The pasta is exquisite. The September sun shines on the piazza. All around the piazza are bustling gelaterias and chatty pizzerias. There are also sailors from nearby Lake Maggiore wearing notably natty shirts, all saying ciao e buon giorno.

Francesca, the guide is looking at Francesca across the table and frowning in shock.

‘Your train was six minutes late?!’

Pictured is Locarno in Ticino, which Sean describes as 'an idyllic corner of Italian-speaking Europe'

Pictured is Locarno (Ticino), which Sean describes as a ‘paradise corner of Italian-speaking Europe. 


‘Mio Dio. So it must have come from Italy!’

It’s a disconcerting moment, because the scene is so Italian, and yet, as the guide’s reaction suggests, this isn’t quite Italy.

This is Secret Italy — that is to say, we’re in Locarno in Ticino: an idyllic corner of Italian-speaking Europe, hidden away in the southernmost corner of Switzerland.

Ticino is where Germanic precision meets Mediterranean flare. You will find Ticino clean streets, impeccable Swiss service and, yes, punctual Swiss public transport. Which also means you don’t need a car.

Francesca leaps up to her feet. She’s clutching her phone with its must-download Swiss transport app (SBB Mobile).

‘Your bus will be here in 40 seconds.’

She’s right. Again. Ten minutes later we have left central Locarno behind, and we pull up next to Castello del Sole — recently awarded the title of best hotel in the Swiss Republic. How can you describe this idyllic bolthole? Let’s say it’s like a noble estate from somewhere in Tuscany — inexplicably dropped in a lush Alpine valley, and blessed with its own lake-beach, several emerald meadows complete with drowsy donkeys, and a vast, Edenic farm which produces figs, grapes, wheat, aubergines, chillies, walnuts, lemons, tomatoes, peaches, quinces and a whole lot more.

Local produce in Vini e Distillati Delea Angelo SA, a vineyard in the Ticino region

Vini e Distillati Delea Angelo SA is a local producer from the Ticino region. 

We will visit their vineyards that afternoon to taste world-famous Merlot. And their rosé. And their beer. Their fizz. Their gin. Other things that, to be honest with you, blur together.

Then we wobble to the hotel’s Michelin-starred Locanda Barbarossa restaurant, all rustling pergolas and Gordon Ramsay-trained chefs, which utilises much of this amazing food and booze.

Later we sleep — deeply, deeply — in the loggia-shaded suites, feeling like over-indulged minor royals.

It is so quiet that you can almost hear the risotto rice outside.

Delight: Brissago beside Lake Maggiore, which Sean describes as the 'cuckoo-clock-cute capital of the Ticino region'

Delight: Brissago is located near Lake Maggiore. Sean calls it the ‘cuckooclock-cute capital in the Ticino Region’. 

Pictured is Castelgrande, one of three UNESCO-listed fortresses in Bellinzona

Pictured is Castelgrande, one of three UNESCO-listed fortresses in Bellinzona

Next day: Bellinzona (21¾ minutes by train from Locarno). Little Bellinzona is the quaint, prosperous, cuckoo-clock-cute capital of the Ticino region, and it’s full of frescoed houses, quiet basilicas, cobbled squares, Benetton outlets, extremely healthy looking students on bikes and enormous, brooding castles that soar unexpectedly out of bare rock, right next to pretty cafes.

Ticino was the first city to be civilized by Romans. It was conquered by kingdoms from north and south in an attempt to control the strategic, trans-Alpine trading routes.

The Dukes of Milan seized a temporary but firm grip in the 14th century and built these three UNESCO-listed fortresses.

Castelgrande is the most famous. First, we must walk down a city-centre underground tunnel that cuts deep into the rock.

Then we ascend in a sort of Stone-Age-meets-Star-Wars elevator, which chucks us out onto the sweet green castle square.

Here you can tour the castle museum and take wall-top walks that offer breathtaking views all the way to Locarno, Ascona, and the neighbouring Ascona. This is the next stop.

The Hotel Eden Roc, right on Ascona’s lovely Maggiore lakeshore, is where high green mountains plummet into deep blue waters. 

Eden Roc recently underwent a renovation, adding a new wing to the hotel and a spa. The hotel has many pools, excellent restaurants and, at night time, one of most magnificent views on the Maggiore coasts. 

Picture are the Brissago islands, a tiny two-isle archipelago with a subtropical microclimate

Picture are the Brissago islands, a tiny two-isle archipelago with a subtropical microclimate

Barely half an hour from Ascona you’ll find the Brissago islands, a tiny two-isle archipelago with a subtropical microclimate.

We spend several hours touring the gardens with their Spanish cacti, Alpine roses, and Francesca who tells us the short, but interesting, history of the area.

It was prized by poets, monks, artists, philosophers, English aristos and an eccentric 1930s German-Jewish industrialist who, when he wasn’t tending this lovely garden ‘used to throw gold coins in his swimming pool for naked girls to retrieve. There are photos.’

It’s a fitting end to a tour of Ticino. Hidden among the Swiss peaks and lakes, this hidden garden is beautiful. It’s both northern and Italian, yet it’s also mountainous and Mediterranean. It’s also punctual and sexy.