 (0)91 793 2923.
For Swiss Premium Wine by Delea, visit the cellars and wine shop at Cantina Delea, Zandone 11, Losone, Tel: 00 41 (0)91 791 0817. www.delea.ch.
For lunch, dinner or stays at Fattoria L’Amorosa, via Moyar, 6514, Sementina-Gudo, Tel: 00 41 (0)91 840 2950. www.amorosa.ch/it/.
For more information on Ascona and Lake Maggiore, log onto www.maggiore.ch.