"They should have shot the architect," said the man on the station platform, as he saw us hesitating at the top of a flight of steps that evidently led down into a concrete bunker. That a rail journey so feted for its scenery starts in such uninspiring surroundings is remarkable. But that's the way they do things in Domodossola, the small town in northern Italy that marks the western end of the Centovalli Railway.
Domodossola has sleek trains aplenty. There are great expresses that purr north through the Simplon Tunnel into Switzerland or slide south towards Milan, hugging the west side of Lago Maggiore along the way. But lovers of great scenery and unusual trains head down into the concrete zone, there in the subterranean depths of Domodossola railway station to board the little train that rattles east across the valley and climbs into the hills beyond.
It takes less than two hours on the narrow-gauge Centovalli Railway to reach Locarno in Switzerland. We rode the route on Thursday, and were struck by how spring-like were the landscapes in the valleys at either end of the journey. Camellias, narcissi and honeysuckle aplenty, but between the two termini the railway serves mountain villages and remote valleys which still had lingering winter snow.
This is a tiny train, with seats for no more than fifty passengers, well-patronised by locals who regard the railway as a lifeline link with nearby towns. Brioche, panini and coffee were served on board, as we trundled east across the Toce Valley and climbed up steeply through beech-woods into the hills. We paused at Druogno, with its distinctive two-tone church tower in rich shades of pink and yellow, and at Re we saw the austere grey basilica that attracts pilgrims from across the region. We had stunning views of magnificent waterfalls, as the train followed narrow ledges cut into the valley sides.
Ribellasca is the last station in Italy, and from there it is but a couple of hundred metres to the Swiss border. Switzerland may now be part of Schengen, but old habits die hard, so the train to Locarno still stops at the border. Swiss officials climb aboard, and take the pulse of life on the morning train through the hills. Two policemen stroll through the train, a casual nod here and there to regulars they know, and - evidently satisfied that no-one on board comes with evil intent to their Confederation - they alight and signal to the driver that the train may continue on its way.
We stopped off here and there on the journey east towards Locarno. Verdasio is a slip of a place, but its little railway station is picture-perfect and offers fine views over the valley to the south. A lovely spot to enjoy an hour of spring sunshine, then on to Intragna, a tumble of houses and bright green terraces below an imposing church tower. The village is at the heart of the Centovalli, and a place that we found had an improbable association with the Gambetta family. Evidently, Léon Gambetta's ancestors came from Intragna and migrated via Genoa to France. That is the beauty of such slow journeys, stumbling on little communities such as Intragna. Of course, with several stops along the way, we arrived in Locarno later than expected. But it was fun. And we smiled as the train dipped underground on the approach to Locarno and ended in an oppressive underground station that seemed the mirror image of that in Domodossola.
This article was first published as a hidden europe e-brief. The authors are Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries.