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How to Enjoy Ticino the Slow Travel Way

Andrzej Zwaniecki

Ticino is an Italian speaking canton in Switzerland. It is in southern Switzerland, on the border with Italy, on the south side of the Alps.

Find a hotel or vacation rental where you can enjoy lingering

Ours was a hotel - Continental Park Hotel in Lugano, a white Edwardian structure jumping out from the sea of green on the hill just above the train station - played a major role in our June 2003 Lugano experience.

Built between 1873 and 1906, it has been brought back, more or less, to its old grandeur. But when we saw our room, we were under whelmed. This gave as an excuse to spend much time in hotel's palm garden from which we could see picturesque Lugano crawling down to the shore of Lago di Lugano (Lake Lugano) with mountains framing the perfect view.

Establish your daily routines

We would start a day woken up by several macho roosters crowing at a nearby villa. Later we walked around Lugano, wandering through its narrow alleys and wide-open piazzas and trying not to pay any attention to astronomical prices of items displayed in shops' windows (Lugano has one of the highest rates of millionaire concentration per square mile in the world). We took strolls along lake's shore under the canopy of beautiful trees and visited several churches.

We lunched at Manor department store's espresso bar (Piazza Dante 2). Good sandwiches and desserts can be bought at the adjacent bakery counter and salads at the deli counter, and brought to a bar's table.

The Italian look of public buildings, hotels and private villas, Italian food and language, and the combination of Alpine and Mediterranean flora make Lugano an irresistible place. But we realized that we actually were not in Italy when all shops closed exactly at seven p.m. and within next 10 or fifteen minutes the downtown was deserted. We might have been disappointed by the complete lack of nightlife if not for the fact that we enjoyed staying around our hotel so much.

We chose a half-board option offered by the hotel enticed by a single praise of Continental's chef found on the Internet. We had a good three-course dinner every day (four-courses on Tuesdays and Saturdays) with the most imaginative sauces accompanying salmon, veal, turkey and pork (broiled salmon with saffron sauce was particularly delicious). And these delicacies were served in a spacious dining room with large windows from which we enjoyed a stunning view of Lugano and the lake, and listened to local Ticenese folk musicians invited by the hotel to entertain guest.

After dinner, we would relax on beach chairs in the palm garden sipping pleasant Ticinese Merlot and listening to birds' singing (different kinds of birds shuttled every day between hotel's garden and the adjacent Parco del Tassino). One evening we heard thundering of a storm slowly approaching from behind Monte Bre, the mountain calling for a comparison with Rio de Janeiro's Sugarloaf Mountain; another night, we listened to a harmonica concert given by a hotel guest sitting by the pool.

See things in Lugano

The city itself is a marvel to look at when you walk its narrow and sometimes climbing streets and alleys.

Chiesa di Santa Maria degli Angioli is particularly worth visiting. It has magnificent 16th-century frescos by Bernardino Luini. From the church we walked up the stairs that run parallel to an abandoned funicular where we found a sense of calm and more birds singing, just few hundred yards from the busy lakeside highway.

My wife was happy to find Hotel Adler, now an apartment building, which featured prominently in memoirs of a Jewish family she found particularly interesting. And both of us went to see the exhibition of Egon Schiele, an Austrian expressionists, in Museo d'Arte Moderna, which mounts world-class exhibitions. Two other art museum also are worth visiting. However, because they are smallish, they close their permanent collections whenever they organize major exhibitions.

My wife and I were planning to go to Montagnola, where the writer Hermann Hesse lived for 43 years to see his first house, Casa Camuzzi, (it now houses a small museum.) But we never made it there.

We found a particular pleasure in boating across and around the lake. We took a boat ride across the Italian border to Campione d'Italia to see a piece of Italy. It was mistake. The only attraction in Campione seems to be a casino situated in a gray, massive and ugly building that looks like a cement plant.

But on our way back to Lugano the boat stopped at Gandria, a former fishing village and now a picturesque tourist trap, and we could see this jewel-box of steps, narrow alleys and tightly-build houses raising straight from the lake. From the boat we also caught few glimpses of the fabulous garden surrounding Villa Favorita where the famous Thyssen-Bornemisza art collection is located. The villa and the garden have been closed for almost two years to visitors because of a family feud over inheritance rights.

Take a hike

For those who want to see the area from a bird's perspective there are plenty of easy and pleasant mountain trails.

I took the earliest funicular up to Monte San Salvatore to wander to Morcote on the tip of the Ceresio peninsula.

With constantly changing landscapes and views, it was one of the best (and easiest) hikes I ever took. I visited lovely Carona, a small picturesque village and art community. Then I walked up to and wandered through a fantastic botanical garden, which offered unbeatable views of Lago di Lugano from behind the screens of exotic vegetation. In Vico Morcote, a tiny bucolic village built in the side of a hill sloping down top the lake, I wandered through its narrow alleys connected by sets of stairs and miniscule private yards, smelling camellias, peonies and roses. I had lunch at an unpretentious cantina in village's nicely shadowed main piazza. After lunch I climbed down never ending stairs to the beautiful Chiesa di Santa Maria del Sasso and, finally, to Morcote, a lovely lakeside tourist trap with a raw of shops and restaurants. From there I took a postale bus back to Lugano (boat ride is a much more pleasant option.)

Do a day trip

Take a day trip to Locarno but only if you have too much time. We did not like that city much. It hosts a number of festivals and as a result is noisy, crowded and commercialized. Because of an ongoing rock festival, we couldn't even see the city's famous Piazza Grande.

Willing to escape all the commotion, we took a boat to Ascona, a lovely lakeside art community, where we wondered for hours in the maize of narrow alleys and tiny yards full of galleries, restaurants and boutiques. We took a lot of pictures of fading frescos on buildings' walls and curiously structured yards and they turned out to be the most interesting of all we brought from our trip. Ascona had its heyday in 19th century when European fringe artists, intellectuals and activists established an esoteric Monte Verita community there. We didn't have time to visit the museum telling the story of the movement and exhibiting some of the art created within it but we heard it is well-worth visiting.

The only thing we liked in Locarno was Santuario della Madonna del Sasso, hanging on the rock high above the city, particularly its Baroque church.

Take Centovalli train when you leave or head for Ticino. On our way back, we took a scenic ride to Domodossola on the Centovalli train, which winds and twists its way on the narrow gauge rail laid on "shelves" carved out in the slopes of the mountains. It runs over countless bridges, viaducts, riverbeds and ravines. Every stop tempts you to get off and hit the trail. But riding the train is exciting enough to keep you onboard. It feels more like a Disney World kind of experience than a regular travel. And in our case this feeling was enhanced by spectacular views made more dramatic by a storm passing through Centovalli and Valle Vigezzo.


www.lugano.ch: Lugano Tourism official site.

Andrzej Zwaniecki is a traveler from Maryland.

© Andrzej Zwaniecki, 2004

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