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Just 3km southwest of Locarno, on the other, south-facing side of the Maggia delta, is the small village of ASCONA, a magnet for idealistic, sun-starved northerners for a century or more. The place was nothing more than a fishing hamlet until the end of the nineteenth century, when a slow but steady influx began of philosophers, theosophists, spiritualists, pacifists and artists, most of whom were responding to the growing belief that a return to nature was the best remedy for the moral disintegration of Western capitalist society. The Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin was the first, living in Locarno in the 1870s, and at the turn of the century the artists Henri Oedenkoven and Uda Hofmann established an esoteric, vegetarian artists’ colony on the hill of Monte Verità beside the village. An array of European fringe intellectuals followed, including the famous anarchist Kropotkin, and various practitioners of the new arts of psychology and psychoanalysis. In 1913, Rudolf von Laban set up his nudist School of Natural and Expressive Dance within the Monte Verità community, attracting Isadora Duncan among others, and during and after World War I artists and pacifists flocked to Ascona from all over Europe. The buildings atop the peaceful wooded hill are now used mostly for conferences, but a few have been preserved as a museum of the movement (April–June & Sept–Oct Tues–Sun 2.30–6pm, July & Aug Tues–Sun 3–7pm; Fr.6). It’s a short walk up the hill from the bus stop (bus #33) to the Casa Anatta, with two floors of the original wooden house given over to papers and photos commemorating the artists’ exploits. A walk past the main Bauhaus conference centre and into the woods brings you to the tiny Casa Selma, used as the community’s retreat, and on further to the Elisarion, housing a vast circular painting by Elisar von Kupffer, an artist from a noble Baltic family who spent many years at Monte Verità, depicting the freedoms and spiritual liberations of communal life.
Ascona village itself is well worth a stroll, with a huge open lakefront piazza crammed with terrace cafés and restaurants, and attractive cobbled lanes leading back into the older quarter, full of artisans’ galleries and diverting little craft shops. The Museo Comunale d’Arte Moderna, in a sixteenth-century palazzo at Via Borgo 34 (Tues–Sat 10am–noon & 3–6pm, Sun 10am–noon; Fr.3), has a high-quality collection focused on Marianne von Werefkin, one of the many artists attracted to Ascona in its heyday and joint founder of Munich’s expressionist Blaue Reiter movement. One of her best canvases on display is the terrifying Munch-like Il Cenciaiolo (The Rag-Man, 1920), but there are dozens more. Ascona’s tourist office, near the waterfront in Casa Serodine (Mon–Fri 9am–6.30pm; June–Sept also Sat 9am–6pm, Sun 9am–2pm; 091/791 00 90, www.ascona.ch), run a gentle walking tour of the old village (April–Oct Tues 10am; Fr.5).
One of the best excursions in the area is to the lovely botanic park on the Isole di Brissago (April–Oct daily 8.45am–6pm; Fr.6 in addition to boat ticket or pass), twin islands situated opposite the resort of Brissago, 4km south of Ascona, and accessible by hourly boats from Locarno and Ascona, or by more regular shuttles from Porto Ronco, the nearest point on the mainland. These tiny dots of green in the shimmering lake overflow with luxuriant subtropical flora basking in the hot sun (this is also the lowest point in Switzerland, 193m above sea level). The main island – about ten minutes’ stroll end to end – has an attractive 1929 villa at one end, now a conference centre and quality restaurant (091/791 43 62). Only groups can stay overnight; everyone else must leave on the last boat (around 6pm).
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