By Jan Barton
Alpine meadows, crystal-clear rivers, and snow-capped peaks greet the summer visitor to the ancient, glacier-carved Val Formazza in the western Italian Alps. During the warmest months of the year, which are usually July and August, Italians migrate to the ocean or higher elevations not only to escape the heat but also the huge throng of visitors making an annual pilgrimage to this beautiful country.
One little known but special village that offers a reprieve from the summer swelter is the hamlet of Viceno. Colorful displays of flora spill from the planters perched on window ledges and railings around the area, framing the mountain peaks beyond. Sun-dappled forest-lined lanes are beckoning for exploration with air so fresh you can almost taste it.
Viceno was founded by the ancient Walser people, a Germanic tribe who have lived in the Alps for over 1,000 years. In 1623 the foundation stone for the local chapel was laid. This tiny church is still being used for worship each week by the local residents. Some of the original stone houses remain and are still inhabited. Built without mortar hundreds of years ago, they are a tribute to the architectural and building skills of this age-old tribe.
The family-run Hotel Edelweiss is located here. It offers friendly staff, simple but delicious local cuisine from a daily or regularly changing menu, and spectacular views over the Alps and the valley hundreds of feet below. Watching the dawn of a new day as the sun rises over the mountaintops, painting the high, rugged peaks with crimson and then gold, is quite a breathtaking sight. From your hotel balcony you can hear the big Swiss-style cowbells echoing around the mountains as the farmers lead their charges into higher pastures to graze just after sunrise and again in the evening on their way home. From the milk of these well-fed residents comes the famous Toma cheese, which is semi-soft, slightly sweet, and extremely flavorsome.
The area is known for its healing waters and if pampering is what you have in mind there is a qualified masseuse on staff at the hotel, along with an indoor heated pool, Jacuzzi, and Finnish sauna to enjoy.
Viceno has no regular bus service; however, the hotel is happy to pick up guests from the nearby town of Crodo where there are regular services from the Lake Maggiore area via the major town of Dommodosola.
Further up the valley you will come to the picturesque and friendly village of Baceno. There is only one main street, making navigation for a visitor extremely easy. From there you have easy access by bus or car to various tourist attractions in the Alps.
The Parco Naturale Veglia e Devero, a national park bordering on Switzerland, with myriad hiking trails, is only a half hour away. At the main bus stop in town you can catch a regularly scheduled shuttle to the park. The drive alone is worthwhile, taking the visitor up narrow switchback roads surrounded by lush green landscapes and spectacular waterfalls. Once there you can take the circle path around the flora-strewn valley meadow from where you can hike to the milky-blue waters of glacier-fed lakes or, for the physically fit, one of several overnight treks. Even in July the surrounding craggy heights are covered in snow and photo opportunities abound. There are often a few resident nosy goats who always take an opportunity to check out the strangers passing by.
Another half hour drive away is the Cascata del Toce. At 469 feet high this magnificent waterfall is the second highest in Europe. From here the River Toce winds its way through the timeless and dramatic valley below. Just up the road and at the end of the bus line is the small village of Riale from where one can hike to several pristine lakes in the area. A major note of warning here for those relying on public transport: the bus that runs to the Cascata from Baceno only makes one run in the morning and one returning run in the late afternoon. If you miss that bus there is no way back. The area is beautiful and certainly worthwhile to visit but it is very isolated, with few amenities, so if you miss your ride back you are stuck until the next day!
For accommodation in Baceno there is The B&B Casa Fattorini just across from the primary bus stop on the main street. On offer is a reasonably-priced and very spacious two-bedroom apartment complete with large balcony and fireplace or double bedrooms with on-suites. Close by there is a petite but well-stocked supermarket which is perfect if you want to purchase the makings of a picnic or just pick up some nibbles and a bottle of wine.
Only one block away, with outdoor seating under a canopy of meandering grapevines, is the lovely family-run café and accommodation Albergo Valentini. A coffee or glass of chilled white wine complete with nibbles will set you back all of one euro. The restaurant on the ground floor of this establishment serves dinner to its guests and is open to the public at 7:30 each evening with the exception of Friday. An evening meal may begin with a rich and flavorsome cream of lentil soup followed by a melt-in-your-mouth turkey Marsala with roast vegetables, and, to finish, a refreshing homemade lemon sorbet. You can enjoy a nice red with your meal and coffee to end, all for the amazing price of 20 euros. Full board (all main meals included) is 45 euros per person. They have no website; however, to phone for reservations, call +39 032462015.
This ancient glacial valley is home to many picturesque hamlets and villages, some wonderful cheese and local cuisine, great hiking trails, and dramatic alpine panoramas. You will not find crowds or lines, just a few locals enjoying a quiet picnic and time with their families. The town of Dommodosola is an hour and a half from Milan by train and from there regularly-scheduled buses make the short journeys to the towns along the valley. Should you wish for a holiday which is off the tourist radar you will not be disappointed.
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