Hailing from a country as vast and underpopulated as Canada, the idea of escaping the dominant cultures surrounding you in a significant way without boarding an aircraft once seemed a serious undertaking. Massive expanses of incredible nature surround you, making the absence of human culture the best option to escape your daily reality. Living in Zurich, you can hop on a train and witness dramatic changes in both landscape and culture in the time it takes for some people to commute home in a big city. Which is why I recently caught the train to Ticino canton. Just over two hours from the main Bahnof, Ticino canton is hailed as Switzerland’s Mediterranean. Given the lack of seaside, it’s most likely the fact that the primary language here is Italian, which in and of itself delivers a refreshing jolt of energy. Italian, when it smacks me upside the head, still feels like the kiss of a beautifully deranged, yet greatly inspired, angel.
My first experience of Ticino was many years ago when staying in Cannobio on Lago Maggiore and stealing across the border to take in the Swiss side, where some of the Italian residents I was acquainted with benefited from the superior wages and benefits that Switzerland accords. This lead me to choose to stay in Locarno given it sharing the same lake. While I was mostly in and greatly enjoyed Locarno, my next foray into the “Swiss Mediterranean” will probably see me staying in Lugano, or crossing the river into Ascona. Don’t get me wrong. Locarno and Orselina (just a funicular ride up the hill from Locarno) where I stayed, are well worth the time, full of grottoes, side streets and other possibilities such as peaceful morning jaunts along the river Maggia which washes down from the encircling slopes into Lago Maggiore, which I hope to retread. But somehow, Lugano, by virtue of being a bigger centre, has that slightly more grandiose Mediterranean vibe, which I now miss from that highly improbable, very crazy reality called Istanbul. Also, since I only took a day in Lugano, there was less time for me to form a full impression. Truth is I would relish the opportunity to explore both in much greater detail. And given the relative ease with which to travel to either by train from Zurich, that seems a very likely prospect.
If you follow this blog at all, you know I love a good boat trip. Especially those that serve adult refreshments. So with only a day to experience Lugano, I chose to hop on the first boat I could to take in the lake with which it shares a name. Lake Lugano doesn’t disappoint for scenery — with the exception of the somewhat bizarre Italian enclave of Campione D’Italia and its prominently placed casino, which I won’t share here or linger upon any longer.
Along the route I chose to hop off at Gandria but am now longing to experience Morcote (a glimpse of which I afford you in the photo immediately above), which has apparently been voted Most Beautiful Village in Switzerland, an impressive feat considering this small country’s prodigious number of villages with storybook-worthy scenery. Gandria (all photos below this paragraph) where I stopped for lunch, however, has some very worthy vistas. I don’t use guidebooks or over-research things on my smart phone, but rather see what feels right in the moment. Chance and curiosity are almost always better guides, and I’d rather see what other people think after I have experienced a place for myself. So, after walking not far and heeding my gut instinct I came across Locanda Gandriese which looked enticing after a cursory glance. It turns out it’s a highly recommended place. I enjoyed one of the local specialties, a Porcini ragout with polenta, but was not particularly inspired by the minestrone soup which preceded it. One of the disadvantages of travelling solo is that I tend to sample less food and go for what seems reliable rather than exciting as food is best shared with good company. Also food is not especially cheap in Switzerland so dining out is also less appealing unless you plan to linger and savour the occasion with some worthy company. So I would like to go back and see what they and the rest of Lugano have to offer, including a vibrant art scene, which has enlivened in recent years as the city diversified its appeal.
Now, back to Lago Maggiore. The walk south, along the lake from Locarno, and up and along the river Maggia, while not necessarily efficient, provides a healthy but low impact stroll which leads you to Ascona (pictured below) a town that brings you up close and personal with Lago Maggiore. With its plane-tree-lined waterfront, glass like stillness and colourful facades, it’s easy to zone out for several hours with a measure or two of the regionally produced merlot. Here’s another suggestion: don’t opt for pizza. There’s nothing wrong with the pizzas in Ascona or in Ticino in general, which are thin crust and perfectly good and offered on just about every corner. It’s simply that they’re not prepared with the kind of gusto you’d probably get in a place like Napoli. Instead ask what the local specialties are, as I get the sense that pizzas are a case of pandering to outsiders’ expectations. Again, this may be my fault for not sufficiently researching first, but I enjoy the pizza at the Bellcafe at the Bellevue Tram station in Zurich as much, if not more than, anything I sampled in Ticino.
Unfortunately, I was only given a few days to amble about Ticino, but it left me wanting to experience more of its vibrant landscape, abundant sunshine, and hillside wonders. Ticino is both distinctly different from the rest of Switzerland and Italy which lays just across the border, making it somewhere worthy of repeat attention.
Which is why I say: Grazie mille, Ticino!