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Centovalli Railway
- Report by Matthew Teller

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Starting out from the sedate Swiss town of Locarno, the Centrovalli Railway passes through rugged terrain to end up in the characteristically Italian surroundings of Domodossola
Report by Matthew Teller

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Ticino is Switzerland’s Little Italy, a charming region of sunshine and palm trees, with a dash of Mediterranean flair. Three neighbouring towns form the focus of attention: Lugano, a centre for banking and high fashion; Bellinzona, UNESCOprotected for its trio of superbly preserved medieval castles; and Locarno, perhaps the chicest and most easy-going of the lot, a waterfront pleasure resort on Lake Maggiore characterised by its elegant architecture, atmospheric old quarter and lavish gardens of camellias and bougainvillea.

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Locarno is also the startingpoint for a little-known rail route that weaves a way through the mountain forests crowding in on the town from the north. It is named after the Centovalli, a cleft between foothills cut through — so locals claim — by a hundred sidevalleys. The number is impossible to verify, but the name alone gives an indication of the awe-inspiring nature of this rugged, folded terrain — remote, largely inaccessible (were it not for the superbly engineered narrow-gauge railway line) and boasting sensational views of peaks and gorges around every corner.
 
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Little trains depart from subterranean platforms beneath Locarno’s station, most of the time — once beyond Locarno itself — winding slowly along on narrow bridges and viaducts above ravine-like depths. The route climbs constantly, offering intimate glimpses of backgarden life in picturesque trackside villages such as Verscio. Just before Intragna, the train clanks over a graceful iron viaduct that spans the 75- metre-high gorge of the River Isorno; Switzerland’s first-ever bungee jump was performed from this bridge, in 1993, and it remains the scene of regular jumps today.
 
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Intragna itself is characteristically photogenic, perched high above the torrent amidst dense forests, yet itself dwarfed by mountains that tower far above. From virtually every stop on the Centovalli line, footpaths twist out into the woods of chestnut and oak on either side: Intragna is a classic hikers’ stop, while from Verdasio, two stations further on, a little cable car glides up to Rasa, the only village left in Ticino that is inaccessible to cars. Walking routes hereabouts, chiefly using old mule tracks to crisscross the wooded hillsides, are blissfully quiet.
 
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Beyond the final station in Switzerland, Camedo, trains roll on into the Italian Valle Vigezzo, reaching the highest point of the line at Santa Maria Maggiore (830m) before descending back to civilisation at the busy, valleyfloor town of Domodossola, a rail terminus serving as a joyously chaotic, thoroughly Italian counterpoint to Locarno, its pretty, decorous Swiss twin at the other end of the line.
 
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Domodossola Connections

The Centovalli’s terminus station of Domodóssola is in a curious grey area: although Italian, it also counts as a connection point on the Swiss railway network, and offers a couple of really fascinating onward journeys.

To the north lies a flagship high-speed route under the Alps, comprising first the Simplon Tunnel, the longest tunnel in the world when it opened in 1906, and then the Lötschberg Tunnel, heading north to Bern.

 
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In addition, Domodóssola offers fast connections south to Stresa, an Italian resort on Lake Maggiore, from where boats and rapid hydrofoils shuttle back to Locarno. This superb triangular journey from and to Locarno — by narrow-gauge Centovalli line, fast train and lake ferry — is marketed as the “Lago Maggiore Express”, a fullday, cross-border excursion from the Alpine foothills of the Centovalli to the subtropical flower gardens of Stresa. Full details, including fares and timetables, are at www.lagomaggioreexpress.com.
 
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Trains run on the Centovalli line daily, roughly every halfhour. One or two midafternoon services operate in summer with panoramic carriages. The journey takes around one hour 45 minutes. For more information, visit www.centovalli.ch.
 
 
 

A “tourist” return fare from Locarno to Domodossola, valid on one day only and perfect for rail sightseers, is SFr30 (£12.50) in second class, or SFr43 (£18.50) in first class. “Standard” fares — which cost more — have longer validities, and are useful if, for instance, you intend to spend a few days hiking around and between stations.

However, all Swiss travel passes are valid for free or discounted travel. See www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk for more information and online purchase.

 
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Domodossola is connected by high-speed trains to Bern, Basel and Geneva. Regular trains serve Locarno from Bellinzona, on the Zürich–Lugano main line.

To research timetable information for all trains, buses, boats and cable cars in Switzerland — including Eurostar connections from London — go to www.rail.ch. www.selfcateringitaly.co.uk - late deal Lake Lugano Switzerland

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