• ticino: switzerland’s mediterranean

    November 9th, 2017

    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!

  • avon calling

    March 6th, 2014

    bristol estate and tree

    bristol triptych

    The Paragon-Bristol copy

    Hello from the land of grey skies and green grass. That’s right, England again! This time I’m in Bristol, a place I haven’t seen in more than a couple of decades. England’s not the only one that’s getting a bit grey. Must say, I’m loving the vibe of this place. Lovely people, real ales, great food, shops, all in a walkable city package that’s bursting with art, culture, music and really good coffee too. And did I mention the towering trees? This city might just be the paragon of urban virtue.  I barely even noticed the rain occasionally fogging my lens. Above is a small glimpse of the area around Clifton Suspension Bridge, the world’s very first suspension bridge, which spans the Avon River Gorge, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel — an engineering feat which no doubt helped pave the way for our much more recent intercontinental bridges back in Istanbul.

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  • fire and water: urfa

    February 10th, 2014

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    Şanlıurfa, El Ruha, Edessa, Riha or perhaps just plain old Urfa (as it’s most commonly referred to) is a welcome surprise. The drive in from the airport, however, is not encouraging.. An imposing and ugly housing boom has left much of the outer fringe of modern Urfa looking like a victim of its own success. Then, however, you penetrate that encircling ugliness and find an ancient land associated with the prophet Abraham/Ibrahim and the local traditions of its Kurdish population as well as a very large Arabic minority and you begin to sense that you’re in for something different and possibly wonderful. Make no mistake: this is the East of Turkey, close to the Syrian border. Yet despite its proximity to that troubled land, it did not seem at my first, and very cursory glance, especially affected by the troubles on the other side of the border, nor too interested in the political strife in Istanbul or Ankara. There were certainly no protest regarding Internet censorship this weekend. Perhaps that’s because Urfa is one of the most prosperous cities in the area. It is something of a closed world. The older generation of men are often attired in headscarves and salwar trousers. If you look foreign, expect to be stared at. It might be somewhat unnerving, but it is unlikely to be unfriendly. In fact — if my limited experience is any indication — you’re likely to be welcomed most hospitably.

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    Among its many charms Urfa possesses a host of archaeological riches, including the recent discovery of one the world’s oldest neolithic settlements, dating back over 12,000 years. However, as I mentioned above, it is most commonly associated with the prophet Abraham/Ibrahim, being both his birthplace and the legendary site at which he was thrown into the fire by Nimrod, whereupon God turned fire into lake and coals into fish. Balıklıgöl, the pool, is beside the mosque of Halil-ur-Rahman, erected in 1211 and surrounded by the Gölbaşı-gardens. If you are lucky enough to spot a white fish in among the slate grey carp, it’s said that the heavens will open up for you. And while we neither glimpsed the white fish or nirvana, we still had a fine time strolling through this part of town before plunging into the smoke2y delights of the bazaar.

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    More than half the fun of a Turkish bazaar isn’t in the buying, but in the gathering … of stories, experiences and verbal exchanges. Urfa’s bazaar is no exception, and something else to behold. Unlike Istanbul’s more famous covered market, Urfa’s provides the charm of seeing the industry smack dab beside the retail. We were particularly interested in the metal work for which Urfa is renowned. Opposite stalls selling ornate teapots, ayran jugs and cups, platters and turkish coffee sets, you will witness the spectacle of three generations of men banging out their collections. These range from the glittery and cheap to the more pricey and valuable. Regardless of the quality you desire, for the price of a single Turkish coffee cup in Istanbul’s Kapalıçarşı (Covered Market) you can easily acquire an entire set.

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    Siyaset Ciger diptych

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    Diptych-Ciger

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    After a prolonged period of mercantile negotiation, you’ll probably be ready to eat. We were particularly charmed by the humble outfit, Ciğerci Siyaset, which translates, roughly, to mean, “Liver-maker Politics” referring to a piece of the owner’s family history involving competitive swimming and community which I’m not sure I can do justice to in the re-telling. Suffice it to say that you’ll be treated to a spicy wrap of chicken, liver or meat here which you can garnish yourself with hot peppers, parsley, or eye-watering slices of onion. If it’s not spicy enough for you, there’s plenty of isot on hand for you to sprinkle on. It’s a particularly good bet for lunch.

    For accommodation, I’d only suggest one place. While there are a few charming (in an idiosyncratic kind of way) places to stay within easy walking distance of Balıklıgöl and the bazaar, only one is licensed to serve alcohol. Manici is both comfortable and clean, and allows you the pleasure of staying somewhere a little more colourful than the generic hospitality of a Hilton. The food was good too and the service friendly.

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    A word or two of caution, however. The Manici hotel hosts social nights referred to as sıra gecesi. These are certainly worth experiencing. However, if you take a room too close to the URHAY on the third floor, you’d better want to take part in the party. Otherwise you’ll be subjected to a lot of raucous spillover. So if you happen to have small children, or an early start the next day, avoid this part of the hotel. Otherwise, start swinging, Urfa-style. I know we’ll go back for that unique mix of fire and water.

  • Dislocation

    November 22nd, 2012


    Ever wonder where you are? I do frequently. Last week I was in Western Quebec, gazing at lakes, examining a cottage reconstructed from a 150 year-old barn surrounded by trees and silence, eating pizza “stix” from a baker person — now I’m back in the middle of traffic, chaos and noise, trying to get myself back up to speed. It’s no wonder life seems like such a dream sometimes with the ability to transition between so many distinctly different landscapes in such short time expanses. I’m not always sure my mind is ready to catch up with my current experience. Perhaps it doesn’t always want to.

  • Sofia’s Minibus Magic

    February 18th, 2012

    PROVING IT’S THE JOURNEY AND NOT THE DESTINATION LIKE NOTHING ELSE: THE MINIBUS.

    At the risk of sounding like some elitist, snobbish expat with delusions of grandeur, I have a confession to make: I don’t think Istanbul’s minibuses are the most stately mode of transport. No offense intended, this is just an observation. One of my earliest recollections involves veering in and out of traffic while the driver, mobile phone propped between shoulder and ear, cigarette clenched in teeth, drove and sorted change. Now that’s multitasking. On another trip, quite recently, the driver requested that all standing passengers crouch or squeeze three to a seat as the police were right behind him and he didn’t want to be fined for being overcapacity.

    THE FRONT SEAT: THE MOST COMFORTABLE, REMEMBERING THAT COMFORT IS RELATIVE.

    Not having a car (or wanting one) at my disposal, and being a firm believer in public transport in all its forms, I frequently use these nimble little buses that dart in and out of traffic without regard for what’s ahead, behind or below and seem to teeter precariously on upward bends in the road. Don’t get me wrong, they are efficient and cheap form of transport, just not especially comfortable—especially when you’re over 6 foot (190cm) tall and your crown makes repeated contact with the ceiling or the handlebars. The trip is unlikely to ever have the romance of say a train, and certainly not a vapur—despite the great skill of the drivers and their ability to multitask, it’s probably a little demanding of me to expect their one-man-crews to serve tea as well as navigate, sort change and carry out a conversation on their mobiles. Still, it’s good to dream.

    YOUR TOUR GUIDE AND NARRATOR: MISS SOFIA ELIF.

    Over the last year, however, the minibus experience has transformed itself into nothing less than great fun. And that’s entirely due to my traveling companion, and narrator daughter, Sofia Elif. Not only does Sof’s presence relinquish me of the gentlemanly need to abandon my seat once the bus becomes crowded, it enriches the experience of not just me, but I think the other passengers, who will hear squeals of delight when Sof sees a boy playing with a ball on the street, or better yet a scruffy mutt trotting along the roadside. Great shrieks of “Ohhh! Doggie!” or “Ball!” will erupt out of nowhere. Or she’ll start tugging on some woman’s headscarf, or flirt with a dour looking old uncle who looks like he hasn’t cracked a smile in a decade but suddenly does.

    Thanks, Sof.