Here, lush yellow mimosas and tall date palms line the shores of cerulean lakes, and ancient stone houses huddle together in tiny mountaintop villages like ants in the rain. There’s laughter in the warm, breezy air and the Merlot flows like mother’s milk.
Ticino, the Mediterranean heart of Switzerland
This isn’t the Switzerland I know and love. Gone are the snow-carpeted peaks and tidy green meadows speckled with dairy cows. Gone are the deep brown larch wood chalets with bursts of colourful geraniums at each miniature window. Gone as well, the guttural bursts of local Schwiizertüütsch dialect. Chuchichäst li (the test for any foreigner, the nearly unpronounceable word for kitchen hutch), becomes, with a deft roll of the tongue, credenza.
Here, lush yellow mimosas and tall date palms line the shores of cerulean lakes, and ancient stone houses huddle together in tiny mountaintop villages like ants in the rain.
There’s laughter in the warm, breezy air and the Merlot flows like mother’s milk.
Italy? Not a chance. The trains actually run on time, and the winding cobblestone lanes are unusually tidy. Rather than bumper-to-bumper Fiats beeping a cacophony of horns, I spot two Ferraris casually parked on a sidestreet, their owners either very confident or very relaxed. Welcome to Ticino, the Mediterranean heart of Switzerland.
I initially landed in Ticino 15 years ago, as a carefree 25-year old on a weekend trip from my home base in Zurich. I hadn’t been in the country long, and it was my first glimpse of a different sort of Switzerland. Sure, it was clean and beautiful and full of private banks, but here, life moved at a slower pace. Dolce vita, literally “the sweet life”, existed here in a way unseen in the vast German-speaking section. But alas, as said Oscar Wilde, youth is wasted on the young. I found Lugano dull, Ascona too refined. I craved the dizzying thrill of unpredictable Italy, where a stolen passport and series of long-delayed trains seemed like the happy antidote to my predictable Zurich existence.
More than a decade later, the tides have turned. Life is busy. When I escape, I crave a rare combination of natural beauty, peace, and calm, married with the enjoyment of fine food and wine that don’t typically grace my table on a daily basis. With a last-minute week to myself, I quickly plot an itinerary of both the hip and the historic highlights of Ticino. I’ll treat myself to grand hotels and Michelin-starred dinners, but make time for a meal in a traditional grotto and boccalino of local wine. I’ll don a pair of dirty hiking boots for an Alpine walk, but finish up the evening in heels at a cocktail bar. I’ll marvel at modern structures from world-renowned architect Mario Botta, right alongside 12th-century Romanesque frescos.
Ten minutes later I am packed and ready to go. I button my bright Italian designer raincoat and grudgingly sling on my trusty green vintage leather military backpack. Old habits die hard. With the opening of the new Gotthard Base Tunnel—the world’s longest—the trip from Zurich lasts just one and a half hours to Ticino’s capital, Bellinzona. I could experience the famous loops of the former track as I did a decade ago, with multiple views on Wassen Church by simply taking one of the trains that operate on the historic mountain route across the Gotthard Pass instead. But I’m keen to discover the Gotthard base tunnel, which at 57 kilometres sets a record for the world’s longest and deepest railway tunnel.
In summer 2016 the new Gotthard tunnel was inaugurated with great fanfare. But it wasn’t just the tunnel itself that stirred up attention; it was the bizarre Swiss artistry of the opening show, which featured furry ibex rolling in an intimate embrace and a topless woman with wings and a cupid’s face meant to represent a guardian angel of the nine workers who died during its construction. Watching the show along with dozens of other journalists, it was moments like those that made me love the Swiss. Just when you think they’re too boring for words, they shock you with an unexpected and absolutely inexplicable gesture.
I hardly notice that we’ve left the tunnel. It’s late and the sun has set hours ago, leaving the dark sky a happy home to a half-dozen constellations above me. It’s just another few minutes to my first stop, Bellinzona, where I’m intrigued to sleep at a hotel I’d passed a dozen years ago that has now been restored to its former Art Nouveau glory, the Hotel Internazionale. It’s late, but not too late to enjoy a cocktail on the adjoining terrace.
“Another glass of wine, signorina?” the waiter asks an hour later, raising an eyebrow and shaking back a head of chocolate curls.
I smile at his use of “miss”. Hesitating, I nod si. I am not in Italy, though at just a dozen kilometres away, I could be. While Northern Italy’s Lake District gets all the attention—and George Clooney—a portion of Lago Maggiore’s shores actually belong to Switzerland.
Maybe it’s my American side, but nothing says Europe to me like a good, old castle. While Switzerland doesn’t boast as many as France or Germany per square kilometre, those she does have are absolute beauties. The crowning jewel is a trio of ancient stone fortresses in Bellinzona, Ticino’s capital. A quaint little city, Bellinzona’s downtown spans just a few blocks and is dwarfed by Lugano and the Locarno- Ascona area. It’s small size and countryside setting far from any lake have helped Bellinzona escape a proliferation of luxury hotels and boutiques, keeping it decidedly local and the best place to begin a Ticino idyll.
Ticino has two UNESCO World Heritage sites and I am devoting this morning to exploring one of them. I’m feeling full after a hearty breakfast and three—no make that four—espressi. The deep, rich sweetness of Ticinese coffee reminds me of the Italian brands further south, a world away from the slightly ashen taste of the under-roasted Swiss standard.
I walk briskly down the hotel’s stairs, stopping to admire the colourful oversized sculptures that contrast the Art Nouveau ironwork staircase and original stained glass windows. Five minutes later and I’m heading through the bustling Saturday market, a weekly or biweekly tradition in most European towns. But a world away from the markets in German-speaking Switzerland, these energetic gatherings bring staples like miele d’accacia (chestnut honey) and dappled ground polenta as well as shiny purple eggplant and other organic vegetables. Sandwiched in between surprisingly stylish racks of clothes and handmade silver jewellery there are even stands of carved wooden children’s toys and walking sticks. I touch the tallest of the bunch, running the top of my finger over the smooth oak sculpted into a bear’s head. Bears? This area hasn’t seen them in years, which is probably a good thing for hikers like me, for whom the occasional wild boar and poisonous viper seem risky enough.
A minute later I arrive at Castelgrande. The first of the castles is located in the town centre on an enormous hill, and to my surprise, an elevator has been carved into the rock. I luck out of the first climb and tour the ramparts and tower, before heading up the large mountain facing Bellinzona and on Castello di Montebello and Sasso Corbaro. After half an hour, I’m at Montebello, which is surrounded by defensive moats and vine after vine of grapes. These vineyards, like 85% of others in Ticino, produce the much-loved Merlot. Hardly known outside the Switzerland, this excellent wine-producing region is just now, like the Lavaux region in Canton Vaud, starting to be recommended in international wine circles. With both white and red varieties, Merlot here benefits from warm days and cool nights, which leaves it slightly less lush and fruity (read: sweet) than its French and American counterparts and pairs beautifully with Ticino’s hearty cuisine.
The views from Sasso Corbaro, at nearly 500m up, are stunning. I take a short walk through the museum that displays detailed exhibits into the castle’s history and finish up on the open square. I can now understand why Bellinzona was selected as the canton’s capital. From here, all valleys and main entryways into the region are visible—I look out over past the Riviera Valley and can see Lago Maggiore to the south, beckoning me. Next stop, Locarno. I’m surprised to find that my trip to Lago Maggiore won’t cost me a dime. To celebrate the opening of the Gotthard Base Tunnel, all train and bus travel is free in Ticino until the end of 2017. With the high price of Swiss railway journeys, this can amount to a significant saving to all hotel guests upon presentation of a Ticino Fare card. For the ferries that ply the waters of the two lakes, Lago Maggiore and Lago di Lugano, there are 30% discounts.
It’s a balmy 20*C as I board the short train to Locarno. When most of Switzerland is still shrouded under a fog of rain and snow, spring brings blue skies and mild temperatures to Canton Ticino, snuggled at the country’s southern border. As the only Italian-speaking region in a land that overwhelmingly favours German and French, Ticino, like most people south of the Alps, has had it harder than most of Switzerland when it comes to climbing out of historic poverty. Staring at the fashionable lakeside promenades, it’s hard for me to believe that just a few decades ago Ticino was one of the poorest regions of what is one of the richest countries in the world.
Today Lugano is a major banking centre, while Ascona and Locarno are thriving resort towns. While it’s sometimes hard to find a real local in these areas, the tourism surge has made Ticino a year-round hub. With everything the city has to offer, it’s no wonder more than 75% of the population lives in these urban areas that spread out over the canton’s main valleys. This means, though, that a 15-minute trip out of town finds you in quiet mountain villages where life moves at a snail’s pace and undisturbed Alpine valleys bring an infinite number of trekking opportunities.
Upon arrival at Locarno station, I see a handheld sign which reads Mr Munier and I smile at the driver, who, like many others in a country where Alexis is an exclusively masculine name, did not expect a blonde in fiery lipstick. A short drive later and we arrive at Ascona’s pretty traffic-free main drag. Against a backdrop of mountains and sea, there are just a few small restaurants and a maze of old streets waiting for exploration.
I’m not sure I agree with famed local son and world-renown architect Mario Botta, who says “Architecture is a never-ending fight between man and nature.” In Ticino, this fight appears more like a carefully negotiated agreement in which both sides come out the winner. Botta was born in Mendrisio in 1943 and designed his first building at the time I was getting my first driving license. His career shot to fame after designing the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the late 80s showcasing his unique postmodern style that uses masonry instead of typical glass and metal. Luckily two of Botta’s best religious works are just an hour or so from where I’m sitting.
Hikers know Botta’s work better than most, as several of his most important churches are spectacularly isolated in the Alps. From the black and white checkerboard Chiesa San Giovanni Battista in Mogno to his porphyry-red Cappella Santa Maria degli Angeli on the peak of Monte Tamaro, it’s a revelation to witness these geometric buildings amidst a forest of dominating pines. It’s nearly 11am and I’ve just finished a breakfast of smoked salmon, fresh formaggini and homemade pane ticinese, a tasty white bread rendered soft by a bit of oil added to the batter. Note to self: Next time I stay at the Eden Roc, fast for a week beforehand. This trip is going to be rough on my waistline…and I’m only taking breakfast into consideration. To avoid yesterday’s jitters, I’ve limited myself to two espresso macchiato and a glass of bubbly prosecco, and pried myself from the luxurious cocoon that is this 5-star superior hotel. I’m in the mood for a shock to my system, and Botta’s reputation for striking modernity is just what I need.
It has been described as an architectural wonder, a truly new take on religious architecture. I’m not a Christian, but that makes little difference. After a journey on the cable car from Rivera to Alpe Foppa, it’s a short walk to Cappella Santa Maria degli Angeli. There are crowds despite the cloudy skies, but I don’t mind; a bit of spring rain helps keep the peaks downy green. I don’t have to revere the religious icons to feel like a tiny speck in a vast, beautiful universe. Gazing out at the Alpine panorama around me, and walking back via the narrow viaduct that connects the chapel with a lookout point. I begin the trip back down, and I feel a swell in my chest, a belief in something greater. The feeling is short-lived, as a deep grumble sets my mind back to reality. Lunchtime.
There’s a reason those in the know come to Switzerland to eat, and it isn’t just the cheese. While the country’s dishes are little known outside fondue, raclette, and the ubiquitous hashed brown potatoes called rösti, there are more Michelin-starred restaurants here per capita than in any other. In Ticino, the cuisine is mostly Italian-infused Swiss, where a Mediterranean heart marries stick-to-your-ribs Alpine staples with the subtle flavours of the boot.
Natives of southern Italy have a name for those in the north—“polentone”, polenta-eaters. This isn’t the wimpy golden porridge that passes for polenta in many overseas restaurants; made with corn grown on the fertile Magadino plain, the only large-scale agricultural area in Ticino, it’s thick-grained and hearty. The recipe often calls ground buckwheat, giving the creamy staple streaks of dark brown and an almost nutty flavour.
With a bit of rain and a cool, sweeping wind, it’s the perfect day for a warm grotto meal. Grotti, cavelike restaurants decorated in traditional style serving local specialities, are dotted all over Ticino. After today’s adventure, this rib-sticking meal is well-earned and well-appreciated. Were it autumn or winter, I could order a steaming bowlful straight from a large pot on a crackling fire at La Baita, in Magadino across the lake from Locarno. Today I choose just a small portion of the good stuff to leave room for a selection of local cheeses. I love the creaminess of Piora and Valmaggia, two of the best hard mountain pasture cheeses denoted by a PDO, or “Protected Designation of Origin”, but it’s hard to resist a second helping of Zincarlin, a soft goat’s milk cheese enhanced with coarse black pepper and alpine herbs. Because the popular grotto specialises in house-made charcuterie, I save room for an unusual dessert…a sampler of pancetta, mortadella and the “made our way” salumeria nostrana. I let the last salty bite linger on my tongue, and this meal proves to me yet again that those who describe Ticino as “Italy Light” haven’t eaten at a grotto in some time.
I stop to catch my breath in Lavertezzo. It isn’t the view of the emerald green waters of the Verzasca River, or the Roman arches of the Ponte dei salti, the “bridge of jumps” immortalised in so many photographs, although that deserves breathless sigh. It’s the steep mountain ahead of me. Thighs screaming and calves bulging, I continue on, making my way along the rocky mule path toward Sonogno, the last village in Val Verzasca. There are a few brave spring swimmers taking dips in the icy water at
Lavertezzo, taking advantage having the river all to themselves. The summer heat, as they well know, will bring hordes of bathers hoping to cool down in the sparkling blue-green pools.
James Bond fans will recognise Val Verzasca from the opening scene of Goldeneye, in which Pierce Brosnan’s bungee jump from Verzasca dam has gone down as one of the best Bond stunts in history. I wasn’t certain a free fall one hundred metres up was my thing, so I decided kept my feet firmly on the ground. Several hours later I am nearly halfway through hiking up the rugged gorge to the top of the 26-km valley. Along the way I’ve passed the picturesque village of Corippo, clinging precariously to the mountainside. It is so steep that a local legend says the inhabitants prevented eggs from rolling down the mountain by tying a fabric sac under their chicken’s tails. Hoping to avoid an unruly egg’s fate, I cut out early, taking the yellow Postbus back to town and on to the last leg of the Ticino triangle, Lugano. I aim to spend the hours I’ve saved hiking enjoying a fine meal instead, and after some cajoling, I manage to score the last dinner reservation at Gallery Arté al Lago, the Michelin-starred restaurant that is housed in an art gallery at the Villa Castagnola Hotel.
I clean up well, the concierge jokes, and after a long, hot soak I ease my sore legs down to the lobby for the winding ride down to Lugano’s Cassarate neighbourhood to the restaurant. I have studied the menu in advance, dreaming of his scallops with miso and wasabi infusion, steamed oysters and caramelised spring onion, but let’s see what Chef Frank Oerthle recommends this evening. I know one thing for certain—he won’t stop me ordering the crispy rhubarb tartlet “Arté style”. I’m not sure what that means exactly, but I’m game to try especially since sweet-tart rhubarb is in season. The walls are dotted in paintings and sculptures line the halls, featuring a variety of artists, and the exhibitions change twice a year. But biting into my sweet-tart dessert—it turns out “Arté style” means served with rhubarb sorbet and drizzled with strawberry-vanilla mousse—I’m aware that what’s in my dish is just as beautiful, just as virtuosic, as the museum-quality art all around me.
The old saying “L’abito non fa il monaco” literally, the dress doesn’t make the monk, or clothes don’t make the man, isn’t applicable here. Swiss style may be predominantly casual, but Ticino takes on flair unseen in other cantons. With all the bursting colour of the semi-tropical vegetation—there’s a daring use of coloured cravats, scarves and sunglasses. Well-dressed men in crimson or mustard trousers are the norm, not the exception.
After carefully considering the lobby fashion at my hotel, the gorgeous hilltop Villa Principe Leopoldo—once a prince’s private residence—I know I’ll have to ditch the backpack and pick up a tasteful handbag in time for afternoon tea. I don’t have much room for indulging in retail therapy, but I wonder if I shouldn’t venture toward Lugano anyhow. A trip to the largest city and lakeside resort has more to do than just shopping, although that itself can easily fill a day in the Lugano area. If you don’t mind a shopping mall—perennially packed with day-trippers determined to find a bargain—there’s the option of Foxtown, a luxury outlet with over 60 stores not far from the city. But rather than spend my last day maxing out my credit card, I decide to take it easy at the hotel, swimming in the massive outdoor pool overlooking vivid manicured gardens. When my exposure slips dangerously close to sunburn, I quickly dress and head down to Lugano proper for a tour of LAC—Lugano Arte e Cultura. This new cultural centre has a 1,000-seat concert hall for various theatre and music performances, and is also home to the Museo d’Arte della Svizzera Italiana, which formed when Lugano’s two art museums merged. The collection boasts something for everyone, from the 17th century to today. I stroll the halls, which are covered in French masters like Dégas and Renoir as well as Ticinese painters like Giovanni Battista Discepoli and Pier Francesco Mola.
The sun was sliding westward as I exited the museum, and that meant I’d soon need to catch a train home. But there was something I’d forgotten. Gelato! The afternoon sun warming my face, I walk to the Lungolago, Lugano’s lakeside promenade. After hesitating, I finally decide on cocco, coconut, and nocciola, a hazelnut flavour that wasn’t available in my home state of California, where I spent lazy summers on the beach. But this was in no stereotypical beach town. While it’s always been the preferred weekend getaway of native Swiss, Ticino is now coming into its own as a destination in its own right, a sober alternative to a chaotic holiday in the boot below. It’s the simplest way to partake in all the Italianate pleasures Switzerland has to offer, without any of the hassles of the real deal across the border.
I sat down on a wooden bench facing Lago di Lugano and watched the crowds stream by. Middleaged businessmen in tailored suits, grey-haired ladies in wide-brimmed hats and Sophie Loren-esque sunglasses, and young Ticinese couples walking hand in hand wandered by, pausing only now and again to kiss under the tall palms. I think back to my first impressions of the region years ago. Ticino, boring? I think I could get used to it. ◼
© This article was first published in June-July 2017 edition of World Travel Magazine.