Campione d’Italia / Staring death in the face

Buon Giorno!

I am writing to you from my friend Andi’s place, back in Zürich. Tomorrow I leave on an 08.15 flight to London then to Toronto. From Saturday to today I was in the Italian canton of Ticino, and on Sunday I was in Italy in its small exclave surrounded by Swiss territory, Campione d’Italia. I took the train from Locarno to Melide and then walked across the bridge to the eastern shore of Lake Lugano. From there it was a straight walk up Via Campione to the famous striped gates:

I saw the casino and the gigantic new one which is completed, at least on the outside, yet not open to visitors. Cars here either have Ticino plates or Italian plates, however I did photograph one car with an Italian plate beginning with CO, the code for Campione. It was the only such car I saw!

Since it was Sunday, not much was open, however I was lucky to find a very small variety store which sold postcards and stamps. I bought some cards and stamps, and hurriedly wrote four from Campione itself. The clerk however had no idea how much it cost to send postcards internationally so she fetched someone from a nearby restaurant who knew some English. He told me that it should cost 1.20 euros (the equivalent of two local stamps) so I took his word for it and stuck two on every postcard I sent. So, I ask you, if you got your postcard from Campione, please tell me! I am also equally interested in the postal mark on the card. Does it say “Campione d’Italia” or somewhere in Switzerland?

Unlike in Locarno and Bellinzona, officially Italian but where everyone knows at least a bit of German (yet, as I found out, no French) the people of Campione knew only Italian (the guy from the restaurant excluded). I would always begin my questions with “Tedesco, francese, inglese?” and no one ever replied with an affirmative. I did however fully understand the variety store clerk when she told me that I could only mail my Campione postcards in Campione or Italia, just that “you can’t take them back with you and mail them from Lugano” (whatever that is in Italian).

I wrote the cards on the benches by the landing dock and watched the trains coming in to and departing from Melide station on the other side of the lake. After I finished I headed on my border run. I wanted to find the border markers demarcating the Italian-Swiss frontier.

I walked every single winding road in this enclave, as this map shows:,8.96627,1493m/data=!3m1!1e3

My map showed that the Swiss border was very close to the north-south road in the eastern part of the enclave and while I was following this road I could see a red signpost high above the embankment set back in the forest. So the explorer scoop paparazzo in me set out to photograph this sign and no doubt the border stone that went with it. I climbed the steeply-angled embankment, a dangerous feat as the drop on my right was roughly six metres straight down to solid asphalt. I found the sign and its stone, then proceeded to walk south, trying as best as I could to follow an imaginary straight line to the next signpost. I did find it and took two more photographic souvenirs.

In my attempt to find more border stones and signs I deviated from the path (minimal though it was) and found myself further south and staring at a very steep hillside above me, with a six-metre concrete embankment below me. I could not climb back up so I considered sliding down the embankment in the same way I had crouched and climbed a similar embankment when I embarked on my border trek. Picture these embankments as trapezoids above the road; I would crouch and climb up the angled sides like a chameleon walking along a vine. Likewise, I would lie back and slide down, using my legs as bulldozers, clearing the path in my descent.

However, the bottom of this embankment was far too high from the road for me to jump down. It didn’t look so high from the height I had been standing at, yet while I was sliding down I realized that any jump would leave me with one or two sprained ankles and perhaps both wrists as well.

While I was slowly sliding down, kicking the debris and soil from the guttered concrete widths, I was confronted with a situation that left me staring death in the face. I could see that the gutter of this embankment did not empty into the forest like the others. If I continued to slide down, I would send myself falling down a cliff into a pile of rocks below.

Many years ago I filled out a questionnaire in a magazine that asked me to write down the scariest moment in my life. Now I haven’t had any scary moments, really, and I had to pull my own teeth trying to think of something. My hands are like dripping ice right now as I type this at 01.22. I don’t need sleep right now and I can at least try to sleep on the plane. As I retell this story my heart is racing so I won’t be calmed down for a while.

I was stuck at the bottom of the gutter, staring at the drop of death before me. I could not jump down at my left to the road, and I could not just step out of the gutter and walk through the forest at my right. I was even whimpering, yet was too scared to be vocal, and too scared even to move. I had no choice but to return whence I came. As I was carefully balanced in the gutter (as well as scared out of my mind) I could not turn around and crawl back up. Instead, I backed up the embankment, praying that I kept a straight line in a path I couldn’t see. All the debris that was in the gutter I had kicked out in my slide down, so I had nothing to anchor me as I pressed my feet against the concrete and pushed my weight up. I had to be very slow so as not to lose any life-saving grip should I suddenly slip on the zero-traction gutter.

When I made it to the top I was so focussed on getting down safely, no matter how long it took, that I had no time to thank God for sparing my life. It was no easy task climbing back up the steep mountainside, as the dirt was so loose it gave way whenever I clawed at it and the twigs and roots that were on the ground weren’t alive or anchored to anything. How on Earth did the surveyors get up here to hammer in border signposts in the first place? In my frustration in trying to get out of the forest, I even wondered whose bright idea it was to place the border along such a steep mountainside in the first place.

Eventually, I did crawl my way back up, more though as a result of jumping up and grabbing something and trying to swing off that, as opposed to using a technique such as that of mountain climbers, who anchor their spiked feet in the rock and wait for a sign of stability. In my attempts I did slide back down again and got my hands and socks totally covered in dirt.

When I got to the road, I went over to where I had stared death in the face. Even from ground level, the jump that I would not make did not look that high. It was an illusion, the perspective of which changed immediately when I was confronted with the height from above. I followed the gutter to its deep drop, and saw treetops and rocks below. You know you’re talking d-e-e-p when what you see below you are treetops.

I continued along the road until it ended in a small park. From here it was a very short walk to find the sign and boundary stone in Campione d’Italia’s southeast corner, and there was an L marked in the top of the stone to indicate where the corner stood.

As I was so tired from my walking and mental ordeal, I had considered hitchhiking back down to the town, but when I saw that the road emptied out into a park, I thought of approaching anyone as they were leaving for a lift back. Luckily there were two groups departing and I asked for a lift. Two young guys in one group, where no one appeared more than 25 years old, could not speak any English or French or German. Now I don’t want to sound anglocentric here, but I couldn’t believe that two young European guys could not utter a word of anything in English to me. I was left with having to use my index and middle fingers to convey walking and to pretend to drive an air car to convey that I needed a ride back.

They said (or, so I think they said) no problem, and soon their friend came to pick them up. I sat in the front seat while the two guys whom I met laughed themselves silly in the back. The driver sped like a demon down the hill, burning rubber through tunnels and around hairpin turns like James Bond. I tried to act cool, not wanting to give the gigglers in the back seat any sense of satisfaction. Also, if the driver was speeding in order to scare the living daylights out of me, and if we did in fact crash, then he’d take all of us with him and not just leave me dead. We made it to the lakeside and I got out of the car, happy to have my life plucked from the brink of death twice in a single day.


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