Spanning a hundred valleys and a hundred years

Looking back at a century of travel

A bell tower that soars above the rooftops, standing out against the blue sky, forests as far as the eye can see, a village nestled above the valley crossed by a huge iron bridge. And on that bridge, a small blue and white train. A perfect picture-postcard image; so iconic and deeply rooted in the area that no one in Ticino could now imagine the Centovalli without their train. The Vigezzina-Centovalli Railway, linking Locarno to Domodossola, is turning one hundred. Its journey has not been without obstacles; the beloved train has had to deal with wars, natural disasters and historic changes, demonstrating, year after year, its importance for the valley and its profound links to the area.

Spanning a hundred valleys and a hundred years
  • A journey of a hundred years

  • It was 25 November 1923. Two trains decorated in celebration set off from their respective stations for their first official journey on 52 km of brand-new tracks across the Centovalli and the Valle Vigezzo. The Vigezzina-Centovalli Railway was making its inaugural journey between Locarno and Domodossola, marking the opening of the largest project ever built in the Centovalli. It was the end of a ten-year construction that had encountered a great many difficulties and the start of a century-long story of resilience and love for the area that has made the Centovalli’s “little train” the most beloved in Ticino and one of the most popular in the world.

The story of the Vigezzina-Centovalli Railway began in 1898, when the mayor of Locarno, Francesco Balli, submitted a request to the Federal Council for the construction of a railway linking Switzerland and Italy on the east-west access, in the hope of bringing Ticino closer to Romandy by creating a link between the San Gotthard and the Sempione, the two main communication routes across the Alps. The undertaking was supported on the Italian side by Andrea Testore, a teacher, scholar and writer who worked tirelessly to promote the Valle Vigezzo. The Vigezzina-Centovalli Railway’s third “father” was the project’s engineer Giacomo Sutter. Work began in late 1912, with the aim of having the work completed by 1915. But history would have other ideas: firstly, due to the bankruptcy of the bank funding the work, followed by the outbreak of World War I, work was almost at a standstill until 1920. In 1923, the two teams laying the rails met near Santa Maria Maggiore, giving birth to a railway that would change the fate of the Centovalli.

  • The 100th anniversary stamp

  • The iconic image of Intragna with its iron bridge crossed by the carriages of the Vigezzina-Centovalli Railway has been immortalised forever in a spot-coloured stamp to celebrate its centenary. The vintage style evokes the period of the railway’s inauguration and the continuous text of the frame symbolises the railway tracks. The stamp is on sale at all La Posta counters and the FART ticket office.

First and foremost, the Vigezzina-Centovalli Railway benefited the inhabitants of the valley. As soon as it was built, the railway allowed the population to set off along new paths. As work was being carried out, the Centovalli – which were home to 2,400 people at the time – filled up with thousands of young men doing different jobs who needed to eat, sleep and entertain themselves, resulting in the opening of countless inns, taverns and shops. Later, thanks to the train, the inhabitants of the valley were given the chance to broaden their horizons, work further away, go shopping in the city, attend bigger schools...their world expanded. On market days, the train was jampacked with people, bags full of things, food, trinkets and even the odd chicken. People would meet up, chat and swap stories, while the guard did everything he could to manoeuvre between bags of all sizes to check tickets.

But the breathtaking landscapes that pass by outside the window also attracted – and continue to attract – countless tourists, who helped save the Vigezzina-Centovalli Railway from the fate met by the Valmaggina and (almost) every other railway in Ticino during the economic boom years. It is no coincidence that this train line now appears among Lonely Planet’s ten of the world’s most beautiful train journeys. A trip to be sampled in any season as you marvel at how the atmosphere changes along with nature’s colours.

  • Taking the train

  • The train is the most picturesque and enjoyable way to explore the splendour of the Centovalli. From Verdasio station, for example, you can catch the cable car to Monte Comino and say hi to the friendly llamas at Lamatrekking Ticino, or the cable car to Rasa, the only village in Ticino that cannot be reached by car. And from the station in Intragna, set off on one of Pardy the leopard’s chestnut hunts, an adventure for the whole family, brimming with friendship, mysteries and clues to solve.

Happy Birthday to the Vigezzina-Centovalli Railway!

From 25 November 2023 to the same date in 2024, the FART is celebrating the centenary of the Vigezzina-Centovalli Railway with a series of special events and occasions. As well as the lovely celebratory stamp, circulating from September, a book has also been published to celebrate one hundred years of the railway and explore the history of the route that has won the hearts of thousands. On 25 March 2024, Swissminiatur will welcome a functioning model of the historic Vigezzina-Centovalli train, and, in keeping with the theme of trains, one of the historical carriages will be on display at the Museum of Transport in Lucerne throughout 2024. There are plenty of other opportunities to celebrate: see the centenary programme.

The Centovallina and some famous faces

The stuntman Plinio Romaneschi from Biasca threw himself off the iron bridge in Intragna with a parachute on 6 July 1924, jumping from a height of 70 metres and setting a world record. On 5 July 1980, it was the turn of Philippe Petit, the tightrope walker famous for crossing between the Twin Towers in New York, who spanned the Isorno ravine balancing on a wire just metres away from the bridge. But the most famous person linked to the Vigezzina-Centovalli Railway must be the beloved Dimitri the Clown, who, in honour of the railway that bore witness to his life and work, created the “Centovalli Centoricordi” show.

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