Any country that sells its classical music and reproductions of the Great Masters at petrol stations would usually be treated with scepticism. Italy is the exception; a country so enchanting that notions such as scepticism are as tired as the well-worn Euro notes you part with at the counter.
Travellers to Italy understandably feel duty bound to take home a piece of its soul. Even if it is a reproduction Giorgione bought at a petrol station in Arezzo. It’s also a country one easily can fall in love with. I did – by chance.
From Switzerland to Tirano Italy. A happy accident.
One day, after succumbing to a wine-induced impulse of which Bacchus would have been proud, I decided to take on the 2,328 metre Bernina Pass in Switzerland. On foot.
But I forgot to stop walking and – blistered, footsore and with a ball of wet papier-mâché for a map – ended up in Italy in a little town called Tirano. After the order, cleanliness and oh-so-charming floral window boxes of the Grisons villages in Switzerland, the crumbling buildings of Tirano made this Italian town near the Swiss border seem like a thorn among roses. Some thorn! I fell for it.
The many charms of Tirano.
Character oozed from Tirano’s colour-washed walls. A two-carriage red train click-clacked down the middle of one of the main streets. The peal of bells resonated from the campanile right through the valley.
From a pasticceria and bar, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafted tantalisingly out onto the pavement as I walked by, so thick that I tripped over it. Forgetting the heat for a moment, I could hear one of the most comforting sounds on earth: children playing in a distant schoolyard. I smiled.
Even before I chanced upon Tirano, the austerity of the Grisons Alps had given way to lush, sub-alpine meadows, churches of roughly hewn rock and jade-coloured lakes. By the time I stumbled into Tirano’s public square, the Piazza Basilica, I loved the place so much I was ready to stash my backpack and stay.
Amid the Renaissance buildings there was a bucolic slowness to life. Farmers from the surrounding terraced hills looked as though they had stepped out of a daguerreotype, a picture of yesteryear. The sight of laundry drying on balconies and children kicking a soccer ball in centuries-old streets and town squares was food for the traveller’s soul.
Real food – risotto with shrimp and rosemary – came at a fetching little ristorante off the town square, a restaurant with well-thumbed menus and wooden newspaper holders on the rickety outdoor tables, keeping the breeze from turning the chequered tablecloths into spinnakers.
The walls were nostalgically papered in 1965 Campari posters. It was the sort of restaurant wealthy group-tour tourists never seem to find. Tirano soon became my Arcadia. It still is.