The Lake Maggiore Express offers one of the most delightful European excursions that can possibly exist: a train through exquisite Alpine countryside which takes you across the Italian border and into the Swiss town of Locarno, before a gentle return journey by boat.
The day begins in Stresa, Italy, from where the first train departs. Enjoy a delicious Italian breakfast, then purchase your round-trip ticket at the station. It is not immediately obvious which platform you need to go to, but there are friendly guards to point you in the right direction. The train feels distinctly Italian, slightly antiquated but entirely charming, and it lulls you into a kind of trance as you chug through the mountains. The scenery is breathtaking; it is known as the area of a hundred valleys and the undulating landscape of the Alps certainly makes this a reasonable name.
After a change to the slightly antiquated but charming Centovalli train in Domodossola, the first real stop is in Santa Maria Maggiore – a town still within the Italian border, but which has a Swiss feel to it, a sign that here in the Alps, boundaries are blurred. On my trip, there was plenty of time to wander round the sleepy streets and stop for coffee before we had to get the next train, and this is well worth doing. The chalet-style buildings with their wooden shutters and pots of geraniums make for delightful photos. The locals here are friendly, if quiet; again, more Swiss in demeanour than Italian.
After about an hour and a half, which is just the right amount of time to spend here, it will probably be time to return to the little train station and await the next train, which takes you across the border. You need to take your passport with you just in case there is a check at the border, but this only happens sporadically and certainly in our case, we didn’t even realize we had crossed the border until we pulled into Locarno.
Suddenly, we found ourselves in the first major town of the trip, a place with an almost metropolitan feel. Located right at the northern edge of Lake Maggiore, Locarno is a historic town and it still has a sixties vibe to it, with those buildings which were once grand and are now pleasant hotels with a vaguely musty air. The views of the lake are spectacular and the main square is very pretty, lined with restaurants and cafes, making it the perfect spot for lunch.
Although the official currency here is the Swiss Franc, this close to the Italian border, Euros are also accepted in most places. It is not the cheapest place to eat, but nor is it completely unreasonable; a meal in most of the central restaurants averages at around $30.
After a leisurely lunch and a wander around Locarno, the afternoon brings the greatest treat yet: the boat trip back to Italy. The boat departs at about 3 pm from the dock. There is an open top deck, complete with seats, where you can sit and soak up the sun. I think that boat trip was the most blissful afternoon I have ever had, with nothing to do but gaze out across the lake. At various points, chatter would be struck up among passengers, but then we would lull back into quiet, enjoying the peace. Sailboats drifted by, the sun slowly got lower in the sky.
The boat stops at various towns along the way back to Stresa, which is on the other side of the lake, so by the time the Borromean islands came into view, the sun was setting, making the sky glow orange. It was with some reluctance that I disembarked from the boat in Stresa, though by that time dusk was settling and it was growing chilly. It was been a perfect day.
The Lake Maggiore Express runs from April 1st until October 14, 2012. Tickets cannot currently be purchased online, except in the case of large groups, but tickets for the service are readily available on the day you wish to travel.
Photo Credit: All photos are the author’s own.