Narrow streets offer glimpses of old town Locarno.
The sunshine is blinding as we emerge from a tortuous mountain tunnel high on the southern flank of the Alps. It had been overcast and showery in the Swiss canton of Graubuenden where the road entered on the northern side of the peaks. Now, as hairpin switchbacks take us down into a verdant valley, we delight at the sight of extensive vineyards, red tile roofs, even palm trees. And the road signs are in Italian!
This is not Italy, however, but the least-known part of Switzerland. In the minds of many foreigners, the country is part German and part French but in the south central region lies small but scintillating Ticino. The Italian-speaking minority concentrated here comprises 6.5% of the Swiss population. Far from being oppressed, though, they consider themselves uniquely blessed, and not only by the balmy climate. “We have the best of all worlds,” one local tells us. “The Italian flair and zestful way of life, combined with Swiss order and reliability.”
With a Latin-accented charm and vitality, the Ticino canton is like a geographic and cultural extension of Italy’s alluring northern lake district. Milan is only an hour’s drive south and, as in Italy, the regional cuisine is superb. In other ways, though, Ticino is decidedly Swiss: the streets are immaculately clean, trains and buses run like clockwork, there is little labor strife or government corruption.
Small wonder that the enchanting enclave has long attracted artists, writers and intellectuals, especially between the world wars, when Mussolini and Hitler were on the rise. They gravitated to this mild and mellow oasis of security, peace and political tolerance. Among those who left their mark were Hermann Hesse, Carl Jung, Paul Klee, Isadora Duncan and Franz Kafka.
Gandria is a quaint waterfront village on such an extreme hillside that there are no streets or vehicles.
The Ticino region, south of the Alps, has been mainly Italian-speaking since Roman times, and by the 14th century was controlled by the dukes of Milan. The districts of Bellinzona and Lugano united and joined Switzerland in 1803. The written Italian taught in Ticino’s schools today is essentially identical to standard Italian. The spoken dialect is largely the same as in northern Italy, such as in Milan, but would be difficult for Italians in Rome or farther south to understand.
Italophones make up 6.5% of the Swiss population. (Germanophones are 63.7% and Francophones 20.4%) There are also small enclaves in southeastern Graubuenden where Italian is the official language and is taught in public schools. A fourth official language, Romansh, of Latin origin, is spoken by 0.5% of the Swiss population, mainly scattered in small communities throughout Graubuenden. The Swiss Army includes an Italian-speaking mountain infantry brigade.
Arriving the first evening, we stop in Locarno on long and sinuous Lake Maggiore. Locarno is famous for treaties signed here in 1925 which established new boundaries for Europe. Since 1946, it has hosted Switzerland’s most prestigious international film festival each August, with a huge screen and 8,000 seats set up outdoors. Framed by stately palms our lakeside hotel, La Palma au Lac, welcomes us at check-in with complimentary pizza and prosecco (sparkling wine) in the lobby offering Italian-Swiss hospitality at its most comforting. Our room looks over glistening waters, where tour boats come and go in the fading light.
Morning reveals a lively market on the central piazza, and one-lane streets of medieval houses festooned with wrought-iron balconies. Just south along the shore is the charming former fishing village of Ascona with its car-free, pedestrian-only lakefront. Locals and visitors alike amble past the cafes and restaurants that line the quay, walking dogs, eating ice cream, and soaking up the sun.
Our boutique hotel is tucked into the old town, a warren of cobblestone alleyways and art galleries. A day boat takes us out to the Brissago Islands, where a manicured botanical garden features over 1,000 varieties of subtropical trees, shrubs and flowering plants from around the world. All are set among pools, fountains, sculptures and tranquil shoreline trails.
Brissago Islands botanical garden of exotic plants.
Dinner is at a popular “cave” restaurant, Grotto Baldoria, a lively eatery where seating is at long shared tables under grape arbors. The all-you-can-eat fixed menu is whatever suits the owner’s fancy. Plates of sliced mortadella, fragrant blocks of cheese, and marinated tongue are plunked down and we help ourselves. The jocular proprietor, Mauro Speziali, serves out huge bowls of pasta shells in a creamy tomato sauce. The memorable main dish is polenta with spezzatino, a tender beef stew drenched in spicy gravy. We quaff local wines and end with nocino, a powerful brown liqueur made from green walnuts.
The Grotto Baldoria owner and chief chef serves a fixed menu feast.
Joining our table is Doriano Pissoglio who is keeping Ascona’s Bohemian traditions alive. With long, curly hair, a five o’clock shadow and fashionably hip glasses, he is a professor of German but also a serious painter. His brother is the town’s mayor. After dinner, he shows us his studio in a nearby house where we admire his quirky, vibrant and nearly three-dimensional oils, applied with extremely thick paint. Some feature his youthful Russian wife in the nude.
Ascona’s fashionably-hip German professor and painter, Doriano Pissoglio, joins our table.
Lugano, on nearby Lake Lugano, shares the same relaxed Mediterranean ambience. In the compact downtown core, a dazzling assortment of smoked meats hangs in the chic Gabbani Salumeria, or delicatessen. Dappled sunlight filters through the lindens and horse chestnuts along the lakefront promenade, which is lined with Victorian-era grand hotels, carousels, and parks displaying public art. Residents fish, swim and sunbathe.
Dinner means another grotto, this one a true underground cave offering rustic fare like tripe. Annie has sweet-water lake perch with risotto, while I order tender calf’s liver with potatoes and buttered spinach. Our wine is drunk from traditional ceramic bowls instead of glasses.
In the morning, we board another boat, appropriately named the Lugano, that follows a steep shore studded with stately homes. A Swiss passenger points out the mansion of the late tycoon Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, which once housed an incomparable collection of Old Masters paintings. We disembark at tiny Gandria, a quaint village on such an extreme hillside that there are no streets or vehicles. Vertigo-inducing stairs and footpaths take us up from the landing between ancient stone houses with intimate courtyards. From a high restaurant patio, we watch a skillful wind surfer swoop through the whitecaps below. Rather than catching a later boat, we walk back to Lugano along the waterside Olive Path, stopping en route for espresso and reading signs that explain how the centuries-old olive trees are tended.
Visitors to the village of Gandria may take a boat or walk along the lakeside Olive Path.
Our last destination is Bellinzona, the capital of Ticino, an inland mountain town where two valleys converge, both descending from northern passes. Looming above today’s streets and a section of the medieval wall are three painstakingly restored 13th to 15th century castles built by the dukes of Milan and garrisoned with hundreds of troops and horses to command a narrow, strategic river. Fierce battles were fought against the encroaching Germanic Swiss. There are patrician villas, Renaissance churches, and arcade buildings with arches and elaborate facades featuring busts of notable men such as Dante and Galileo.
Bellinzona castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On Saturday morning, the central market is thronged with people eyeing the handicrafts, and vendors offering a kaleidoscope of cheeses, olives and salamis. The following day, the town is a haven of Sunday calm interrupted only by the tolling of church bells. We relish our final lunch at an open-air restaurant in the main piazza: a sublime pasta with mushrooms, cheese and olive oil, accompanied by good local beer.
At Bellinzona’s bustling Saturday market, vendors offer a kaleidoscope of cheeses, olives and salamis for sale.
On Sundays the capital, Bellinzona, is a quiet, tranquil place except for the occasional tolling of church bells.
Heading north again to central Switzerland means turning our backs on its warmest and most spirited region. We reflect that it has been easy to say buongiorno to Ticino, but much harder to say arrivederci.
Ticino tourism information, www.ticino.ch/en. Tiny Ticino is host to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Castles of Bellinzona (designated in 2000) and the Monte San Giorgio (designated in 2003).
Transportation: We traveled to Ticino and within Ticino via a combination of bus, train and lake boats. All are covered by the inclusive and convenient Swiss Travel Pass, without having to purchase individual tickets. The Pass also provides free or discounted entry to many funiculars, gondolas, and entry to countless museums and historic sites throughout the country.
Switzerland tourism information, www.myswitzerland.com.
By the same author and photographer, you will enjoy another article in our Travel Article Library about Switzerland’s amazing mountainous transportation system, “Switzerland’s Ups and Downs“.
Tom Koppel is a veteran Canadian journalist and author of popular non-fiction. For over 25 years, his travel features have appeared in the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Globe and Mail, National Post, Canadian World Traveller, Georgia Straight and many other publications. His latest book of history, science and travel is Mystery Islands: Discovering the Ancient Pacific, for sale at Amazon. Signed and dedicated copies are available from firstname.lastname@example.org.
Annie Palovcik’s photographs have appeared in publications worldwide, including Dallas Morning News, Globe and Mail, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Sydney Morning Herald. She and husband, Tom Koppel, live on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia.