Ah, Switzerland. Land of cheese, chocolate, snow capped mountains, palm trees. Palm trees? Yes, palm trees. Think of Italian ambience and food along with Swiss efficiency and you will have one of my favorite regions of Switzerland, Ticino.
Switzerland has four official languages and is divided into 26 cantons, or states. The southernmost canton in which Italian is spoken is known as Ticino in Italian or Tessin in German. Its location south of the alps makes it favorable for a milder, more Mediterranean climate. Its sparkling blue lakes along with its diverse terrain – its lowest point lies at about 600 feet while its highest is above 11,000 feet – provides a variety of scenery and opportunities. And palm trees.
The main cities of this area are Lugano, Locarno, and Bellinzona. We’ve stayed in Lugano three times and Locarno once. Obviously, I lean toward Lugano, but our apartment in Locarno overlooking Lake Maggiore was every bit as magical and also afforded us the opportunity to enjoy the Locarno International Film Festival which is held there every August. Often when we have stayed in the Bernese Alps area and encountered bad weather, we would escape it by hopping on a train and traveling a few hours to emerge from the 9 mile long Gotthard Tunnel to be greeted by the Ticino climate and sun.
Sitting in the Piazza della Riforma, the main square of Lugano, sipping a glass of local wine watching the world go by or strolling along the beautifully shaded lakeside promenade is the essence of travel forus. Sure, we like seeing the sites a place has to offer, but taking the time to breath in the culture of a place is what makes our travel experiences.
Situated on Lake Lugano affords visitors the opportunity to take one of the wonderful Swiss ships to the charming villages that cling to the mountains surrounding the lake such Marcote and Gandria to enjoy a quiet lunch of fresh fish and stroll among the picturesque alleyways. Or visit Campione, an enclave of Italy totally surrounded by Switzerland and offering a casino. A stop at Melide allows a visit to Swissminiatur, a tour of the major regions of Switzerland in miniature.
Lugano is set between two mountains, Monte Bré and San Salvatore, and there are funiculars that take you up them to truly enjoy the geographical diversity of Ticino as well as the distant alps. There are restaurants and panoramic terraces at the top of both. A chapel on San Salvatore dates to the 1200s; the present structure was built in the 1700s with materials carried up the mountain by local women. The more adventuresome can walk back down from either mount which takes no more than an hour.
Within Lugano, there are stores, car free pedestrian areas, art museums, traditional Italian salumerias (delis), two worth the visit cathedrals, parks, gardens, a lido for swimming and lest you forget you are in Switzerland, Lugano is the third most important financial center in Switzerland. If you arrive by train, the best way to visit the city is to take the funicular down tothe top of the main pedestrian only shopping area. Alternatively, there is a picturesque walking path down.
Situated so close to Italy, from Lugano, it is an easy day trip to Lake Como to explore that area. A long day trip to Venice is also possible. But, I wouldn’t recommended it. Venice deserves so much more than a day!
The central square in Locarno is Piazza Grande, not quite as intimate as the Piazza della Riforma in Lugano; the narrow alleyways of the old city extend out from it. Locarno also offers museums, churches, and a tree lined lakeside promenade with the advantage of more outdoor cafes and restaurants along the lake than in Lugano.
Ships on Lake Maggiore navigate to places such as Brissago, the last town in Switzerland before the Italian “frontier,” Isola Bella with its art filled palazzo, Stresa,a major resort on the Italian side of the lake and the fashionable Ascona, long enjoyed by writers and artists. A 10 minute bus ride will also bring you to Ascona, a favorite place for lunch along the waterfront.
Locarno’s funicular offering whisks one to the Sanctuary Madonna dell Sasso, for “the” view over the city and lake. From there, a gondola and then chair lift go further for mountaintop dining or hiking opportunities.
While Alpine hiking isn’t available, there are wonderful walking opportunities in the nearby Verzasca Valley. One can take a very scenic hour long bus ride to Sonogno at the end of the valley. After strolling this village with its houses made of stone, one can bus or walkback. The bus stops at all the villages along the emerald hued river with its untamed landscape and a walk along at least part of the valley is delightful, especially knowing that at some point you can always hop on the bus back as the full trip walking takes 6 hours. I had one of the best plates of spaghetti pomodoro made with all fresh ingredients at a little restaurant along this trek. Part of the walk is up high above the river, other parts follow the river bed. At one point, there were huge boulders from which bathers dried themselves in the sun. At another point, we crossed a very long suspension bridge high above the river. I did NOT enjoy that. The dam at Vorgorno was where the opening scene of the James Bond film, Goldeneye, was filmed. One can imitate Bond by bungee jumping into the lake below, but the suspension bridge was enough excitement for me.
If you want to visit a true Italian market (and who doesn’t?), the town of Luino in Italy is easy accessible by boat/bus from Locarno/Lugano. On Wednesday, the entire town turns into a market, reported to be the largest of its kind in Europe. We bused there from Lugano and even my husband who abhors shopping really enjoyed it. But, as lunch time approached, we missed Swiss bathrooms and restaurants, so returned to Lugano for both.
Bellinzona, with its location at the foot of the alps and the confluence of major passes including the Gotthard and San Bernardino historically madeit a key trading and defense center. It also has a town wide produce and craft market on Saturdays but is most visited for the three castles that dominate it. Inhabited since at least the Neolithic period, there has been a fortification at the site of Castelgrande since the first century BC. The present structure dates from the 13th century and it is the most popular of the three due to its extensive walls and viewpoint for the valley and surrounding alps. Many people walk up a long winding road to reach it, but the secret is that there is an elevator up to it hidden away downtown in the Piazzetta Della Valle. Castello di Montebello halfway up the Montebello hill is accessible on foot or by bus and also affords great views. The smaller, rectangular Castello di Sasso Corbaro on a hillside outside of the old town and the only one not integrated into the city walls has two working drawbidges, a small museum and grand vista.
If you plan a visit to Switzerland, try to include some time in Ticino. You will be wonderfully surprised by it….and don’t forget to look for the palm trees.
Vickie is a former member of the Marco Island City Council and Artistic Director of the Marco Island Film Festival, and has been a volunteer for many island organizations. She is presently on the board of the Naples Mac Users Group. Prior to relocating to Marco, Vickie served as a school psychologist, Director of Special Services, and college instructor and also was a consultant to the New Jersey Department of Education.