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Report 281: Daydreaming in Switzerland

By azwaniecki from Washington D.C., Summer 2003

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Page 2 of 4: Harmony and Harmonica in Lugano

When we arrived in Lugano, we saw our hotel - Continental Park Hotel - from the train's windows. It was a white Edwardian structure jumping out from the sea of green on the hill just above the train station. Because it played a major role in our Lugano experience, I would like to describe it in more detail.

Built between 1873 and 1906, Continental Park Hotel & Resort has been owned by the same family for more than 100 years. As it can be seen from old photographs, it has had its ups and downs during this time. The reception area, bar, dining rooms and all public spaces have been brought back to its old grandeur. But when we saw our room, we were under whelmed. With cheap materials used to decorate it and rather basic furniture - except for a very comfortable bed - it looked drab. This gave as an excuse to escape it whenever we could.

So when we were not sightseeing, we spent most of the time in the palm garden, which we saw from our room, or on a grassy patch between the swimming pool and a small vineyard. From there we saw picturesque Lugano crawling down to the shore of Lago di Lugano with mountains framing the perfect view. We relaxed on beach chairs sipping pleasant Ticinese Merlot and listened to birds' singing (different kinds of birds shuttled every day between hotel's garden and the adjacent park - Parco del Tassino). One evening we heard the 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.

After few days of decompression we felt like a character in Percy Aldon's movie "Baghdad Café" who - when asked why she was moving from the quite dusty hamlet in the middle of the desert she enjoyed so much - said: "Too much harmony!" This was the only complaint we had at Continental Park Hotel. And I didn't mention food yet.

We chose a half-board option offered by the hotel, enticed by a single praise of the Continental's chef found on the Internet. We never regretted it. We had a wonderful 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 they served these delicacies in a spacious dining room with large windows from where we enjoyed a stunning view of Lugano and the lake.

The hotel was mostly frequented by senior citizens from the northern German-speaking Swiss cantons, Germany or both. We could never figure that out. To lure them, the hotel invited every evening, but Monday, local Ticenese folk musicians to entertain the guests. So we listened to a harmonist, a mandolin duo, and a singer accompanied by a guitarist. We are not fans of folk music, particularly from this part of the world, so we thought these concerts would be cheesy and kitschy. But we were pleasantly surprised by how authentic the musicians sounded. All of them showed good musicianship, and their playing was not intrusive because they shifted in regular intervals between our dining room and the larger one where busloads of tourist were fed.

We started each day woken by several macho roosters announcing the beginning of their daily pursuits on the grounds of a nearby villa. Later we walked around Lugano, wandering through its narrow alleys and wide-open piazzas. We took strolls along the lake's shore under the canopy of beautiful trees and visited several churches.

Chiesa di Santa Maria degli Angioli is particularly worth visiting. It has magnificent 16th-century frescos by Bernardino Luini. After visiting 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, not far from the busy lakeside highway. From the stairs, we saw that degli Angioli used to be a part of a larger cloister complex, remnants and ruins of which overgrown by abundant vegetation could be seen from the top of the stairs.

But we also had our private agendas. 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 I took the earliest funicular up to Monte San Salvatore to take a hike 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. At noontime it looked deserted and soundly asleep. But I admired the whitewashed walls of houses with colorful flowers cascading from their windows, beautiful gardens and terraces. Then I walked up to and wandered through a fantastic botanical garden, which looked like a natural extension of the local flora.

When I reached Vico Morcote, a tiny bucolic village built in the side of a hill sloping down to the tip of the peninsula, I was ready for lunch. First though, I wandered through its narrow alleys connected by sets of stairs and miniscule private yards, smelling camellias, peonies and roses, enjoying solitude and absorbing mysterious atmosphere of private lives silently hidden behind the walls of old stone-built houses.

Vico Morcote has a beautifully located (and expensive) terrace restaurant. But I choose an unpretentious (and much cheaper) cantina in the village's nicely shadowed main piazza and the company of Calabrese or Sicilian construction workers who had their lunch there. They were of a not-talkative kind, so I could hear a fountain in the middle of the piazza tinkling. Later 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 row of shops and restaurants. From there I took a postale bus back to Lugano (a boat ride is a more attractive, but also a more time-consuming alternative.)

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 o'clock 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 in and around our hotel so much.

Being part Swiss, part Italian, Luganese are special people; they seem to switch between their cultural identities whenever it suites them. We wanted to go to Gandria, a former small fishing village (now, a picturesque tourist trap) on the lakeshore, not far from the Italian border. But a postale bus, which was supposed to go there from the train station, never arrived. When we told a hotel's receptionist about this, she was not surprised at all. She just shrugged her arms and said: "This is an Italian bus after all."

But Swiss can be as emotional as Italians, and not only in Ticino for that matter. In Lausanne's tourist office a middle-aged woman turned in few second from a polite but bored clerk into a passionate and knowledgeable aficionado when I asked her to recommend a good Swiss wine. She displayed maps of the wine producing Vaud with all wineries marked and characterized wines they produce with an excitement of an art collector talking about his recent acquisition. (She recommended St Saphorin and Epesses wines and we bought Coup de L'Etrier from Epesses vineyards.) It turned out that Swiss (white) wines while recognized as one of the best in this part of Europe are not well known outside Switzerland because the production is small, and only tiny fraction of it is exported.

In Ticino, to see the real Italy, we took a boat ride across the Italian border to Campione d'Italia where the only attraction seemed to be a casino situated in a gray, massive and ugly building that looked like a cement plant. But on our way back to Lugano, the boat stopped at Gandrai so we could see this jewel-box of steps, narrow alleys and tightly-built 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.

We did a day trip to Locarno but we did not like that city much. Because of an ongoing rock festival, it was noisy and crowded, and with the stage and all equipment mounted in the middle of Locarno's famous Piazza Grande, we couldn't really see its main attraction. Willing to escape all the commotion, we took a boat to Ascona, a lovely lakeside art community, where we wandered for hours in the maze of narrow alleys and tiny yards full of galleries, restaurants and boutiques. We took a lot of pictures of fading frescos on building 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 the 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.

Back in Locarno, the only memorable site we saw was Santuario della Madonna del Sasso, hanging on the rock high above the city, particularly its Baroque church. We happened to witness a wedding ceremony in it. After the ceremony was over the groom and the bride approached us and few other tourist to personally thank us for participating in their big event! Later, while sightseeing the church, I was shocked to discover a figure of a women with bare breasts in Bramantino's fresco "Flight to Egypt." Later, I did research and learned that it wasn't that unusual for Renaissance artists to include figures of naked or half-naked women in their religious paintings (Raphael did it more than once.)

We left Lugano vowing to return to Continental Park Hotel as ... senior citizens, if not earlier. Because this time we chose a different route (via Italian Domodossola) and expected to change trains three times to return to Lausanne, we decided to let the Swiss railroads handle our heavy suitcases (for mere 20 Swiss francs.)

From Locarno we took a scenic ride to Domodossola on the Centovalli train, which winds and twists its way on the narrow gauge rail laid on narrow "shelves" dug out in sides of the mountains. It runs on countless bridges and viaducts over riverbeds and ravines or "hugs" mountainsides in an effort to escape from gorges. Riding it felt more like a Disney World kind of experience than a regular travel. And this feeling was enhanced by spectacular views, made more dramatic by a storm passing through Centovalli and Valle Vigezzo.

Later, in Vaud Canton, we took a comparable scenic ride on the Oberlander Express or MOB from Montreux to Zweisimmen and back. It is difficult to find words to depict views we saw from the train when first it ascended through the vineyards above Montreux and then on the other side of the hills descended into a series of valleys between the high Alps of the Bernese Oberland. With spectacular landscapes developing in front of our eyes, the experience was more like daydreaming than a scenic ride. At every stop my heart would jump up because I could see hiking trails leading up the mountains or deeper into valleys. But since my wife is not much of a hiker, I would wait for the train to move and let the views take me back to where I was before.

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