It is raining when I visit Valle Bavona – really pouring.
But I can’t imagine a cosier place to be in the wet and cold than here, in a stone room with wood-beamed ceiling and crackling fire, a steaming mug of tea and a slice of chestnut cake in front of me.
Through the small window of the osteria (the local name for a café-restaurant), I can see the collection of mostly 16th century granite cottages that make up Foroglio, one of 12 terre (hamlets) in the 12-kilometre-long valley.
Beyond the steel grey rooftops, the Foroglio Falls race down a 130-metre cliff, ribbons of water sweeping out from beneath the low-lying cloud and culminating in a basin of spray.
Notwithstanding their shiny glass windows and an occasional satellite dish – and the single-track road that runs past them – the properties have a changeless quality: since Valle Bavona’s residents refused the installation of electricity in the 1950s, no new buildings have been built.
“They thought electricity was a luxury they could do without,” says my guide Renato Lampert, of Fondazione Valle Bavona, a non-profit organization that promotes the protection of the valley.
“Apart from San Carlo at its head, the valley was never connected to the national grid.”
As I tuck into my cake, I can’t help but wonder how the osteria, called La Froda, and the scattering of grottos and guesthouses operating in the valley, do without.
“It is relatively demanding to run a business in a valley with no electricity,” says Demetra Giovanettina, of La Froda, which opened in 1928.
“It is true that part of the valley’s magic lies in living this way, but for many people that magic lasts only for a few days before cracks in this idyllic world appear,” Giovanettina says.
“In other places you can simply switch on your lights in the morning. For us, there is a complicated procedure behind doing this, involving generators and solar cells.”
Life is easier than in times-gone-by, however, when farmers scratched out a living in this difficult terrain.
Laced along the valley are terraces with stone walls and tens of thousands of steps up steep slopes that farmers used to drive their cattle to higher pastures in the summer.
Eighty percent of the valley, which is one of the steepest and narrowest in the Alps, is higher than 1,400 metres above sea level.
“Just 1.5 per cent of Valle Bavona’s 124 square kilometre surface area is inhabitable,” says Lampert.
He points with a smile at a now unkempt garden atop one of many boulders left behind by retreating glaciers.
I notice that even Foroglio’s cottages are built onto similar massive rocks to make the most of the space between the walls of the mountains and the dense woodland.
But lack of space was just one of the problems faced by the former farming community.
The farmers left long ago, driven out by the harsh conditions and regular threat of serious floods, avalanches and landslides.
Most properties are now second homes, used in the summer season when conditions are easier.
“About 600 people spend the summer here,” says Lampert, “compared to between just two and three in the winter.”
That explains why it is so quiet when I visit: it is still low season, and I didn’t encounter a soul until I entered La Froda.
But that was about to change. Since 1500, the first Sunday in May has marked the official procession into the valley for the summer.
The so-called ‘Processione di Gannariente’ is a tradition rooted in a time when families’ livelihoods depended on a good harvest.
Today, around 400 people take part, singing and praying that it will be a good season.
“My curiosity has led me to take part in the procession twice,” says Giovenettina.
“The group meets in Cavergno, at the foot of the valley, at 6 a.m., and continues to Gannariente, singing hymns along the way.”
Following the parade, life returns to the valley until November. But it will still remain quiet until tourists arrive in August, Lampert says.
He adds that high summer is a magnificent time to visit: “The valley is covered with flowers such as trollius, winter roses, edelweiss and orange lilies.”
That is tricky for me to picture given the rain, but the valley, starting to look lush and green, is special today in its own way.
As I make my way outside, inhaling the scent of wood smoke, I realize I am looking at a view that has likely not changed since the 16th century – until a solitary car drives past and I snap out of my time slip.
Find out more at www.bavona.ch and www.ticino.ch