A spectacular ‘back door’ to Switzerland through the Italian Alps

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Frequent Eurocity trains head north from Milan through the Simplon Tunnel to Switzerland. On the way to the tunnel, these fast trains pass by Lake Maggiore and offer magnificent views of the Borromean Islands. For trains bound for Switzerland, the last stop in Italy is the small Piedmontese town of Domodossola. The station here is remarkably grand, as befits what was once an important gateway to Italy, with all the trappings of customs and immigration. From Domodossola, it’s just another half hour through the Simplon tunnel to Brig, an attractive Swiss town guarding the northern end of the Alpine tunnel, before trains head to Bern, Basel and the north.


If you don’t mind missing out on the magnificent scenery around the Swiss-Italian border, traveling the Simplon Tunnel route into Switzerland is fine. The darkness of Simplon is no different from the darkness of the London Underground, although the Eurocity trains that run the Simplon route are much more comfortable than anything the Underground has to offer. But those not in a hurry can do much better by turning right at Domodossola and then heading east into the hills to find a beautiful back route into Switzerland using a cross-border rural railway.

towards the hills

“Turning right” at Domodossola means going down from the main station to an underground platform from where the train to Locarno leaves. It is a curiosity of this mountain railway that both terminals are underground, but the intervening 30 miles offer a feast of beautiful scenery and no long tunnels. In fact, some argue that the line eastward from Domodossola is on a par with the famous Bernina railway, which is the only other narrow gauge railway to cross the border between Italy and Switzerland.

The minor railway from Domodossola is called Vigezzina, although across the Swiss border it is more commonly called Centovalli. Two companies, SSIF on the Italian side and the evocatively named Fart in Switzerland, cooperate to run around nine trains a day from Domodossola to Locarno. The ride lasts just under two hours on a rollercoaster route through rugged alpine terrain. The Swiss border is about two-thirds of the way and from here the railway crosses into Switzerland before descending to Locarno, at the eastern end of Lake Maggiore.

Boarding I am surprised to find a welcoming brigade of black-clad chimney sweeps on their way to a convention in Santa Maria Maggiore, the highest town on the railway route to Locarno. As we walk out of the Domodossola metro station into the sun, some of the spazzacamini Tell me how the annual trip to Santa Maria Maggiore is a ritual of coming home.

It is a trip with impressive cliffs, spectacular ravines and some adventurous bridges.

“It’s a chance to return to the hill communities that sent chimney sweeps to the most remote areas of Europe,” says a freckled young woman dressed in the usual black professional suit. I make a mental note to learn more about the history of chimney sweeps and then focus on the passing landscape as we climb a series of spectacular switchbacks through little Creggio to Trontano and beyond. The railway quickly gains altitude to follow the southern flank of the Melezzo Valley and then descends again to the valley floor. There are stunning views of the Pennine Alps behind Domodossola, but the real stars of the landscape are closer: a beautiful mix of oak and chestnut forests interspersed with mountain streams and fleeting glimpses of pretty villas.

The pilgrim’s path

Our train stops for no apparent reason in Marone, a small place in the middle of a forest a few kilometers east of Trontano. The well-kept station building has green shutters. I have an Adlestrop moment, the scents and sounds of this Piedmontese outpost replacing the willow, grass and blackbird of Edward Thomas’s moving poem. The chimney sweeps say goodbye happily in Santa Maria Maggiore, from where it is usually all downhill to Locarno. But this is a journey of many moods and dramatic changes in the landscape. A light drizzle falls as we approach Re, where a group of nuns (and I) leave the train. The rain does not prevent me from making a stop to walk through beech forests and visit the Santuario della Madonna del Sangue, a place of pilgrimage since 1494, when a fresco of the nursing Virgin was hit by a stone and began to bleed.

When taking a later train on Re to continue the journey to Locarno, I am asked to pay a supplement of €1.50. “It is only charged on Vigezzo Vision trains with panoramic windows,” says the train director. Given that we are surrounded by rain and low cloud banks, this seems a bit cheeky, but I pay and am happily rewarded by the return of the sun and a beautiful rainbow as we cross into the Swiss canton of Ticino.

Ticino style

From the border it is another 40 minutes down the valley to Locarno; It is a journey with impressive cliffs, spectacular ravines and some adventurous bridges over the countless side valleys that inspired the name Centovalli (100 valleys). However, as we approach Locarno there is a sense of returning to quieter terrain and the lush vegetation that contributes so much to the character of Switzerland’s southernmost canton. We pass through orchards and vineyards and, as we approach Locarno, we find ornamental palm trees. Suddenly, with a blast of the horn, our Vigezzo Vision train plunges into a kilometer-long tunnel leading to the underground terminal.

Milan to Basel via Vigezzina and Treno Gottardo takes twice as long as direct Eurocity, but is a slow journey at best.

I spend the night in Locarno and the next day take the wonderful Gottardo Train via the classic Gotthard line to Basel, a route that (in reverse) was featured in 2022 as Guardian’s rail route of the month.

The direct Eurocity through the Simplon tunnel connects Milan to Basel in just over four hours. But to make the most of the trip, turn right at Domosossola and follow this remarkable mountain route. Milan to Basel via Vigezzina and Treno Gottardo takes twice as long, but offers close contact with the Alpine landscapes and is much more rewarding: a slow journey at best.

Travel information

If you’re taking this trip as part of a wider tour of Europe by train, your best option is probably an Interrail pass: a four-day trip in one month costs from €283 (discounts for young people and seniors). Tickets from Domodossola to Locarno can be purchased at the station and cost €20, allowing you to make a stop along the way (the €1.50 supplement for Vigezzo Vision trains is paid by all travelers, regardless of the duration of the trip. trip and type of ticket). Schedules and more information on rates can be found at vigezzinacentovalli.com. Santa Maria Maggiore has a chimney sweep museum: the Museo dello Spazzacamino.

Nicky Gardner is co-author of Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide: 17th Edition will be available from Guardian Bookshop from mid-February, and signed copies are available directly from the publisher.

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