The railways opened up the Alps. In 1906, after eight years of construction, the first Simplon tunnel was ready. At 19.8 kilometres it was the world’s longest railway tunnel, and it opened a line through to Italy, the Italian lakes and the eastern Mediterranean.
In 1913 another tunnel, across the top of the Alps between Kandersteg and Goppenstein, was completed. This high Lötschberg tunnel linked Bern with Brig, the Simplon and Domodossola.
In 1982 a new alpine axis was established when the 15.4 kilometre Furka Tunnel finally opened. Stretched across the top of the Alps, this tunnel allowed the Matterhorn-Gotthard company to operate trains daily throughout the year.
The tunnel replaced a railway line that reached into the heavens, 2160 meters high, under the Furka Pass. No more did the Matterhorn-Gotthard train cease to run in the winter months when the deep snow glistened in a winter wonderland of snow-white magnificence.
In 2006 a new Lötschberg tunnel was opened. The Swiss call it a base-tunnel, and that’s exactly what it is – a tunnel that starts at the valley floor at Raron and cuts 34.6 kilometers through the mountains where it comes out in the Kander valley at Frutigen in the Berner Oberland. [snip]
For many years we visited the street market in Domodossola, the iconic alpine town across the mountains from Brig in northern Piedmont. ‘Oh don’t go there,’ friends would say, ’it is a bad market.’ Somehow we always managed to arrive on a good day when traders from central and eastern Italy would set their stall out, selling the cheeses of the provinces, countless types of salami, dried legumes, dried mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, aromatic breads, seasonal vegetables and iconic cured meats.
In the summer the mixed market would fill the streets, the area around the railway and bus stations, the small squares, the main street up toward the old town and its disused market square. Large custom-made trucks parked in the small squares, the aroma of hot food in the air would often complete the day-out if we decided to sample their delicacies.
Then it changed. The restoration of the Piazza del Mercato in the old town finished, the Saturday market was joined by different markets on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in the cobbled square. Now the Saturday market flows through the cobbled lanes of the old town from the Piazza del Mercato into the modern streets at Piazza Tibaldi and around into the Piazza Arturo dell’Oro, where the food market has its own distinct space.
Established in 1891 as a Saturday market, the Domodossola market is alive again! Every Saturday morning Giorgio and Claudia Battaglia park their custom-made food truck containing cheese, cured meats, olive oil, rice and salami in the Piazza Arturo dell’Oro, a small square off the main street up from the railway station. Sometimes, during the week, they can be found in the Piazza del Mercato. They now have a thriving business, and that is to be expected because this is a region that has immense pride in its local foods. Giorgio and Claudia know this. They arrived with their new truck in 2015 and tapped into that pride.
Everything the food artisans and food producers of northern Piedmont have to offer they have in stock, like the absolutely delicious cheese and salami of the Ossola Valley, and one ingredient that has slowly fallen out of favour – the fatty pancetta della Valdossola – an essential component in a dish called cuchêla, a pot stew made with pork in different preparations with seasonal root vegetables, including potatoes. [snip]
Domodossola to Stresa (train) 26 / 41 minutes
Once inhabited by Etruscans and Ligurians, the Divedro valley is one of the ancient routes across the Alps. Trekkers know its hidden secrets, especially the traditional dishes based on local produce, including the valley’s signature dish, a pot stew known as cuchêla.
Traditionally slow-cooked in a brunzin, the classical bronze cauldron, or in soapstone pots, the ingredients were layered and allowed to heat gently without any attention, except for the occasional shake of the pot. Discussions continue about the origins of the dish, whether it was a consequence of the arrival of the Spanish in the region, whether it pre-dated potatoes and was made with root and leaf vegetables and dried meat or whether it was adapted from stews made by travellers who came through the valley.
It is similar to the Castilian rotten pot, olla podrida de burgos, and even closer to the traditional stew of Madrid, cocido Madrileño, which contains potatoes. These Iberian dishes feature chickpeas and white beans, which are not in the traditional cuchêla.
Paola Caretti and Ivano Pollini, authors of Ancient Recipes of Valley d’Ossola, believe the Spanish influence is strong but admit that local tradition cannot be dismissed. The modern traditional Val Divedro version contains potatoes, pork ribs, fatty bacon, salami, herbs and vegetables of choice.
Lake Maggiore sits like a gleaming blue apron under the white Alps, a vision that is not always apparent from the train when it eases past Verbania-Pallanza and Sesto, approaching Stresa in full view of the lake.
The Italian lakes enchanted Gabriel Faure, who fled Paris frequently during the 1920s to feast his eyes on the splendour of its beauty. ’A vision rises before my eyes and I half close them in an effort to fix itand enjoy it to the full. I see lovely terraced gardens, bushes of rhododendrons, heavy with flowers, white boats on blue water, bright villas in the midst of cypresses, woods of chestnuts and olives. In a few hours my bag is packed, my seat taken. From the carriage that takes me to the station I look disdainfully at the remnant of mankind which stays in the Paris streets. I pity the poor souls taking the air on the banks of the Seine. And a few minutes later, seated in the Simplon Express, I feel the joy of the hunted beast in desperate flight who suddenly knows himself in safety. And I fall asleep, as Joffroy Rudel died, – dans des odeurs de fleurs, dans des bruits de violes – with my head full of the wonders that shall attend my awaking.’
Like Faure we wished for a radiant, resplendent sun the first time we visited Stresa in November 2000. The fallen sky that had followed us all the way from Vallorbe appeared over the mountains and we were glad to seek shelter in the Orsola Hotel across from the station slip road, just before the deluge. Through the mist of the lingering rain we found a restaurant in a narrow street off the lakeside road, and feasted on spada, tagliatelle and tiramasu.
The madame of the house charged us 80,000 lira (€40) for a wonderful room. We shuttered the windows in the hope that we would not be disturbed by the trains. In the depths of the dark night six trains thundered past in the silence. We never heard the commuter trains in the early morning.
Finding a comfortable hotel and an excellent restaurant is always the quest of any traveller, and Stresa was perfect. Sadly this magnificent old family hotel closed a few years later. What remains is the memory of a bright blue sky morning, towering peaks crisp with fresh snow, low lying wisps of cloud resting motionless above the gentle ripples of the lake. [snip]
Stresa to Brig (train) 56-103 minutes
These are edited draft versions of some the sections that will appear in the finished book.