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Switzerland: The valley that time forgot

A frog leaps from the stone path in front of me, diving – limbs splayed – into the undergrowth. Further on, a salamander tries to find his grip on the fallen autumn leaves, now a golden soup. The roar of the waterfall masks the sound of the driving rain. I inhale deeply, enjoying the heady scent of wood smoke on the damp air.

Switzerland: The valley that time forgot

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I’m walking to the Foroglio Falls, which race in chiffon-like drapes down a 260ft cliff behind the village of the same name. From my vantage point, Foroglio – one of 12 terres (hamlets) in Switzerland’s Valle Bavona, an hour from Locarno – looks like little more than a scattering of stone tiles.

The tiny cottages blend seamlessly into the landscape of crags and dense woodland. Built from local granite and dating mostly from the 16th century, they appear as natural a part of the scenery as the many erratics that have been left by retreating glaciers. Some of the cottages are even built onto these boulders.

One boulder has a grassy top and stone steps — I smile at the creative use of space. Although the former garden is now unkempt and overgrown, the picture of a 19th-century housewife tending lovingly to the family vegetable patch comes to mind.

Renato Lampert, of the Fondazione Valle Bavona, explains that making the most of the space available is key, as the valley is one of the steepest and narrowest in the Alps. Of its 1,335sq ft of surface, just 1.5% is habitable.

But the thing that strikes me most about the valley is the lack of pylons, which are so often an eyesore in mountain villages. Renato tells me that although there’s a complex network of hydroelectric power plants in the area, Valle Bavona’s residents decided against installing electricity. Excepting one hamlet, the valley was never connected to the national grid.

Residents instead rely on alternative means of power, such as generators and solar panels. And the valley has remained unchanged — apart from the single-track road built in the 1950s, the shiny glass windows, the plant pots full of scarlet geraniums that now adorn the cottages, and the occasional satellite dish. It all creates the illusion of a time slip.

“The most beautiful thing about the valley is the silence,” says one resident I meet, who, like many others, owns a holiday home here. “Although most people only visit during the summer, we often come here in winter, and you just don’t see anybody.”

Due to harsh conditions and the regular threat of serious floods, the local farming communities have long since left. All around are reminders of the hard lives endured: shelters built under erratics; stone stairways climbing into the mountains, so farmers could drive their cattle to higher pastures; bridges over ravines; and half-mile-long dry stone walls terracing the valley.

What a contrast to the cafe in Foroglio that I later find myself in. I sit beside the crackling hearth and nibble a slice of moist chestnut cake; and I wonder how many hundreds of generations have warmed themselves in this room, gazing out through the tiny windows upon the same eternal view.

www.bavona.ch