“Just don’t look down,” my guide, Mark Graf says as I clamber unsteadily into a tiny driverless cable car.
There’s no space for any backpacks or the yoga mats the group has been given — these are instead stuffed into a wire-framed basket on the outside of the car. With nothing to secure them, we can only hope they're not swept away by a gust of wind as we begin moving across the deep green valley en route to Rasa, a tiny mountain village in the Swiss Alps.
Part of the Centovalli — or hundred valleys — Rasa is one of 19 villages and frazioni (hamlets) that make up the municipality in Ticino, Switzerland's southernmost canton. Our journey to Rasa started earlier that morning from Locarno on a train route that Lonely Planet has consistently named as one of the most beautiful in the world.
The Vigezzina-Centovalli railway runs between Italy and Switzerland through the Alps, spanning 83 bridges, 31 tunnels and spellbinding alpine scenery. It is turning 100 in November next year and the journey — which takes in vineyards, stone villages, forests, chestnut groves and waterfalls — is well worth celebrating. Train travel is one of the most sustainable ways of getting around Switzerland — fitting on a day we've been told is all about indulging in the wild nature of the Centovalli.
After about 45 minutes, we arrive in Verdasio — a small sloping town at an altitude of 700 metres. Disembarking at its Mediterranean-style terracotta station house, it would be easy to think we'd already crossed the border into Italy. Instead, we remain in the Swiss-Italian speaking region of Switzerland, where south European influences prevail and signposts and announcements are all in Italian. Despite this, the railway system seems to prefer the Swiss order of operations — with carriages arriving and departing like clockwork.
Ticino's last car-free village
From here, we're on to the cable car, which was installed in 1958. Before then, Rasa was only reachable on foot via a hike through the hills from a nearby hamlet. Today, locals and hikers still come from the surrounding villages, but most visitors reach the traffic-free hamlet, which is about 900 metres above sea level, in the same way we do.
Disembarking from the cable car in Rasa, the enchantment begins.
Old wooden wheelbarrows stand like centurions against a thick stone wall on a panoramic terrace that overlooks deep valleys below. Waterfalls carve paths through the vales and birdsong peppers the air as yellow butterflies and bees hover around us and a mass of purple lavender blooms. Up here in these alpine surrounds, the 13th century village casts a calming spell.
At the last official count in 2009, before villages in the Centovalli were grouped as one, Rasa had a population of only 12 people.
“It changes a bit, so it’s perhaps more today, but there’s no more than about 20 people living here,” Mark says as we begin meandering uphill towards the heart of the village. We're accompanied by his wife Rosa — who specialises in yoga and meditation. Today as part of the Adventure Travel Trade Association's World Summit in Switzerland, we're embarking on a yoga trekking experience, but first, there’s history to be shared.
The ancestors of most people living here have called Rasa home from as far back as the 13th century, when they lived in the mountain village tending to animals. The well-preserved hamlet offers a glimpse into another era, a time of community living and a place where even today daily life is dictated by seasons.
“There’s only two main streets. It would be hard to avoid people, but it’s also a great place to disappear,” jokes Mark.
As we amble around the village, we pass clusters of rustic homes and a stone church with a towering bell tower. We stop to refill water bottles at a public pump, used by visitors and locals alike, and we pass the town's only grotto (tavern). It's a quiet place, with only one hotel. A small artist's workshop proclaims that classes are available — summertime tourists often rent a house and spend their days painting and learning pottery.
Yoga under an oak tree
Away from the main streets, the surrounding pastures brim with wild flowers and are framed by chestnut woods. This, according to Rosa, is the perfect place to practice some morning yoga.
Removing our shoes, we roll out our mats, all of which survived the cable car journey, adding our own splash of colour to the flower-filled meadow. Under the shadow of a towering oak — a tree that Mark says has deep roots in wisdom and strength — Rosa guides us rather aptly into a starting mountain pose. We take a few breaths here, drinking in the crisp autumnal air and pausing to appreciate the stillness of this place that remains untouched by time.
Moving through a gentle series of postures, I follow Rosa's lead. Curling my tailbone towards the sky and stretching my spine, I spread my fingers wide, harnessing the energy from the earth. My gaze falls on a lone white cloud, drifting lazily across a bright blue sky. I refocus and move into pigeon pose.
Settling into the asana, I hear Rosa tell the group to be conscious of the peace around us, and I take a moment to appreciate the fresh scent of alpine woodland, delicately interspersed with the perfume of wild flowers.
Embracing our newly harnessed flow of energy, we roll up our mats and continue to explore the village, passing homes with lovingly cared-for vegetable gardens and adorned with thick vines and flowers.
“Rasa is protected by the mountains on all sides, so it has its own little microclimate, which makes it easy for the people to grow grapes and olives,” explains Mark as he leads us towards a hill sloping upwards away from the houses.
An elderly couple pass by, greeting us with a friendly buongiorno before we veer off path and clamber upwards towards the crest of a hill.
Swing the World - a Swiss project to get people outside
It’s here that we come across a wooden rope swing — hanging from the thick branches of an age-old tree. It's a recent addition to Rasa and part of a Swiss project called Swing the World. Designed to encourage people to spend time having fun outdoors, several swings have been installed in picturesque locations across the country as part of the initiative.
Taking turns to sit on the swing, we soar out towards Rasa’s rooftops — the church spire disappearing beneath outstretched legs before swinging back into view. Taking in the postcard-perfect panorama, we fall a little more under Rasa's spell — our inner child becoming ever more prevalent in every swing we take.
From here, Rosa leads us to a nearby clearing just beyond some old stone buildings that used to be where the villagers housed their livestock in winter. Following her lead, we roll out our mats once again and settle into a comfortable position for some meditation. There's been a lot of research carried out on the benefits of meditating outdoors, with reports it can reduce blood pressure, increase energy and even up production of mood-boosting dopamine and oxytocin hormones. It is impossible not to be touched by the beauty, stillness and tranquillity when meditating atop a mountain village.
When we finally break concentration and come back to earth, Mark announces that we’ve earned ourselves some of the best food in Switzerland and we hike back down the small valley towards Campo Rasa, a restaurant, hotel and gathering spot — and one of the village's busiest places.
It's not long before we're sitting on wooden picnic benches, under the shade of a foliage-covered trellis, feasting on colourful salads — featuring vegetables plucked from the well-tended plots we’d walked by earlier. The main course consists of creamy polenta, grilled vegetables and bread crumbed cheese made, according to the waitress, from the milk of cows that graze on nearby mountain pastures.
As we eat, it's hard not to be transfixed by the view. Spanning across the valley and surrounding mountains, it goes all the way to Monte Rosa — the highest point in the Swiss Alps.
In Italian, this 4,600-metre peak’s name means pink mountain. And while that’s not why it was originally called Monte Rosa, Mark says it's truly fitting. “When you see it in the evening, the sunset sometimes turns the snow on top of it a pink colour, and it’s magical.”
Dessert has not yet been served when Mark stands up, glancing at his watch and telling us that we may not have time for it. “The cable car starts again at 2.20pm, so we need to be back at the station before then,” he explains apologetically.
On hearing this, a man in a flat-topped cap sitting at the picnic table behind us looks over and heartily extends his half full pint glass towards us.
“Take your time,” he smiles. “I’m still on my lunch break and the cable car can’t start without me.”
Up here in Ticino, the magic of the mountains transcends even the Swiss fondness for precision, championing instead the ever-changing rhythm of nature.