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Madonna del Sasso Sanctuary, above Locarno. (©_Switzerland Tourism)

Mainline trains and fast cars speed south from Bellinzona to Lugano and Milan, while a branch line and often packed minor roads head west for some 15km to Lago Maggiore and its principal Swiss resort, LOCARNO. This characterful old town enjoys the most glorious of locations, on a broad sweeping curve of a bay in the lake, and also clocks up the most sunshine hours of anywhere in Switzerland. The arcades and piazzas of the town centre are overlooked by subtropical gardens of palms, camellias, bougainvillea, cypress, oleanders and magnolias, which flourish on the lakeside promenades and cover the wooded slopes which crowd in above the town centre.

Locarno slumbered under Swiss occupation after 1503, but with independence in the nineteenth century it found its feet as the most elegant of the country’s lakeside resorts. In 1925 its backdrop of Belle Epoque hotels and piazza cafés served as the setting for the Treaty of Locarno, signed by the European powers in a failed effort to secure peace following World War I. The seeds planted at Locarno exploded into war again in 1939, but the town went from strength to strength during the 1950s and after, growing in chic-ness year on year. These days, Locarno focuses all its considerable resources on tourism, and draws in two very different sets of customers: one, from the German-speaking north, arrive to test out their hiking boots, while the other, from fog- and smog-bound Milan, come to test out their sunglasses. The cobbled alleys of Locarno’s Old Town, lined with Renaissance facades, can get entirely overrun with the rich and wannabe-famous on summer weekends, yet still – in the midst of the hubbub – the place manages to retain its sun-drenched cool.

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