Friday, 20 April 2018

Short history of Maggia estuary: from nature to weapons

@Zeitschrift für Landschaftsarchitektur (1985)
The Maggia river rises from the Pizzo Cristallina and extends over 56 kilometers Sambuco Valley, the Lavizzara Valley and the Maggia Valley.

The estuary forms a wide delta, between Ascona and Locarno. This delta opens into Lake Maggiore and is constantly expanding. On the picture situated on the left, there can be seen the development of the Maggia estuary from 1865 up to today.
The blue box on the first picture corresponds to the placement of the former airfield in Ascona (see our article on Herbert von Karajan). 

The overall catchment area of the Maggia river is about 930 km2 with several inflows, the most important of which are Melezza, Rovana and Bavona.

Long Dry periods and heavy rains characterize the specific climate of this Insubrica region. In times, heavy rains swelled the river very strong, the ratio of minimum and maximum amount of water could range of 1/7000. 

The sediments carried from the river to the valley are also considerable, this is also why the estuary is growing in size. The strong initial slope of the river and the gravel composition of the river bed, combined with the sparse vegetation, have created a permanent erosion effect, which is also reinforced by the river-stream. The Maggia estuary is very large, compared to the rest of the Insubrica rivers.

About ten hectares of the Maggia estuary are shared with the municipalities of Locarno (93%) and Ascona (7%). It is a beautiful wetland and a river basin, which is periodically submerged by floods of Lago Maggiore (with its main tributary, the Ticino river) and by the floods of the Maggia river. The establishment of the reserve dates back to 1985. Since 1990, it has been included among the protected areas of the Canton Ticino, and this estuary is one of the most important of the estuaries in the Insubrica region. 

The land of the reserve belongs largely to the Società Terreni alla Maggia SA. Only a small part belongs to the public domain. Terreni alla Maggia as well as the nearby luxury hotel «Castello del Sole» are wholly owned by two families Bührle and Anda, the heirs of the Oerlikon Bührle Group. The Oerlikon Bührle family deserves a specific dedication on our Web site, but it is possible to anticipate few major aspects right now. 

Oerlikon Bührle acquired in 1923 a factory in Germany, entering thus the anti-aircraft defence business in 1924. In 1936, he founded a purely anti-aircraft development company, called Contraves (contra aves from the Latin for "against birds"). In 1989, the Werkzeugmaschinenfabrik Oerlikon-Bührle and Contraves merged together, forming the Oerlikon-Contraves Group, later renamed to Oerlikon Contraves Defence. Oerlikon Contraves was purchased by Rheinmetall, a German armament manufacturer in 1999 and renamed Rheinmetall Air Defence AG on 1 January 2009. On the other side, Oerlikon Bührle Group renamed itself in 2000 as Unaxis, then from 2006 as OC Oerlikon Corporation AG, which is today controlled by a company Sonova that belongs to Russian businessman, with Ukrainan origins, Viktor Vekselberg (1957 - ).

  • P. Bürgi, L. Paolo, G. Cotti, P. Vanossi, Delta della Maggia = Maggia estuary (English translated), Zeitschrift für Landschaftsarchitektur 24 (1985), pages 28-32
  • There are many possibilities to visit the Maggia estuary. The most scenic is from the left bank (Ascona side). You can park the car at Terreni alla Maggia and walk alongside the canalisation dam. The estuary changes its shape according to the water level. Definitely, it is the most interesting access to it during dry periods.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Another long gone castle: Castello di Tegna

Strategic placement of Castello di Tegna
Insubrica Historica has been investigating, assembling information about lost castles in the region of Locarno. Following our two previous articles on the Castle of Magadino and the Castle of Gordola, we have created today one more publication about the Castelliere of Tegna, which is situated at the strategic cross point of the Valle Maggia and the Terre di Pedemonte.

This is how the vestiges of the castle
looks today. @Wikipedia
The discovery of this castle is rather recent, dating to 1927. This was one of the first reports concerning ruins of ancient artifacts found on the summit of the Monte Castello, above Tegna. The interest in this discovery led to deepen the research with the first rudimentary excavations. These efforts attracted the attention of the cantonal historical authorities at the beginning of the 1940s.

In the forties, there were more detailed surveys carried out on these ruins, placed in a wonderful panoramic position just over 500 meters above the village of Tegna, allowing to bring to light vestiges dating to a pre-Roman period (around the year one thousand before Christ), in particular, several walls of a probable fortification, which took the name of Castelliere (in English: sort of a castle). According to scholars, some of these vestiges even dated to the late Bronze Age. Further clear evidences of a stable human settlement were traced back to the late Roman period. All this suggests that there has not been a single constructive moment of the fortified settlement that was left unnoticed. In other words, the defensive work had been subjected to various remakes and upgrades.

Castello di Tegna after A. Gerster
@Alban Gerster, 1969
The direction of the excavations was taken by Bernese architect Alban Gerster (1898-1986). On this occasion, interesting objects were found, including several bricks, fragments of ceramic vases, glasses, metal and glass utensils. The particular arrangement of the walls, with a square plan (22 meters on each side), suggested a military position (a sort of lookout post from which an eye was kept on the access to the valleys, important routes of the communication). 

The military position was designed to accommodate a small garrison. From up there, in fact, the view sweeps across the delta of Maggia and Lago Maggiore. At the centre of the building, there was a cellar well carved into the rock; not far from a well of water, there was a construction several meters deep, fed with rainwater. Another well, excavated outside, west of the main building, is still visible today. The walls of the buildings were in turf, an imported stone because it is not present in the valleys of Ticino. It is curious to discover that the remains of the prehistoric huts were probably destroyed by a great fire during previous eras.

  • A. Gerster, Castello di Tegna, Zeitschrift für schweizerische Archäologie und Kunstgeschichte - Journal of Swiss archeology and art history, Band 26, 1969, pages 117-151
  • Among many walks that Insubrica Historica has done in the region around Locarno, the hike to the summit of the castle is a very nice one. You will need to park the car in the centre of the village of Tegna and hike for about 35 minutes. The path is well marked, and you will enjoy a beautiful scenery from the top. Try to hike early in the morning, or late in the afternoon, you won't have any mist, and the view from the top will be spectacular. As for the scenery on the top of the summit, unfortunately, there is not much to discover, within ten minutes you will see all the vestiges - don't miss, please, the defence walls on the North side of the castle - direction Valle Maggia. 

Monday, 16 April 2018

Polish Army in Insubrica region: case of Losone

Polish-French Army situation by June 1940
During the German campaign in the west of June 1940, the 2nd Polish Infantry Division under the command of Bronisław Prugar-Ketling (1891-1948) was sent to the French region of Belfort to support the 8th French army. After being cut off from supply, approximately 12,000 to 13,000 Polish soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Division, crossed the Swiss border on June 19 and 20, 1940, south of Ajoie, avoiding thus the German capture.

The soldiers were interned in Switzerland according to the Hague Convention. After a failed attempt to concentrate all Pole servicemen in only one camp in Büren an der Aare, the Polish soldiers were dispersed throughout Switzerland. From 1941, barrack camps were set up in all Switzerland, where the Poles were interned until December 1945. In the Insubrica region, a notable size of Polish soldiers were interned in Losone, nearby Locarno-Losone-Ascona.

The interned Poles made mainly groupwise work assignments for the national defense, the infrastructure (road and bridge construction, drainage of swamps) as well as in the agriculture. A total of 450 kilometers of paths, bridges and canals were built. Monuments and commemorative plaques commemorate the involuntary stay of interned people throughout the region. After the war, around 500 Poles were able to settle in Switzerland and to obtain later the Swiss citizenship.

In addition to build and pave the road between Arcegno and Golino, the Polish army soldiers, interned in Losone during 1941-1945, worked also hard to reclaim approximately 100 hectares of land in the municipality of Losone between the "Saleggi" and the "Gerre". This hard work reshaped radically the landscape of the region in the mid of the 1940s. 

Blurring of the area worked by Polish internees.
Map of 1946 with the map of 2016.
@swisstopo (
Polish internees barracks Losone-Arbigo
Thanks to the Polish soldiers' intervention, the uncultivated area was, at first, shaped as an important agricultural development and, then, as tourist and industrial zone. 

The Polish intervention created the most important agricultural zone in Losone, which persisted for many years until the construction of the 18 hole Golf place (in the centre of the above map). 

Polish internees Losone S. Giorgio
Further in the North, in the 1980's, an important industrial settlement called "Zandone" was also created (left on the above map). The Polish work allowed to create the large Melezza camping and the Scuderia delle cavalli delle Gerre in the Zandone area. Between Arcegno and Golino, the Polish soldiers managed also to cut and pave a road, today still named "strada dei polacchi" (English: Polish road).

The Polish soldiers were interned also in other parts of Switzerland and have left unmistakable traces of their hard work. There are several the so-called Polenwegs, which are roads that were built by Polish soldiers during the Second World War in Switzerland.

  • C. Bernardo, Internati polacchi in Svizzera tra guerra, lavoro e sentimento, Armando Dadò Editore, Locarno, 2010 (link)
  • Strada dei polacchi aka Polish road, accessible from Arcegno. You can park at the nearby Pestalozzi Village, and walk the narrow road. On the mountain side on the rock is still visible the coat of arms of Poland, the White Eagle, in Polish named "Orzeł Biały".
  • The former place where the Polish internees had their barracks was located in Arbigo. During 1949-50 the Swiss military built a military centre for militia grenadiers, which was operated until 1973. The military installation was passed to the military sanitary service. Today it has been transformed into a reception center for asylum seekers.
Caserma Losone aerial view 1950's, former Polish barracks

Friday, 13 April 2018

Herbert von Karajan (Hvk): German virtuoso and pilot in Insubrica region

Not everyone understands the acronym HvK, even when we search on Google "HvK", there are not many answers. For Insubrica Historica, the acronym HvK means Herbert von Karajan. For many ouf our readers, this name doesn't mean much today, but HvK was an outstanding musician and passionate of the private aviation - and also Porsche driver - . 

Herbert von Karajan was born in Salzburg on 5 April 1909. Actually, his full name was Heribert Ritter von Karajan. After having studied piano, he rapidly understood that his professional vocation was rather in conducting an orchestra. Before the start of the Second World War, HvK had already conducted the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra and the Berlin State Opera, specialising in Robert Wagner's drama operas like Tristan and Isolde. When Germany was under the Nazy regime, HvK managed to survive in Berlin even though being highly menaced because of his wife Jewish origins. 

HvK took an important decision at the end of 1944 moving to Milan, Italy. He hided himself from the SS-Police in constant fear of being captured and deported. He reported how along with his wife was present at the horrifying show of Piazzale Loreto, Milan, assisting to one of the best-known scenes in the Italian modern history, namely the public display of Benito Mussolini's (1888-1945) and his mistress Clare Petacci (1912-1945)  corpses, both had been captured and shot by the Italian partisans at northern part of Lago di Como. HvK remained in Italy till the end of 1945, living in Venice and Triest.

Today airspace around Ascona
But why does Insubrica Historica write about HvK? And what is a connection of HvK with the Insubrica region?

We admire HvK because he was effectively living on the fast lane. During the time when Germany was under the rumbles of the Second World War, HvK managed to rapidly resurface. He had passions and realised his dreams: for example, during the prohibition of the private aviation which the Allies ordered in the post-war Germany, Karajan came purposely to Ascona, Switzerland, in order to take private flying lessons in a small airport. In Ascona - now an abandoned airfield - HvK learned to fly receiving the Swiss Private Pilot License. In the 1950's, the private pilot license (PPL) would cost him CHF 1'800.00 or EUR 1.500. The required flying time for the licence was about 30 hours at the price of sixty francs per hour. During 1952-1953 stay in Ascona, HvK lived in a small humble pension, which at present has become the restaurant. His flight instructor in Ascona was pilot Edmond Dougoud who was very experienced and reputed.

HvK aircraft ownership started with a Cessna 172, in 1956 he switched to a more performant Beechcraft Bonanza. Due to the fact that HvK lived on a fast lane, he didn't took too long to take on to a LearJet callsign: HB-VBR. HvK pursued further his passions in the aviation managing to own at least six airplanes and flying also a Dassault Falcon 10 Jet.  With the risk to go off on a tangent, we will just recall to our readers that LearJet was in fact a Swiss made design. The result of a failed Swiss Air Force airplane project named P-16.

  • at present the abandoned airfield in Ascona is accessible all year. During hot days, the airport is still used by paragliders' landing strip, offering a tricky landing as the old runway still creates a huge terminal effect. If you want experience a real thrill of landing in Ascona, here there is a possibility.
  • there is the Restaurant Aeroporto situated nearby, more appropriately Ristorante da Nani, a good place to eat some fish or meat, even if it is not the cheapest restaurant in Ascona.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

American hero and astronaut Walter Schirra with Ticino roots

Mercury, Gemini, Apollo: Walter Schirra, Wally as his family used lovely to call him, was the only astronaut who took part in all three early US space programs.

Why does Insubrica Historica commemorate Walter Schirra?

Because he was certainly an US astronaut but with Insubrica roots. His father immigrated from the Canton Ticino, more specifically from the Onsernone Valley, to Canada. Walter came back to Switzerland, in Ticino, several times.

Schirra's story or that of his ancestors began in the CantonTicino in the fraction of Maltino (see Malten in the map below), where there were few stone houses in a small village of Loco, in the Onsernone Valley.

Onsernone is still today one of the most gorgeous and mysterious valleys in Ticino. Its particular characteristics are thick forests and spectacular, white waterfalls. It is still a rather isolated place that can be reached only by a winding road. The region borders in the North with Italy and the Valle Vigezzo.

Onsernone was economically a poor valley from where the male population was forced to emigrate, because of this fact, the region has, at present, a long history related to the emigration, typically touching upon people who happened to be masons, stonecutters, chimney sweeper and soldiers by education. For example, one of its most remembered soldier has been General Charles-Francois Rémond dit Remonda who served in the Napoleon army with General Mainoni.

In 1868, Walter Schirra's grandfather, Giovanni Schirra, emigrated with his three brothers across the Atlantic and settled down in the US, where he married an emigrated Schwyzerin. Walter's parents remained in the States and never came back to Ticino. After having served as an airplane pilot in the US Air Force, his father earned money doing double-decker air shows, and Walter, born in New Jersey in 1923, was used to manipulate regularly, as a 15-year-old boy, his father's airplane stick.

After having studied aerospace engineering, Walter Schirra began a career in the US Navy Forces, including flight operations in the early 50s during the Korean War. So, he was recommended for higher tasks. In 1959, he was presented to the public as a member of NASA's first astronaut group. NASA hiring of Walter Schirra, meant that he was part of the legendary team of the first seven astronauts: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton and as mentioned Walter Schirra. On 3 October, 1962, he left our earth for the first time. He completed his maiden flight into space when he circled the Earth nine times with a Mercury capsule.

He became the sixth human in space. During the Gemini mission in 1965, he led, for the first time, two space capsules, and three years later, he commanded the first Apollo flight that became a milestone for the flight on the moon.In 1969, Walter Schirra left NASA and became a manager, independent consultant and commentator. He spent 295 hours and 15 minutes in space, flying 196 times around the world. In 2007, he died of cancer in California at the age of 84.

Schirra came to Switzerland between 1967 and 1977, at least, four times. In 1976, Wally Schirra was given the honorary citizenship, which was handed over during a great ceremony in Loco, by Bundesrat (English Federal Council member) Flavio Cotti. And what was Schirra's opinion about Valle Onsernone? In fact, once being asked this question, Wally simply answered with the following phrase: " In space, I've never been as frightened as driving from Locarno to Loco in the car. "


  • Museo della Valle Onsernone in Loco. Charming little museum, which collects historical artifacts of this remote valley.
  • Loco can be also the departing point for a gentle stroll, on Sentiero della Vosa. It's a hike, more a descent, from Loco to the river Isorno, and up till Intragna. It takes about 3h times, best walked in late spring or early fall. A detailed description of this nice walk can be found here.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Bronze Age Discovery in Minusio: historical settlement near Locarno

The Bronze Age (2200-800 BC) coincided with a significant intensification of human vocational activities which left to us many burial sites and tombstones, but there haven't been still found a lot of traces of settlements around lake shores and alongside alpine roads. 

This amazing human development was connected with an increased trade between north-south areas as well as a wider accessibility of the alps. The discovery of copper deposits played an important role in the first handcraft works made of metal. High altitude pastures helped to have a positive economic impact. New lands were gained so that pastures and first forms of agriculture could be deployed. 

There was an intensification of manual work in agriculture with the development of basic swing plow which increased population, especially, in high altitudes. Heavy negative climatic changes (humidity, massive rains), around 800 BC, had negative consequences for palafittes, resulting in substantial glacier volumes, even at lower altitudes. Society became organised, dividing itself on peasants and traders. 

@Insubrica Historica
In 2015, during an ordinary construction procedure of a house in Minusio, in the Canton Ticino, an exceptional discovery was done. It opened a new chapter in Prehistoric Archeology for the Insubrica region.

A few meters from the Oratory of the church Madonna delle Grazie, built between 1671 and 1640, at present the place is called Via dei Vicini in Minusio, the Cantonal archaeological service brought to light a major settlement referred to the Middle Bronze Age (around 1500 B.C.), which persisted until the Roman times. 

The settlement was situated on a rocky promontory, overlooking Lago Maggiore, above the actual town of Minusio. The discovery was unique for the Canton Ticino and a rarity in Switzerland. 

@Insubrica Historica
Insubrica Historica had a chance to visit the premises, admiring the rest of the settlement. The archeological society of the Canton Ticino stopped for the necessary time the construction of a new building. After few months, all measurements and studies being realised, the construction of the house resumed.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Picturesque Ascona and Brissago islands: Dynamite Disaster !

The quiet and picturesque town of Ascona, situated in the heart of Lago Maggiore in the Canton Ticino, had a bolstering dynamite factory in the past. Several explosions and accidents forced to relocate the operations to the islands of Brissago. However, the politics played some role, so that the company moved finally to Varallo Pombia in Novara, Italy. The factory managed to exist long enough, producing half a million of kgs of explosives, mainly used for the construction of the railway tunnel of Gotthard (1872-1882) in Switzerland.

The factory, producing dynamite explosive materials in Ascona, was established in 1873 in the area of Medere, most likely where, at present, is situated the retirement house Belsoggiorno. The factory of Ascona, providing the necessary amount of explosives for the construction works of the Gotthard tunnel, produced Alfred Nobel's dynamite under license and operated under the name of "Chavannes, Brochon and Compagnie", legally registered in Geneva.

Ascona, dynamite production sites
@map.geo, - map of 1874
Dynamite production was a sort of alchimist procedure, back in time, resulting in multiple occurrent  disasters and accidents. The first notable accident for Ascona happened on Thursday May 14, 1874. Big explosions took place in two depots with 150 and 250 Litres of nitroglycerine. Its shockwave was so loud that many house windows in Ascona were broken.

Throughout the summer, several accidents continued to affect the production of the factory. The nasty fate of dynamite production in Ascona culminated with a major explosion on December 13, 1874, when houses were shaken as if by a big earthquake, with cracking in walls and ceilings. A subsequent great fire took place in which 4000 kilograms of nitroglycerin were inflamed with a terrible echo of successive explosions, heard in a radius of six km. Worker Federico Cattomio, aged of 23, born in Paris, France, was actively engaged in the prevention of the inflammation and reported killed.

Schw. Bundesblatt on Ascona dynamite
controversy (1875) Link
The municipality of Ascona decided to prohibit reconstruction works in the area. Supported by the Cantonal Council, a law was passed in 1875 stipulating that any future explosive related factories should be constructed, in Ticino, provided that a radius of at least five Km from habited places was mantained. Chavannes, Brochon and Compagnie was obliged to pay a compensation of 16'000 Francs to the municipalities of Ascona, Locarno, Losone and Magadino for the caused disasters. 

Meanwhile, chief engineer of Gotthard tunnel Louis Favre (1826-1879) was under a huge pressure. Without a closely situated dynamite producing factory, this dangerous explosive goods had to be transported by sledge across the Gotthard pass. A pulling began. Favre attempted to coerce the local government to move the production to the inhabited island of Brissago, but it was considered too close to surrounding villages, also it was feared the negative impact for local fishermen. Thus, the factory had never commenced operation activities on the islands that remained empty till the famous arrival of the Baronin Antonietta de Saint Légier (1856 - 1948) for whom Insubrica Historica has a special publication in planning.

Chavannes, Brochon and Compagnie didn't stopped to look for a solution, most likely because of the fact that explosive business was considered to be highly lucrative even though the many disasters'. So the company moved to Varallo Pombia in Novara Province where between Porto della Torre and Panperduto, a dynamite factory was rebuilt in 1876 which managed to produce about half a million of kg of dynamite used for the construction of the Gotthard railway tunnel. With the end of the tunnel works, in 1880, the factory ceased its operations.

  • The decision of the Federal Council concerning the appeal of Messrs. Chavannes, Brochon & Cie. in Ascona, for the creation of a dynamite factory on the islands of Brissago on Lake Maggiore. (From August 11, 1875.) (in German: Bundesratsbeschluss in Sachen des Rekurses der Herren Chavannes, Brochon & Cie. in Ascona, betreffend Erstellung einer Dynamit-Fabrik auf den Inseln Brissago im Lago Maggiore. (Vom 11. August 1875.) (Link)
  • Die Eisenbahn = Le chemin de fer, Ueber die Natur und Gefahren des Nitro-Glycerins und -Dynamits, Heft 21, Band (Jahr): 2/3 (1875), pag. 193-196 (Link)
  • Virgilio Gilardoni, Fonti per la storia di un borgo del Verbano. Ascona. Archivio Storico Ticinese Bellinzona, Bellinzona, p. 45
  • L. Galli e C. Mazzella, Una fabbrica di dinamite a Varallo Pombia per il traforo del Gottardo 1876-1880, Bollettino Storico della Provincia di Novara, fascicolo 1 1970, pag. 82-96 (Link)