I’m standing near the towering Foroglio waterfall, where a fine spray rises in tandem with a deafening roar that fills my ears. The falls cascade 330 feet down a steep moraine slope, the waters narrowing through boulders and rocks before spilling into the Bavona River that flows along the valley floor. The sound echoes off the tall rocky cliffs of this glacial valley, reminding visitors like me to Ticino, a remote region in southern Switzerland, that nature’s forces shape not only the landscape but also the lives of the people trying to live in it.
The falls loom above the small and photogenic namesake village, made up of a tight cluster of gray stone cottages called rustici. Wandering through the narrow laneways between the 15th-century church, houses, and stables, I can see clearly that the rustici were built from local stone in a simple, modest style.
What I can’t see is any trace of electrical wires, poles, or buzzing transformers. There are none to be found. Like most of the Bavona Valley, Foroglio is off the grid.
A glimpse at life in a challenging landscape
Foroglio is one of 12 villages, called terre, that are nearly equidistant from one another by about a half mile in the Bavona Valley, along a winding road that was only paved after 1950. Bavona’s villages are spread over 7.5 miles and showcase more than stone cottages and village centers. A two-mile walk from Foroglio to Fontana takes me past several votive chapels, splüi (buildings beneath stone outcrops), “hanging meadows” on boulders, forests of birch and chestnut trees, grassy fields of grazing sheep and cows, and the occasional grotto serving refreshments to passing hikers exploring the trails up and down the valley.
Not long ago, the valley’s forbidding winter weather and lack of sunlight ensured that habitation was only possible in summer. The migratory pattern of human movement in and out of the valley was focused on getting animals to alpine pastures, a practice that continues today, echoing centuries of tradition still going strong in many Alpine villages in Switzerland.
“Farmers would come here between winters, which were spent in Cavergno,” says Veronica Lafranchi, herself a summer resident and owner of a rustico in Roseto, north of Foroglio. “This would guarantee that they would have enough grass to feed their goats and cows.”
Today, an information trail illuminating visitors about the tradition of taking cows up the mountain in the Bavona Valley begins in the villages of Cavergno and Bignasco. As I walk along a portion of path, I notice the landscape is still marked by transhumance activity, with flowering meadows and fields of grass divided by low walls of graystone that pen grazing livestock. Despite the poor quality of the soil, grapevines curl over fences, framing fields that were once seeded with rye, millet, and potatoes but now serve as pastures and picturesque backdrops for my photographs.
A sustainable choice to remain in harmony with the land
The seasonal rhythm of pastoral life in the valley changed in the 1950s. The development of hydroelectric dams and power stations above the valley gave residents the chance to connect to Switzerland’s electrical grid. However, apart from the village of San Carlo, which accepted power (including for its cable car linking it to the lakeside hamlet of Robiei) at a discounted rate not extended to its neighbors, the local Bavonesi voted against it, wanting the valley to stay as it was.
As a result of residents choosing to continue life without the luxury of electricity, the isolated valley remains much the same today as it has for centuries.
“Val Bavona is one of the most extraordinary places in Ticino,” notes Anna Bezzola, local guide and owner of Alps and Beyond. The fairy-tale setting and its unique architecture illuminate “how people have lived in harmony and symbiosis with the land and with nature, and their ingenious survival techniques.”
In the 21st century, residents continue to adapt. For generations, Veronica Lafranchi’s family has owned a rustico in the village of Roseto that dates to 1579. The family opens the cottage in spring and uses solar panels and candlelight to illuminate and power the home. For cooking, the village’s 50 inhabitants tap into a centralized natural gas tank that replaced the more hazardous and wasteful transport of individual cylinders.
This simpler, more sustainable way of life has offered a respite for Lafranchi and her family, particularly during the past two years, when a good portion of their holidays were spent in the village and exploring the valley.
An overnight stay in a village rustico
While the valley’s remoteness, not to mention the pandemic, has kept visitors at a distance, there are options for guests to experience life as it was and still is, even if only on a day trip or short holiday. The Bavona Valley Foundation hosts “working holidays” where volunteers can work alongside residents to restore landscapes and learn how Bavonesi lived in harmony with the seasons. Travelers can stay in a village rustico and experience the peaceful environment and layers of culture, tradition, and living history found in the Bavona Valley.
How to get here
From Locarno Station in the city of Locarno, take Bus 315 toward Cavergno, Paese. Get off at stop Bignasco, Posta. Board Bus 333 to San Carlo. The trip takes approximately 90 minutes.