The day: Sunday, September 16, 2007
The time: 7:53am
The location: Locarno Train Station, Switzerland, in front of locked doors of tourist office
The scenario: Already explored Locarno, Lugano and Como to their foundations. Have to find something to do until the 4:58pm train to Interlaken.
The tourist information office is still closed. I study the photographs on its door: multiple angles of the Swiss Riviera on Lago Maggiore, Santuario della Madonna del Sasso, a few small waterfalls, smiling families on mountain biking trails, and a sole postcard picture of an old double-arched bridge over stunningly shallow emerald-green-colored water. I looked closer at the picture to find its source: Valle Verzasca.
At the ticket counter, I asked the friendly and patient middle-aged ticket agent how to get to Valle Verzasca.
"Where in Valle Verzasca?"
"The bridge in the picture."
"What bridge, what picture?"
"The nice one on the tourist information door." (I couldn't take it off the door because it was put on from the inside).
"Lady, tourist office not me! One bus Valle Verzasca 8:02. You want?"
"Yes!" It was 7:59. I bought a round-trip ticket. I also payed for a 4:58pm one-way ticket for Interlaken and quickly counted the contents of my wallet: 8 CHF. No time for ATM. "Where does it leave from?"
"There," he pointed behind me. "Run."
The bus traveled through typical small Swiss villages: white-walled, brown-roofed countryside houses, barns surrounded by rolling green hills, bus stops next to little churches with a hand-clock on the low turret. Twenty minutes later the view turned into a v-shaped valley and the road followed a small stream, almost dry, on the left side. Thick-leaved maple trees shaded the road from both sides and gave way to smaller evergreen trees that grew in abundance on the canyon walls. The bus made its first stop in the valley in front of a tunnel (typical of Swiss road construction in mountains and valleys) with a big sign that read "Benvenuto a Val Verzasca". It took 23 minutes to get here. There were seven people on the bus, including me, and no one descended. There was no cute little bridge in sight, no hiking trail, no reason to get off. The bus continued through the tunnel and stopped on the other side.
Once again, no one got off, even though more opportunities presented themselves here. There was a lake where the v-shaped valley once was (apparently created by a dam I did not notice before) and a hiking trail next to it. The doors of the bus closed and the chance was missed to explore it further, but I began to devise a plan: I will continue with the bus to a stop that seems interesting and then return to the dam on foot.
Three people got off at the following stop (a red-painted wooden barn-turned restaurant overlooking the stream's entrance to the lake.) I thought about descending, but saw that the three people that stayed on the bus were prepared with big backpacks, tall hiking boots, two liters of water and hiking sticks, so I stayed with my small daypack and light hiking shoes. A few moments later we reached the bridge. I recognized it immediately and was the first off the bus. The hard-core hikers followed.
I made a mental note that it took almost 50 minutes to get here, the stop named Lavertezzo. It was close to 9am and I needed to be back in Locarno by 5pm. 8 hours is plenty of time to explore this bridge. I let the other folks lead the way. Two of them, an elderly couple probably in their eighties but looking as if they are sixty, quickly crossed the bridge and disappeared on the other side of the stream. They were most likely from the area and spent every Sunday trying to break their hiking record time from the previous Sunday. I'm fairly certain that their lunch break included a fresh baguette, Appenzeller cheese, a fresh sausage from the local butcher and an apple. Another gentleman, probably 40 years old and looking more like 60, carrying the same lunch menu as the elderly couple plus a bottle of wine, took his time on the bridge, took some pictures, and walked slowly upstream.
Then it was my turn. I must admit that this was one of the most beautiful sites I have ever seen. Maybe because it was not planned or because it seemed to not be very well-known (after all, it was a Sunday and only 4 people came to see it) or because it really is that stunning, I decided to consider it as one of the top 10 places to visit, in case anyone ever asked me.
Three options lay before me: 1) Return the bus route by foot. It would probably take two hours, and then what? Option 1 was out of the question. 2) Walk upstream like the middle-aged man. People always tell me I look older than I really am. Do I want to look like I'm 60 when I'm really 40? Option 2 was also out of the question. 3) Cross the bridge, follow the trail downstream and hope that it leads to the dam. I have 8 hours, one liter of water and two power bars. What is there to lose?
The trail started off as a very lovely stroll along the turquoise-colored water, but soon began climbing up the canyon wall. I followed. At a certain moment I passed a flowing water fountain that indicated that some sort of a civilization does exist there, though it might be invisible. And a little later I passed an abandoned cable structure to transport goods over the stream, which indicated that some sort of a civilization at least existed there in the past. The trail continued up the hill, getting farther away from the stream, sometimes passing very nice vistas of the valley below and what I hoped was not the dam in the far distance. I calculated that if I want to be in Locarno by 4:50pm, I have to be on a bus that leaves the dam by 4:20 at the latest, and since I do not know the bus schedule, I should arrive there 30 minutes in advance because it does not seem like bus frequency in the area is high. My calculation left me with only three hours to get to the dam, which seemed impossible from where I was. It was also too late to turn around.
Lost in thought (or maybe in the forest), I suddenly found myself in a cute little cliff-side town. The main street included a small white church, a closed souvenir shop, and little white houses with gray roofs, separated by narrow cobblestone pathways. I slowly walked through the town, studying the neighborhood, noticing how everything about it is white, pure and, in a way, perfect. So perfect, in fact, that nothing was missing - not even little front yards and flowerpots on windowpanes - expect people. Maybe this is why the town seemed so pure? I later found out that this town, called Corippo, is Switzerland's smallest municipality, with a population of 18 people.
I took my time walking through the town. First of all, I decided that no matter what I do, I am going to miss the train to Interlaken, so I might as well enjoy myself. Second of all, I wanted to see if someone actually lives there. It took me five minutes to cross the entire town in a leisurely pace without encountering a soul.
Almost two hours later I walked into another town, Mergoscia (I saw the name on the bus stop, next to the church, which indicated that the next bus to pass there would be at 5:25pm). It was a bigger town, a lower one, a closer one to the dam. It was also a pretty town, with big houses and big back yards, each house competing with its neighbors for originality, each with a different color scheme and different flowers in the garden. A couple just returned home, parked their car in the driveway and looked at me strangely. I looked back and waved. They smiled back.
"How long does it take to walk to the dam?" I approached in English.
Questioning gazes answered: "Italiano?"
I pointed to the dam. "How far?"
I tried the question in French. No luck.
I tried in Hebrew. No luck. I tried Spanish without knowing the language. But all failed. I waved goodbye and walked away. About 1 hour was left. I started walking fast again. The view of the dam was very motivating.
A few moments later, the town already behind me, a car approached and I stuck my thumb out without thinking. An old man who spoke three words of English motioned for me to jump in and dropped me off 4 minutes later right in front of the dam. A thick steep forest separated the road from the dam, but no trail was in sight. The man nodded and drove away. The time was 3:50pm and it seemed like the only way I could make it to the dam in time was through the thick forest. I stumbled inside, regained my balance, stumbled again, leaned over fallen trees and branches and made average progress. Then I saw a hat below me, and a head and shoulders and a whole person breathing heavily, slaloming uphill on a trail. He waved hello and passed. I waved back and pulled out a couple of twigs from my hair, then jumped on the trail and happily followed the more level ground to the concrete of the dam.
3:55pm. I speed-walked across the dam, slowing only to study the structure in the middle resembling a platform for bungee jumping, and arrived at the bus stop on the other side ten minutes later (the dam is a kilometer long!) to find out that the next bus departs at 4:10pm! Perfect timing! I went into the souvenir shop to pass the time, learned that this was the site of the highest permanent bungee jump in the world (220m), made famous by James Bond in Golden Eye, was disappointed to hear that the jump was closed for the season (but also happy because I had no time nor money for it), and bought an ice cream cone that left me with 5 CHF.
The bus arrived with an untypical tardiness of 7 minutes (I would have jumped from the dam without a cord thinking that the bus may have passed early, was it not for a family that was also waiting for it).
At 4:55pm I entered the train to Interlaken and tried to catch my breath. It was not easy. I was going to Interlaken to meet with friends for a rafting trip the following day. We were all tourists in Switzerland and no one carried a cell phone. We decided to meet at a certain hotel, but did not make reservations because we were not sure if we would all get there the night before.
It took me three hours to devise the following action plan for my arrival in Interlaken: take taxi to ATM, eat (I only had an ice cream and two power bars the entire day and was ready to lose consciousness), find hotel, meet friends tomorrow if they are not at hotel. My plan, which I worked on for such a long time, was foiled the moment I stepped off the platform in Interlaken. In front of me was a Migros supermarket, and despite the late hour and dark skies, there was a certain aura drawing me in. 5 CHF would be enough to find something to place in my stomach until the resolution of all other issues. As I walked in I saw an ATM in front of me (I think there was also a spotlight above it and heavenly music playing behind it). I felt like I was on cloud nine and walked forward carefully (the world was spinning around me). I looked right and left as if I was crossing a road to double-check that I don't run over any pedestrians and caught a sight of my friends entering an elevator. I told myself that I was hallucinating, but my legs refused to believe the message. They ran to the elevator and pulled a successful Indiana Jones just as the doors closed. No need for food. No need for ATM. No need for taxi. No need for hotel. I'm saved! These great friends took me to their hotel (different than the one discussed because it did not have vacancy for everyone) and shared their dinner with me. I told the ATM to wait another day and easily fell asleep after 15 speedy hiking kilometers, three stressful hours on a train, and countless repeated coincidences that I deeply cherish to this day!
This very true story (no incidents added, no bus times exaggerated) is dedicated to these wonderful friends who were there for me at a moment of need and with whom I had a wonderful time trying to flip over rafts on the way from Thun to Bern. You all rock and I hope to return the favors one day!