Mind games up a mountain

Last Saturday was a giorno festivo, a public holiday, according to the timetables of Autopostale Ticino, the network of post-buses operating in Italian-speaking Switzerland. And on giorni festivi a Sunday service operates.

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But this crucial nugget of information was hidden away in very small letters right at the bottom of the bus-stop information board, where the perspex is a bit scratched, and in exactly the sort of place that tired, footsore English walkers coming down off a mountain might not think to look.

I can vouch for this. One week ago this afternoon I was tired, footsore and English at Muggio, a small village at the base of the giant Monte Generoso, waiting patiently for a bus that wasn’t coming.

It had all started so well, with one of the most thrilling plane rides I can remember. The domestic shuttle from Zurich to Lugano took about 40 minutes, the little turbo-prop plane skimming the Alps. At times we seemed almost to touch the peaks, tracing narrow valleys dotted with snowbound villages and then swooping down to Lake Maggiore, banking over Como and coming in to land at the tiny Agno airfield 15 minutes from the city-centre Lugano Dante Hotel.

Next morning was the official opening of the summer season, in mid-March no less, for the rack-railway that climbs from Capolago, on the shores of Lake Lugano, to the summit of Monte Generoso, at 1,704m. The first train of 2005 went up barely a quarter full, with only 29 people taking advantage of cloudless skies and forecast temperatures in the high 20s.

Generoso is a brute of a mountain, craggy and, where it isn’t sheer, exceptionally steep. It is the most southerly high peak in Switzerland, less than 40km from Milan, and yet it remains virtually unknown. Action thrills are two-a-penny in the big mountains further north, dozens of companies queue up to outdo each other in supplying adrenalin kicks to the masses. But here, once you step beyond the confines of the summit station, there’s no fancy stuff: it’s just you and the mountain.

Generoso straddles the Swiss-Italian border with the summit marking the frontier. Outside the Vetta (top) station is a small stone set between two flagpoles. Above the side marked “Italia” flies the tricolor; alongside it, above the word “Svizzera” flies the Swiss cross.

The highest peak of Generoso rises 100m directly above the station, a 15-minute climb, but one that had me and the lean, bodysuited, fitness freak I was trying to keep up with puffing for breath. As we got to the top, a Swiss/German couple were having a row about how far away Lake Maggiore was. The husband stomped off down the path and went to sit on a rock. His wife stayed, gazing over to Maggiore which peeped placidly between the cliffs. A raptor silently rode the thermals above a ravine far below her.

There’s nothing higher between here and the Apennines, so the unimpeded view covers a large chunk of northern Italy. I saw the sun glinting off a square of water in the distance and could have sworn it was the municipal swimming baths in Milan. Off to one side, smoke was rising from a factory chimney. I checked the information panel and it turned out to be Turin. Bellagio on Lake Como was in plain sight and I ate lunch staring at the Matterhorn, its distinctive pyramid shape unmistakable in miniature on the skyline.

My next target was the last valley in Switzerland, the Valle di Muggio, tucked into a fold of the Italian border. I’d plotted a path down through Alpe di Sella to the first village at the head of the valley, Scudellate, from where the way down to Muggio was straightforward. This route hugged the border and I knew I had to be careful not to take a wrong turn and end up in the Italian Valle di Erbonne, from where getting out again would be a real head- (or leg-) ache.

So when I saw a sign well before Alpe di Sella, different from the usual distinctive Swiss signposts, on which someone had scrawled in magic marker “Erbonne/Scudellate”, I was doubtful. It pointed off the ridge, down a precipitous cliffside, apparently to nowhere. I should have known better than to question the Swiss hiking authorities, but I ignored it and pressed on confidently.

As I came closer to a little huddle of stone buildings, marooned above the treeline on this exposed shoulder of the mountain, I wondered if this was Alpe di Sella. A sign identified one of the shacks as a nevera, an ancient form of cold storage now surviving only on Monte Generoso. Above ground, a nevera looks like a small farm building, built of dry stone and roofed with schist, a course-grained mineral rock. Below ground, it is dug to a depth of six metres or more and in winter almost filled with ice. Branches laid on top keep the ice from melting, creating fridge-like temperatures in summer for storing milk and butter.

According to the sign this nevera was at Alpe di Piana, 220m higher and the best part of a kilometre from Sella. I looked back up the hillside to where I’d seen the “Erbonne/Scudellate” sign. No way was I climbing back up there.

I watched a gecko sunning itself on a rock and felt like an idiot. Here I was, sweating on a mountain in Switzerland, in hot sunshine in March, with a high-altitude gecko that belonged on a Greek island, facing the steepest path possible down to civilisation. By the time I reached Alpe Nadigh, the next landmark and another cluster of dry-stone buildings at the treeline, I’d barely gone 300m on the map but dropped 120m in altitude – and my thighs and calves knew all about it.

By now I could hear church bells and voices rising out of the Valle di Muggio, the tinkling of cowbells and all the sounds of normal life. The roofs of Scudellate were in plain view. The walk was as good as over. I’d beaten Generoso.

Just below was Roncapiano, an eyrie of a village perched higher than Scudellate. On this quiet, sunny afternoon a mother and grandfather strolled down the street with a pushchair, alternately cooing and laughing at the latest addition to the family.

The path led through the village and continued descending at a muscle-crunching angle. It’s not over yet, said Generoso. Within a minute I was in dense forest, not an Alpine pine forest, but a deciduous forest of birch, elm and beech. In another of Generoso’s mind games it suddenly felt like autumn, not spring. The trees were bare and spiky. Horse-chestnut casings lay everywhere and the forest-floor was hidden under an ankle-deep layer of dry leaves and twigs. There was no moisture anywhere. The woods were as tinder-dry as if at the end of a long, hot summer. As I shuffled on I heard the little skeeterings of geckos again, racing for cover in the leaf litter. Lizards and conkers: only on Generoso.

Every so often I spied the church across the valley at Muggio through the trees but it never seemed to get any closer. Always the path continued. Zig-zagging down through the endless, sun-dappled forest. I began to get a touch of the Blair Witches and forced myself to stop and dig into the peanuts and chocolate I’d brought along. The sugar and salt did me some good but I remember falling at one point and rolling over in the leaves, ending up like a hedgehog all stuck with horse-chestnut casings.

And Generoso wasn’t finished yet. Even after I emerged from the forest, there was no way across to Muggio, which now lay pretty much on a level, just across the River Breggia. I had to keep heading down out of the sunlight into the cold, dark crook of the valley in order to find a bridge which was marked at 610m. I’d dropped over 1,000m below the mountain-top. It was a blessed relief to engage different muscles to climb the last stretch into picturesque Muggio. I sank onto a bench knowing the bus would be along shortly. Except, of course, it wasn’t.

As the sun dipped behind the valley wall, I looked up to the Monte Generoso summit station, visible against the blue sky far above. Up there it was still sunny. I traced the route I’d wanted to take – an apparently gentle way via Scudellate – and then the route I’d actually taken, along a sharp ridge down via Roncapiano. I rubbed my calves.

From bus-less Muggio, I was lucky to cadge a lift down the road to a cosy inn, La Montanara, in the aptly named village of Monte. The owners, Signor and Signora Piotti, spoke no English, but we rubbed along just fine with my broken Italian and their broken French. The beer was cold and sharp and for dinner Signora Piotti served creamy polenta accompanied by delicious wild mushrooms and melt-in-the-mouth venison.

After dark I sat on the balcony and stretched my tightening muscles, pointing my toes down the valley towards Italy. In the morning Signor Piotti pointed out the goat-like chamois on the misty, wooded slopes. I headed off to catch my train back to real life with aching legs.

I could have flown a glider around Generoso, I could have paraglided off the mountain or mountain-biked down it, but I chose to tackle it alone. Next time, however, I’ll know to read the timetable closely – and never, ever disbelieve a Swiss signpost.