|Locarno : the town|
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The focus of town is Piazza Grande, an attractive arcaded square just off the lakefront that is lined with pavement cafés and serves as the town’s meeting point, social club and public catwalk. Warm summer nights serve up some great people-watching, as exquisitely groomed locals parade to and fro beneath the street lights neck high in nonchalance, all the cafés a-buzz and fragrant breezes bringing in the scent of flowers from the lakeside gardens. The palm-fringed lakefront promenade runs south from the east edge of the Piazza to the Bosco Isolino park,five minutes away, but most interest lies in the narrow streets of Locarno’s Old Town, ranged on gently rising ground behind the piazza: spending an afternoon wandering through the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century alleys with an ice cream is the best way to blend in with Locarno life.
From the west end of Piazza Grande, lanes run up to Via Cittadella and the richly Baroque Chiesa Nuova, decorated with a huge statue of St Christopher outside. Its sumptuously stuccoed ceiling is crawling with detail, featuring gilded scallops and scrollwork, and hosts of fleshy cherubs. The tiny arcaded courtyard, reached through a side door, is a charming, tranquil spot entirely removed from the bustle of the alleys. Following the atmospheric Via di Sant’Antonio brings you to the huge and rather sombre Chiesa di Sant’Antonio, dating from the seventeenth century but rebuilt following a fatal roof collapse in 1863. Beside the church is Casa Rusca (Tues–Sun 10am–noon & 2–5pm; Fr.5; SMP), a worthwhile art museum housed in a grand white eighteenth-century building with an internal open-air atrium surrounded by arcades on three levels; the exhibitions are temporary, drawn from the museum’s mainly modernist collections, principally a donation by the twentieth-century Swiss artist Jean Arp of a wealth of his paintings and sculptures.
Alleys lead south downhill to the tall Chiesa diSan Francesco, consecrated as part of a monastery in the fourteenth century over an earlier church that had been founded by wandering Franciscans either during St Francis of Assisi’s lifetime or shortly after his death in 1226. In 1480, a member of the order established a hermitage on the hillside above Locarno, which is now the Madonna del Sasso pilgrimage site. Renovation of the church in the sixteenth century included frescoes, most of which are now fading badly. Further down sits the stout thirteenth-century Castello Visconteo, built by the dukes of Milan and badly damaged by the attacking Swiss army in 1513. It now houses the town’s Museo Archeologico (April–Oct Tues–Sun 10am–noon & 2–5pm; Fr.5; SMP), worth visiting if only for its collection of stunningly beautiful Roman glassware and ceramics, near intact brightly coloured pieces all with distinctively designed high-arched handles.
On the other side of town in Muralto, 100m east of the station, is the austere and atmospheric twelfth-century Romanesque basilica of San Vittore, built over a church first mentioned in the tenth century and now surrounded by generic suburban housing redevelopments firmly rooted in the late-twentieth. Medieval fresco-fragments inside and the Renaissance relief of St Victor on the bell tower are a diverting contrast to the uninspiring views over the train station.
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