The Treno Gottardo is the only train line connecting Swiss towns such as Basel, Lucerne, Zurich, or Zug with Airolo. And a visit to the Piora Valley in the Leventina region is every reason to ride this innovative new train.
Reaching the Piora Valley by Treno Gottardo
The everyday traveler on the way to Ticino would simply pass by the Piora Valley. This must-see location deserves a spot on your Switzerland bucket list, however. If a picture is worth a thousand words, here you go:
How to get there: simply get off the Treno Gottardo in Airolo and transfer to the Ritom funicular, one of the steepest funiculars in Europe.
The first lake will be Lago Ritom, the largest of the Piora Valley lakes. The reflections of the mountains and valleys on the lake make me understand why they call this “Paradise of the Alpine Pools.” It's simply one of the most beautiful landscapes in Ticino. You have to see it to believe it. These pictures alone might help, but nothing I write could convey the beauty.
Lago Ritom, Lago Tom, and Lago Cadagno are the prominent lakes in the valley. No worries if you are not an avid photographer, there is plenty else to do here: hiking, biking, fishing, and skiing in the winter.
The infamous Prosciutto dell'Alpe Piora by Rapelli is aged up here.
The weather and temperature, as well as the crisp alpine air, are chief reasons why Piora is the ideal location for aging ham. Without modern technology or added chemicals, the Alpe Piora Prosciutto tastes divine. If I could stuff a whole leg into my backpack, I think I would.
Piora cheese from the Rifugio Lago Ritom is rooted in history and passion.
An estimated 500 cows graze these fertile valleys producing some of the most delicious milk and cheese in Switzerland. As a result, the local cheesemakers exclusively source milk from the Piora Valley and its neighboring towns. So when you visit, be sure to pick up a loaf of fresh Piora cheese to taste the difference for yourself.
We stroll back toward the middle of the valley and end up at Ristoro Taneda. This restaurant could easily be placed in a major Swiss city like Zurich or Geneva, and there would be lines out the door.
But instead, it sits in the middle of nowhere. The local food is exceptional, and the executive chef is as charismatic as his dishes.
Bellinzona: 7 places to visit for the full experience
Bellinzona is the gateway to Italy and the Alps, and it has always been dating back to Roman times. Because it was strategically located, Bellinzona was an important trading hub. The three castles, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, are remnants of the medieval fortifications and towers that were built on top of the Roman structures.
The medieval castles of Bellinzona are breathtaking locations for picnics and pictures. Castlegrande, Montebello, and Sasso Corbara each is different, unique, and beautiful. If you're in a rush or don't have the energy to hike to each castle, ride in the Artù Tourist Train that starts from the old town and goes to each castle in a convenient amount of time.
Castello di Sasso Corbaro
Have you ever dreamed about having dinner in a castle? I never have because I didn't think it was possible for a mere mortal like myself. But in Bellinzona, dreams come true and we find ourselves inside the elegant Osteria Sasso Corbaro restaurant at Castello di Sasso Corbaro.
At the Bellinzona farmer’s market
Polenta, flowers, spices, lavender. Gossip, coffee, children, bands. The Bellinzona Saturday Market is where this small town comes alive. Everyone is out, including the locals and passing tourists, all buying their favorite Ticinese specialties and knick-knacks. I can't help but restock on the Maggia Valley pepper, and Manuela purchases the local chestnut jam.
In the old town of Bellinzona, there is a bar hiding in plain sight. As I enter IL Fermento, I feel the history of the place right away. The decor, the lighting, the smell. It's my kind of place.
The older I get, the more I am drawn to these types of dive bars. I find an old musty table and order a drink... Scratch that: I end up sampling all the IL Fermento artisanal beers on the tasting menu. They have names such as Kremlin, Mithra, Lisbeth, or Belli. This highly recommended tasting comes with local Ticinese meats and cheese.
Grotto San Michele
For lunch, we return to another castle. What better way to spend our mid-day than with the views overlooking Montebello Castle? Grotto San Michele with its scenic outdoor terrace and vaulted indoor dining area serves a delicious locally made lunch. Think seasonal varieties of risotto and polenta.
To satisfy our cravings for sweets, we swing by Chocolat Stella inside the train station. We taste our way through the various chocolate varieties before deciding on a favorite. It’s my philosophy that when it comes to tasting, you sometimes have to double-dip in order to be sure... (My favorite is the Milk Chocolate with Ticino bread "al latte con Pane Ticino.")
Villa dei Cedri
To complete our exploration of Bellinzona and its valleys, we seek out the neo-classic home that is Villa dei Cedri. Off the beaten path from Bellinzona’s center, we walk through a residential neighborhood to reach this historic mansion tucked next to a vineyard.
Villa dei Cedri is home to a collection of local Ticino art, as well as pieces from other parts of Switzerland. When visiting, pick up an audio guide narrated by three actors. Topics include architecture and history rather than notes on the art collection.
During our late-summer visit, we are privy to attending a special event called "VINO IN VILLA - Per tutti." I see and feel the passion from the locals in attendance, be they politicians, musicians, enthusiasts, family, and friends. I finally put down the camera after a long weekend, sip the local wines and chat with the locals.
I'm attracted to their vibes like a moth to a flame. I want to live here at this moment. I'm in heaven. And then I dance in the rain until I'm ushered off when the lights go out. What can I say? I love you, Bellinzona. You remind me of everything I miss back home in Hawaii: Ohana (family).
The newly renovated Bellinzona Infopoint is an upgraded tech haven of information. The innovative and interactive technology in this bad boy of an info point allows kids and adults to learn and play at the same time. Smart tables, hypnotic TV screens, and more are all here.
Find new landscapes to explore in real life. Learn about the history of Bellinzona. Or get lost in its psychedelic TV screens. Be sure to stop by the local gift shop, Bottega Ticino a Te, to buy everything and anything from the Bellinzona & Ticino area.
Through the end of 2022, this VIP train to Ticino is a steal: a round-trip ticket to Ticino in second class is just 79 francs with a Swiss Half Fare Card. The free Treno Gottardo club membership comes with the following perks:
(Disclaimer: For the purpose of this article, Südostbahn/Treno Gottardo has invited Rex to Ticino. Transportation, overnight accommodation, activities, and food were provided.)