The 10 villages of the Onsernone Valley, in the southernmost Swiss canton of Ticino, are linked by a single road that seems only marginally wider than your outstretched arms. Supposedly there are 300 bends between Auressio, at the bottom of the valley, near Locarno, and Spruga, at the top, where the road runs out just short of the Italian border. In Spruga there’s a small car park and turning area. It occurred to me when I got there that this car park was the largest piece of flat land I’d seen since leaving Locarno. From this point you can continue on foot into the forest — across the Isorno river, into Italy — but cars can only turn around.
I’d been told there was a witch in Spruga and vaguely hoped I might meet her. But I met nobody. I saw nobody. Not a black cat stirred. The windows of the Bar Onsernonese, where I might have made inquiries, were shuttered, the door locked. The wind soughed gently in the trees and that was all; the village seemed to have something of the Wild West about it.
The Onsernone Valley is sometimes described as the wildest valley in Switzerland. Because of its east-west orientation, each side has its own microclimate and flora. The shadowy north-facing slopes are dense with beech, silver fir and larch. Portions of the bright, south-facing slopes, where the 10 villages cling on for dear life, were long ago terraced and planted with chestnut orchards and rye. But over the past hundred years or so, in which time farming was all but abandoned, these spaces have become a study in afforestation. They have rewilded themselves. Whether it’s actually the wildest valley in Switzerland or not, it’s almost certainly wilder today than at any time since humans settled here in the late Middle Ages.
Seen from a distance it looks as plushly opulent as emerald-green velvet. Up close it’s no less beautiful, though you become aware, very quickly, of a harder, colder, unvelvety reality beneath the canopy.
Among the few in the valley still to make a living from the land is Eva Clivio, a mother of two, a member of the local council and a professional goatherd. In this Italian-speaking part of the country the term for such back-to-nature types is neorurali. Though not pejorative, it has a faintly modish ring to it. But the neo aspect of Eva’s working life appeared to me to be limited to her ownership of a mobile phone and a pair of powerful binoculars. Otherwise she lives simply, rising before dawn to milk her goats and make cheese, heating the milk, stirring, curdling, straining, salting, shaping. In summer she leads her tribe from a farmhouse by the river in Vergeletto to the high pastures above — a couple of hours’ tramp into a zone that is virtually blank on the map.
I asked her if she thought this valley was different from its neighbours. “It’s wilder than other valleys,” she said. “It has a challenging, attractive and, for some, a deterrent effect.”
Until the late 19th century the Onsernone Valley was an important centre of straw production. For as long as the industry thrived it sustained the community and made other local enterprises possible. Even so, working-age men were obliged to find employment elsewhere for at least part of the year. The most successful of them were responsible for the valley’s churches and public buildings as well as some ornate palazzi, the existence of which, alongside simple stone rusticos, is a defining feature of the valley’s visual identity.
Among the most remarkable of the palazzi is Castello della Barca, in Comologno. As pale and luscious as whipped cream, it is topped with a pagoda-like tower that wouldn’t look out of place on a Buddhist monastery in the mountains of Sikkim. The house was built in 1770 for Guglielmo Antonio Maria Remonda. Like many of his forebears and descendants, this Remonda was dispatched to France to seek his fortune — or anyway to enhance the family’s existing fortune, since they were already doing well in the thatch trade. There’s a nice story behind the house’s name. Remonda is said to have bought, at a knock-down price on the Paris stock exchange, shares in a merchant ship believed lost at sea. But the ship was not lost, merely delayed. When at last it arrived safely into port, Remonda offloaded its cargo of silk at a colossal profit and hightailed it back to Comologno to oversee the construction of a fine new castello.
La Barca is significant for another reason too. In 1929 it was sold to Aline Valangin, a pianist and psychiatrist who had been both treated and taught by Carl Jung. She and her husband Wladimir Rosenbaum, a prominent lawyer, were well-known for their generous support of artistically inclined exiles and dissidents, whom they entertained at their salon in Zurich. La Barca would serve a similar role in the 1930s, providing a place of refuge for Ignazio Silone, Ernst Toller, Kurt Tucholsky and Elias Canetti, among others. “With some she takes trips to the countryside, with others she has love affairs,” one curtain-twitching contemporary noted.
A creative and intellectual community took hold. The typographer Jan Tschichold, historian Golo Mann and playwright Max Frisch all lived — separately — in Berzona. By the end of the 1960s the valley had begun to attract still other exiles, this time of the self-imposed variety — Swiss-German hippies known as Aussteiger (“dropouts”, approximately). Though contemporaneous with the Haight-Ashbury hippies, and sharing some of their preoccupations, the Aussteiger were a more disparate crowd, with little in the way of a shared ideology beyond a desire to get away from big cities and reconnect with nature.
Their arrival was not altogether frictionless. But long-term valley residents had to balance their annoyance with the influx of newcomers against a growing awareness of the more urgent threat to their way of life posed by depopulation. Better the kids of hippies than no kids at all.
At its peak, in the 1870s, the valley had a population of almost 4,000. Today it is less than 800. The high school is closed. The primary school has 12 pupils. The biggest employer in the valley is the old folks’ home in Russo. About 80 per cent of the habitable housing stock is owned by rich people who live elsewhere in Switzerland; many of these holiday homes remain empty all year round.
Mike Keller was born in Crana, an Aussteiger baby. Having spent most of his life abroad, he returned to the valley in 2016. He now manages 25 holiday-let properties and three hostels, including the improbably chic Villa Edera in Auressio, where I met him. He was recently married. He and his wife Eleonora Zweifel, a dancer and choreographer from Zurich, intend to stay put, to have children and bring them up here, to find a way to make it work.
We sat outside on a terraced lawn in brilliant sunshine, the peach-toned palazzo behind us, gazing across the valley at the living tapestry of the forest opposite, a great wall of green. Mike struck me as an excellent impresario for the valley and a canny diplomat, not without opinions of his own but attentive to the opinions of others — the old-timers, the Aussteiger, the seekers, the eccentrics, the neorurali, the second-homers.
I asked him why, in 2018, after a bitterly contested campaign, residents voted against a proposal to turn the valley into a national park. Surely it could only have been a good thing? “You’ve got to remember that this is a generally poor and risk-averse community,” he said. “There was an understandable fear of the pressure it might put on the valley’s limited infrastructure. Noise and parking are two common flashpoints here. There was a reasonable concern about the danger visitors might pose to themselves, venturing off into the forest — mushroom-gatherers, busloads of day-trippers. Then there was the example of Verzasca, another valley to the east, which, though not a national park, had become a high-profile victim of over-tourism.”
Nevertheless, he sees tourism as essential to the valley’s future. “It’s a particular kind of place. It’s not for everyone. It makes sense to market it to people who are going to appreciate and respect” — he waved an arm at the surrounding splendour — “this.”
I didn’t find it difficult to understand the appeal of “this”. While I’m not cut out for the rigours of life as a committed neorurale such as Eva Clivio, I was introduced to others in the valley whose set-up did provoke a twinge of envy. None more so than Nina Gautschi and Manuel Lanini.
In 2020, at a moment when they happened to be ready for a change, they came to the valley to help some friends move house. Nina and Manu were sufficiently impressed by what they saw to follow suit. They soon found a place of their own near their friends in Mosogno.
“When we arrived, we received a lot of support,” Nina said. “People took an interest in us. We had a sense of connecting to both the landscape and the community. This is unusual in Ticino, other valleys in the canton are not like that. I don’t mean that it’s perfect here, or that it’s always great that everyone knows everything about you and what you’re doing. But people are definitely more open, more flexible here.”
Together she and Manu set up Semper Vivum, a fermented-foods business, which they run from a former bakery. The premises are immaculate, a stainless-steel laboratory full of neatly labelled jars and bottles containing colourful delicacies in various states of carefully managed decomposition.
I told Nina that, for a pair of easy-going free spirits, she and Manu seemed extremely well-organised. What about other likeminded thirtysomethings? Could she imagine any of their pals from north of the Alps coming to join them here?
“Attracting people isn’t the problem,” she said. “Whenever friends come to visit us, they’re always amazed. ‘It’s so beautiful! We want to live here too!’ The big problems are the school situation and the property market. There’s almost nothing available to rent and the houses that are for sale are unaffordable. So you need either a lot of money or a personal connection.”
Demand for their fermented foodstuffs is growing. The tomato crop this year was especially good and Nina invited me to admire some freshly decanted tomato mush, a vivid, life-affirming shade of pink, full of bits and seeds. It looked marvellous, like modern art, and made me want to order a Bloody Mary.
Nina wears her hair with a severely cropped, almost Amazonian fringe but speaks in a soft, musical voice. “Fermentation isn’t only a process,” she said. “It’s also a philosophy. And the philosophy of fermentation is appropriate here. Time and nature. When you talk about moving forwards, I think maintaining a connection with tradition is often a good start, especially in a place like this. You just have to give it” — she paused for a moment, searching for the right phrase, as if for a firmer grip to open the lid of a jar — “a modern twist.”