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Wellness in Ticino: the village of Comologno in the Onsernone Valley offers peace and tranquility and wellness in the traditional sense of the word.

Bellinzona, Locarno and Lugano are synonymous with Switzerland's southern, Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, where life is perhaps a little bit more animated and colourful than north of the Alps. Bellinzona, the capital, is famous for its castles, and has even been proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage site. Lugano is the canton's largest city and this country's third-largest financial hub, as well as a major centre of the precision and high-tech industries, while; Locarno is immediately identified with the international film festival, held there every summer. Equally well known is the nearby, trendy resort of Ascona, which might be termed "Ticino's St. Tropez".

But there's another Ticino: the canton's lesser-known and rather isolated mountain valleys, which attract a special form of "soft" tourism, especially favoured by the German Swiss, looking for an escape from hectic modern life.

One of these valleys is the Onsernone. Lying northwest of Locarno, the 27-kilometre-long Onsernone Valley contains eight tiny mountainside villages, the last one being Spruga, almost on the frontier with Italy. Just a couple of kilometres before Spruga is the village of Comologno.

A Very Rough Life

Life in the villages of Ticino's mountains was 'always harsh and difficult, and poverty was widespread for generations. People there had little or nothing, and whoever owned a cow or a mule was very fortunate, indeed. In fact, the deep level of poverty in the Onsernone Valley, in particular, is legendary and even the object of regional sayings. Comologno octogenarian, Nice Gandolfi, tells the story of how in the 18th and 19th Centuries, virtually the only way to survive there was for the locals to make straw mats and hats, which the men folk would carry in big piles on their hacks over the rough mountains, to sell in Italy and France, only to return months later.

It's understandable that with time, this poverty-stricken lifestyle got to be too much for many, especially among the younger people. This led to a mass exodus of entire families, in search of a better life. For some, it meant moving to the urban areas of Ticino, or even to other cantons. Still others sought their fortunes abroad, especially in the United States, and in California in particular. One recalls a famous old Napa Valley wine label called "Italian Swiss Colony".

Life Back To The Villages

Emotionally, it was not easy for Ticino's mountain villagers to leave. Nice Gandolfi points out with pride that those who left never sold their homes, but always returned to use them whenever possible. They also took pride in keeping their villas in good repair, in the hope of returning permanently one day, or at least for part of the year, as she and her husband do.

That dream has materialised for many. Today, most of these mountain village homes are in the hands of later generations of the same families, who uphold the tradition well and with equal pride. This, in itself, is bringing life back to the villages like Comologno.

But in an effort to promote further soft tourism on a larger scale from outside the area, an association has been formed, which is concerned with development projects for Ticino's mountain valleys, especially in the Locarno region. One of these projects is already functioning in Comologno.

Wellness--Onsernone Style

In 2001, the association was able to purchase two 18th Century villas in Comologno, close to one another. One of them--the "Palazzo Gamboni"--was designated to become a small hotel, while the other building would serve as a restaurant. A third house is more modern, and used as a hotel extension.

In the Palazzo Gamboni, all of file original furnishings in the villa were kept and restored, and used to furnish the renovated premises, even down to a washbasin and night pot. But fear not, there are modern bathroom facilities outside the rooms! The basic idea was to offer guests a victual stay in a living museum, and to give them a genuine taste of how life in Comologno used to be.

To complete the experience, the restaurant offers a daily lunch and dinner menu, always featuring local specialities along with Ticino wines and cheeses. In the evenings, the cellar serves as an improvised disco, which has become a meeting point in the village for all ages.

As a concession to notions of modern wellness, the hotel features a Jacuzzi and sauna.

However, wellness in Comologno is not based on modern gadgets, but rather on the absolute seclusion, peace and tranquility of the place, and the ability to literally go back in time, at least in the sense of the simpler lifestyle of a bygone era. Except for the church bell, there is great silence here, both night and day.

In Harmony Wit The Nature Adding to the rest and relaxation of the Onsernone Valley is Mother Nature itself. Not only do you experience a way of life virtually forgotten elsewhere in modern workaday Switzerland; the majesty of the valley itself, and the endless pattern of mountains plunging into the gorge making up the valley are in themselves restful and tranquil. This is a place of repose and reflection. This is a retreat in the traditional sense of the word.

Being so isolated, one feels a sense of openness and fondness towards other people, and there is a renewed need and desire for human contact and relationship. It is easy to make friends here and to fall into a conversation with a passer-by or with others in the restaurant, or on the road. Above all, a visit to the Onsernone renews one's understanding of what life is meant to be, and how it should be lived. It is literally "getting back to basics". After only a couple of days here, one is reluctant to leave and return to the "real" world. On the other hand, and to wax philosophical, perhaps a place like Comologno in the Onsernone Valley is the real "real world".

Setting There

It's an adventure! The road to the Onsernone begins just after the Ponte Brolla rail station, after Locarno, where there is also a popular restaurant. From there, a common stretch of road continues towards the picturesque "Centovalle", eventually leading to Italy. After a couple of kilometres, there's a fork in the road, and the route to the Onsernone takes off, up and to the right.

There have been improvements in recent years, but the locals still speak of some 360 curves in the road, many of which involve narrow basins. This is the classic place to sound your horn as you near a blind curve, to warn other drivers of oncoming traffic. Although it still requires skill and good nerves to drive the road, after a while, one develops a feel for it.

Depending on your average speed, it will take about 40-45 minutes to reach Comologno. When you do, it will be time for a relaxing drink and maybe a chance to get to know fellow travellers, and swap stories of the ride up.

At the end of the day, there are two truisms to be said: first, that you may wish you had taken the postal bus and left the driving to someone else. And second, that it will take no time to forget the stress of the everyday world and to start enjoying wellness Onsernone style.
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Author:Zanotti, Bob
Publication:Swiss News
Date:Oct 1, 2004
Words:1218
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