“Arrivederci, signora,” bade thegrotto’sproprietor when I rose from the table to depart. The translation “local eatery” doesn’t adequately describe the appeal of agrotto– a rural, simple tavern that features regional wine, food and fun.
The evening was a success. While I sipped the last of my cappuccino I mentally savored my meal – risotto with porcini mushrooms, osso bucco, breadcake for dessert, a glass of Merlot del Ticino. And I reflected.
My day had begun over 100 miles away in Zurich. From there I zipped by train through the Swiss Alps to my locale, a land of pasta and piazzas.
“Ah, Italy,” one might think. But one would be wrong. I remained in Switzerland. I had been whisked by rail to the country’s southernmost region – Ticino – an area I came to know as Switzerland’s Little Italy and to love as my latest discovery.
Ticino is charmed and distinctive – it’s a gem noted for its delightful blend of Swiss tidiness and proficiency with Italy’s dolce far niente (delightful idleness). Italian is the official language and Catholic the primary religion. With its unique personality, only the Swiss flag reminded me of my actual whereabouts at times.
Situated a bit northwest of Italy’s renowned Lake Como, this Swiss region is a similar collection of emerald lakes, towering peaks and dramatic valleys – it’s called “a Mediterranean world in an Alpine setting.” Unlike the gingerbread-style chalets that grace northern Switzerland’s landscape, these lakeshores and mountainsides are dotted with tile-roofed, vine-covered villas and a sprinkling of palm trees.
In Ticino weather is rarely an issue. The area enjoys a Mediterranean climate – a high proportion of sunny days and mild winters with a rebirth in spring when flowers bloom, lake life flourishes and piazzas buzz with activity.
Here daylight has a luminous quality on cloudless days when the light continually repaints the scenery – from goldenrod to vermillion to crimson. The effect is a perpetual glow on the facades of towns’ buildings and homes. It’s magical.
My home base was the small fishing village of Morcote on the shores of Lake Lugano. Though tiny, the town is home to the church of Santa Maria del Sasso – known for its 16th century frescoes.
And while the nearby city of Lugano is Switzerland’s third largest financial center, complete with traffic delays typical of urban areas, its character is small town. The old town overflows with colorful parks, tiny eateries and pedestrian-only piazzas likePiazza della Reformawhere one might spot the city’s mayor alongside the local street sweeper – both enjoying their morning coffee at an inexpensive gathering spot,Ristorante Olimpia.
Yet, only minutes away is high-priced fun –Via Nassa– known as Lugano’s Fifth Avenue. Here shopping is an exclusive experience – designer clothing, fine leather shoes, Rolex watches.
But one of my favorite Ticinese remembrances was not a shopping acquisition – it was the aerial view and lunch at Restaurant Vetta atop Monte San Salvatore (3000 feet) – reached by funicular (a 10-minute ride from Paradiso/Lugano). The panorama from this lofty perspective was incomparable – Lake Lugano, the Lombardic plain and the Swiss and Savoy Alps.
I soon learned that the lakes are different from every perspective. One of the best ways to explore them is by boat. They sail year-round and depart regularly (though more frequently from late May to the end of October) from towns such as Lugano, Gandria, Melide and Morcote.
And though rather conventional, my first introduction to Lake Lugano by auto was nevertheless intriguing – along meandering lakefront roads, passing villas with names likeCasa Ghieraand entering villages where freshly-washed clothing hung from windows and town folk ventured along cobblestone alleyways to the local market.
It was during this exploration that I discovered Bellinzona, capital of Ticino. It’s not located lakeside but is surrounded by vineyards and small wineries and is an interesting combination of its ancient past with a contemporary flair of today – a modernity that is absent in other Ticinese towns. My visit was during a drizzling rain that seemed to set the appropriate stage for exploring the town’s three medieval castles – Castlegrande, Castello di Montebello and Castello di Corbaro.
Ascona is a city whose pulse is best taken in its town square. Called the Piazza and punctuated by its landmark clock tower, this gathering place is a wide promenade that runs alongside Lake Maggiore.
Described as an “open-air living room,” Ascona is best appreciated from the table of an outdoor café on thePiazza. From there one might observe many scenes – an elderly woman strolling arm-in-arm with her granddaughter, a starkly-white mime entertaining teen tourists, the ferry boat making its arrival from across the lake. It’s little wonder that artists like Isadora Duncan and James Joyce were drawn to the area years ago.
From a bench overlooking Lake Maggiore I pondered the region’s eternally seductive appeal. Mother Nature has been generous, perhaps overindulgent, with the area – but it’s more. I closed my eyes, felt the sun penetrate my face, then realized its simple secret: it’s Ticino.