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In search of a Swiss master: On the trail of Giacometti

Alberto Giacometti was a mountain goat. As a boy he disappeared into the meadows above the village of Stampa in Bregaglia near the Swiss-Italian border.

When the sun was high he daydreamed in a cave in the hillside. A farmer tried to employ him in the fields but the future painter and sculptor just gazed at the sky.

Delightful: Soglio is almost as perfect a Swiss village as you can imagine, endlessly tranquil

No wonder when the air is so clear, the sky so improbably blue, the peaks white with snow as late as May.

Arrive in Stampa and you straight away want to be sketching, taking photographs, lacing your walking boots.

And with a major new retrospective of the artist at Tate Modern in London, there’s no better time to follow in his footsteps.

A city on the water: The underrated city of Zurich is also a place to trace the Giacometti tale

A city on the water: The underrated city of Zurich is also a place to trace the Giacometti tale

As a young man, holidaying with his family by the lake at nearby Maloja, Giacometti went hiking with his brother Diego up mountain passes and across glaciers. Both wore three-piece tweed suits.

Like any goat, Alberto was stubborn, determined. While making his name as an artist in Geneva, Paris and New York, he worked with ferocious concentration, smoking all the time. One patron said that sitting for a portrait by him was like having your skin pulled back from its skull, such was the intensity of his focus.

He stretched the human body to its limit with thin, tense figures reduced to the sparest skeletons. They are haunting presences in the galleries of Zurich’s Kunsthaus gallery — the place to start for Giacometti pilgrims, with its survey of the artist’s life and work.

Here you see his early portrait heads, inspired by Picasso’s Chestnut held every try a tipple beer or follow a chestnut Cubism; his gaunt sculpture The Walking Man (1947); and a pensive sketch of his mother Annetta (1951).

Giacometti once presented her with three versions of a painted vase of flowers, some coloured, some monochrome. She picked the grey one, because she said: ‘What do you know about colour?’

The Marktgasse Hotel is minutes from the Grossmünster cathedral with its stained glass windows by Sigmar Polke and Augusto Giacometti, Alberto’s cousin.

There are more Augusto windows in the Fraumunster church over the Munsterbrucke bridge and a dreamy, visionary rose window by Chagall.

Do not expect to come home Festival, which is October, you can of chestnut schnapps. and gourmet trail slender as a Giacometti bronze. The shops in Zurich sell either Chanel or chocolate. Teuscher is the prettiest, with pralines in brightly coloured foils.

H. Schwarzenbach is the most venerable, more like an apothecary than a sweetshop. Coffees and hot chocolates at Café Schober will set you up for sightseeing.

Bregaglia, three hours by train, is chestnut country. At Longhin in Maloja they serve chestnutflour pasta with local mushrooms, then hot chestnuts with crema di marroni, and glasses of chestnut schnapps.

On the hairpin bends between Maloja, Borgonovo, where Alberto was born in 1901 and buried in 1966, and Stampa where the studio he inherited from his painter father Giovanni has been impeccably restored, you see the slatted huts for the chestnut harvest.

Like father: Alberto was the son of painter Giovanni Giacometti, and always had an artistic gift

Like father: Alberto was the son of painter Giovanni Giacometti, and always had an artistic gift

The Stampa studio ( brings Giacometti to life: his boyhood graffiti on the walls, his doodles on the backs of doors, the match burns on the floor below his easel.

Stay in nearby Soglio, high above the hairpins, with not a sound to wake you in the night except the occasional goat bell.

Dr Marco Giacometti of the Centro Giacometti is a spellbinding guide to these villages. (Tours: fondazione@­

Shards of splendour: Alberto Giacometti is the subject of a Tate Modern show until September

He is a cousin to the Giovanni-Alberto-Diego branch of the family and has the lean, rangy body of one of Alberto’s plaster casts. The likeness is uncanny. ‘I have a mission,’ he says as he walks us through meadows to Giacometti’s daydreaming cave. He wants to make others fall in love with the mountains that inspired and drew the artist back from childhood until his death at 65. Even in hospital he was still calling for ‘plastilina’ — his modelling clay.


Easyjet (, 0330 365 5000) from Luton to Zurich from £60 return. Doubles at the Marktgasse Hotel (, 0041 44 266 1010) from £200 per night. More at Alberto Giacometti is at Tate Modern from May 10 to September 10 2017, tickets £16.80 (