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Eden on earth

A magnet for artists, poets, writers and esoterics since the early 20th century, Lake Maggiore continues to attract the creative set and modern day tourists to its shores in Locarno, Ascona or to Monte Verità to while away summer in this most charming corner of Ticino.

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Ascona’s Castello del Sole is a rural retreat of a more sophisticated variety. Set across 150 hectares of land, the Terreni alla Maggia houses the luxury hotel favoured by modern-day travellers with a more refined taste. The neighbouring nature reserve, the Foce della Maggia, is a rarity among Switzerland’s very few intact river deltas. During my first afternoon stroll, the vast and tranquil grounds evoke mixed memories of South African wineries and Mexican haciendas. A section of the nature reserve remains inaccessible, as it is home to sixty of the two hundred bird species that nest in the Foce della Maggia. Among these are the little bittern, the little ringed plover, the great reed warbler, the iridescent kingfisher, the barn swallow, and a colony of house martins.

Located next to the marshy bird sanctuary, an alluring sandy bay lays exclusive to guests of the ‘Castello’. The route to this secluded lakefront nook takes me past rows of apple trees and a wheat field. A large day bed adorned with colourful cushions sits lonely on the lawn, the afternoon breeze gently playing with its gossamer white curtains. As my robe stays behind on one of the sun loungers, I walk on the fine sand into the crystal clear waters of the lake. It’s just me and a pair of mallard ducks as I swim out across the mirror-smooth surface. Is this what paradise looks like? Indeed, at the geographically lowest point in Switzerland, with a view of the 4,600-metre-high Dufourspitze, I find myself in a paradoxical position of feeling very close to heaven.

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As the evening draws in, this feeling intensifies as I dine in the charming courtyard. I am served by Mattias Roock, chef of Locanda Barbarossa, the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant. His unique garden menu sapori del nostro orto is a culinary delight of seven courses produced solely and wholly from yields grown on the property, right down to the asparagus risotto made from his own Loto rice. Earlier that day, I had enjoyed a personal tour of the chef’s very own Eden. I was shown around the extensive vegetable garden featuring 28 tomato varieties promising to harvest red, yellow, black and striped tomatoes. I marvelled at the thriving oxheart and zebra tomatoes, the beautiful Siberian cherry trees in full blossom and the yuzu lemons. Yuzu lemons grow well here thanks to the southerly winds, as do the kaffir limes that are required to conjure up the must-have, signature Southeast Asian flavours of the chef’s cuisine. And then there’s the Szechuan pepper, which accompanies tonight’s first course, the delicious lake fish, with wild garlic and radish.

The benefits of the climatic conditions on Lake Maggiore spread far wider than the gardens at Castello del Sole. The Brissago Islands in the middle of the lake are also blessed with impressive vegetation. In 1885, Baroness Antoinette de Saint Léger relocated her residence here from the mainland and created the most exquisite and richest botanical garden in Ticino. The following day, a boat takes me to visit the larger of the two islands, the Isola di Sant’Apollinare. A mere twenty minute ride across the blue-green lake from the quaint town of Ascona rewards me with an unexpected botanical world tour: Protea, Gazania, Watsonia, Agapanthus, and Lion’s Tail from South Africa; Central American Magnolias; Australian eucalyptus trees bursting high into the sky along with its native broom heather, and acacias. Then there are shrub veronica, club lily, string trees from New Zealand, Far Eastern hemp palms, camellias, Japanese bananas, bamboo, and ginkgo. Too many to recount here, as the garden is home to no less than 1,600 plant species! I bathe in the shade of abundant greenery, marvel at orchids, soak up the sweet scent of the blossoms, observe marsh turtles, and carefully experience the feel of the hairy leaves and ancient trunks.

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The morning truly flies by. I decide to return to the hotel for a light lunch on the shady terrace of the Al Parco restaurant. Suitably fed, I enjoy a treatment at the spa, or more precisely, the house’s signature treatment: the VinoAqua therapy. This peeling uses grape seeds, skins, and vine leaves from the hotel’s vineyard, the only one on the Terreni alla Maggia. My skin is rendered as soft as velvet as I relax on my private terrace with a glass of Bondola Rosé. The late afternoon sun conjures up cherry-red reflections from the glass of wine, which exudes pink grapefruit and cassis notes. As dusk sets in, I am rewarded by that deep sense of happiness that surfaces after satisfying a long-held yearning.

Words Ilona Marx
Photos Antonina Gern

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