The pasta is sublime. The piazza is bathed in warm September sun. All around, there are bustling pizzerias and chatty gelaterias, and sailors from nearby Lake Maggiore in notably natty shirts all saying ciao and buon giorno.
And Francesca the guide is leaning across the table, with a shocked frown.
‘Your train was six minutes late?!’
Pictured is Locarno in Ticino, which Sean describes as ‘an idyllic corner of Italian-speaking Europe’
‘Mio Dio. So it must have come from Italy!’
It’s a disconcerting moment, because the scene is so Italian, and yet, as the guide’s reaction suggests, this isn’t quite Italy.
This is Secret Italy — that is to say, we’re in Locarno in Ticino: an idyllic corner of Italian-speaking Europe, hidden away in the southernmost corner of Switzerland.
Ticino is where Germanic precision meets Mediterranean flair, which means that, along with great Italian food and happy Italian conviviality, you get tidy Swiss streets, immaculate Swiss service, and yes, fantastically punctual Swiss public transport. Which also means you don’t need a car.
Francesca leaps to her feet. She’s clutching her phone with its must-download Swiss transport app (SBB Mobile).
‘Your bus will be here in 40 seconds.’
She’s right. Again. Ten minutes later we have left central Locarno behind, and we pull up next to Castello del Sole — recently awarded the title of best hotel in the Swiss Republic. How to describe this blissful bolthole? Let’s say it’s like a noble estate from somewhere in Tuscany — inexplicably dropped in a lush Alpine valley, and blessed with its own lake-beach, several emerald meadows complete with drowsy donkeys, and a vast, Edenic farm which produces figs, grapes, wheat, aubergines, chillies, walnuts, lemons, tomatoes, peaches, quinces and a whole lot more.
Local produce in Vini e Distillati Delea Angelo SA, a vineyard in the Ticino region
That afternoon we visit their vineyards for a tasting of world-famous Merlot. And their rosé. And their beer. And their fizz. And their gin. And other things which, to be honest, begin to blur.
Then we wobble to the hotel’s Michelin-starred Locanda Barbarossa restaurant, all rustling pergolas and Gordon Ramsay-trained chefs, which utilises much of this amazing food and booze.
Later we sleep — deeply, deeply — in the loggia-shaded suites, feeling like over-indulged minor royals.
It is so quiet I swear you can hear the risotto rice growing outside.
Delight: Brissago beside Lake Maggiore, which Sean describes as the ‘cuckoo-clock-cute capital of the Ticino region’
Pictured is Castelgrande, one of three UNESCO-listed fortresses in Bellinzona
Next day: Bellinzona (21¾ minutes by train from Locarno). Little Bellinzona is the quaint, prosperous, cuckoo-clock-cute capital of the Ticino region, and it’s full of frescoed houses, quiet basilicas, cobbled squares, Benetton outlets, extremely healthy looking students on bikes and enormous, brooding castles that soar unexpectedly out of bare rock, right next to pretty cafes.
First civilised by Romans, Ticino was fought over by kingdoms north and south, seeking to dominate the strategic, trans-Alpine trade routes.
In the 14th century the Dukes of Milan took a temporary but definite grip, and threw up these three UNESCO-listed fortresses.
We choose to see Castelgrande, the most famous. First we have to walk down a city-centre tunnel, which bores deep into the rock.
Then we ascend in a sort of Stone-Age-meets-Star-Wars elevator, which chucks us out onto the sweet green castle square.
From here you can tour the castle museum, and take exhilarating wall-top walks with a glorious view all the way down the dale, to Locarno and neighbouring Ascona. Neatly, this is the next stop.
The Hotel Eden Roc, right on Ascona’s lovely Maggiore lakeshore, is where high green mountains plummet into deep blue waters.
Recently revamped, with a new wing and gleaming spa, Eden Roc has multiple pools, excellent restaurants, and, at night, one of the grandest views of the Maggiore shores.
Picture are the Brissago islands, a tiny two-isle archipelago with a subtropical microclimate
Barely half an hour from Ascona you’ll find the Brissago islands, a tiny two-isle archipelago with a subtropical microclimate.
For several contented hours we tour the famous gardens, with their Spanish cacti and Alpine roses, accompanied by Francesca, who tells us the long, slightly salacious history of the place.
It was prized by poets, monks, artists, philosophers, English aristos and an eccentric 1930s German-Jewish industrialist who, when he wasn’t tending this lovely garden ‘used to throw gold coins in his swimming pool for naked girls to retrieve. There are photos.’
It’s a fitting end to a tour of Ticino. A secret yet beautiful garden, hidden away in the Swiss lakes and peaks. Northern yet Italian, mountainous yet Mediterranean. And punctual, yet sexy.