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From Biasca, the motorway, the main road and the train all blaze a trail northwest into the Valle Leventina, heading for the Gottardo Pass and tunnels at the end. There’s no doubt that this is a spectacular route, whether heading north or south, but its heavy usage is its downfall – hemmed in by the high valley walls, the hiss and rumble of traffic noise from the motorway can seem obtrusively loud to valley-floor walkers and cyclists. Unless you’re planning high-altitude hikes in the tranquil mountains flanking the valley, it’s best to use the bus or train to scoot along the valley floor.
Make time, though, for GIORNICO, a small town 9km northwest of Biasca. It was here in 1478 that a Swiss force numbering six hundred defeated a 10,000-strong Milanese army, thereby linking Ticino’s subsequent history to Switzerland instead of to Italy. Giornico is lovely, a typical Ticinese village built on the gentle slopes either side of the tumbling River Ticino, with cobbled alleys running picturesquely between old stone-roofed houses, and a photogenic hump-backed bridge crossing to a wooded island mid-river, and from there to the west bank, where rises the campanile of the Chiesa di San Nicolao, one of the most impressive and atmospheric of Ticino’s many Romanesque churches. Its external walls are decorated with Lombardic designs, while inside is a fresco-decorated choir placed above a beautiful triple-apsed half-sunken crypt. Down an alley below the church is the Casa Stanga, an old house converted into the small Museo di Leventina (April–Oct Tues–Sun 2–5pm; Fr.2), with a few rooms of diverting historical bits and bobs. More interesting is the concrete hangar in the fields 300m north of Giornico’s little train station. This vast, blank structure is in fact an art gallery, La Congiunta, dedicated to the sculpture of Zürich artist Hans Josephsohn – though you’d never know from the outside. Pick up the keys at the Osteria Giornico on the main road (closed Wed). Inside are three rooms of lumpy metal reliefs and a few seemingly half-finished sculptures in bronze dating from 1950 to 1991. Peter Märkli’s deserted, deconstructed gallery setting suits Josephsohn’s stark, brutal art perfectly, making the museum one of the oddest, and most striking, you’ll come across.
Giornico has a couple of terrific grotti, both of them dripping with atmosphere and serving up the kind of simple, lovingly prepared food you wouldn’t expect to be able to buy. The Grotto dei Due Ponti is the one everyone goes to, perfectly located on the mid-river island, its shaded terrace overlooking the rushing water. Grotto Pergola, tucked away on the west bank of the river and south of San Nicolao, serves even better food, although their garden is less alluring.
Some 28km north of Giornico is AIROLO, first town in the Ticino for the millions who pour out of the Gottardo train and road tunnels each year heading south. Thankfully bypassed by the main routes, it’s a quiet town with a handful of hotels serving as staging post for summer journeys up to the Gottardo (Gotthard Pass), or into the Val Bedretto and from there to the Novena (Nufenen Pass). The town is also the trailhead for plenty of high-altitude walks, especially into the stunning Val Piora. Winter sees Airolo transformed into a small-scale ski resort. The town is also home to the Leventina’s tourist office on Via San Gottardo, open limited weekday hours (091/869 15 33, www.leventinanet.ch).
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