Pizza and pasta are the meals of choice. The signs and language are Italian yet our train exited through the Italian border some time ago.
I am feeling somewhat like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz when she exclaimed “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
This is the nature of the Swiss Canton of Ticino. And in broader terms it may be the characteristic of Switzerland whose four distinct official languages and regions, while different, possess a cohesive bond that makes the country immensely successful.
With mountain peaks as a backdrop, Lake Lugano is like a postcard that should be mailed to every person who ever sought meditative tranquility and a place to contemplate the universe. After having sat on the train for a several hours, the waterfront beckoned us and we were ready for a stroll.
It seemed like half the population had the same idea. On wide sidewalks created for activity and mingling, people walked their dogs, jogged with casual abandonment, sat on the numerous benches to breathe in the scenery, or admired the sculptures that dotted the pathway.
Wondering along Via Vassa past the shops and outdoor restaurants, we could be forgiven if we thought we had been transported to the famous Via Condotti street in Rome.
With sophisticated design and merchandising, shops featuring everything from high end Swiss watches and jewelry, to fashions from around the world, begged visitors to come inside.
Shopping in Ticino is an international experience unto itself. Accents from around the world trade questions with retail clerks who cheerfully explain the mechanics of a watch or the background of a dress designer.
Hemmed in by Italy on its southern tip, Ticino might appear as though it could easily be overwhelmed by Italy and its tourist offerings. But Lugano and the surrounding region need not take a back seat to anyone.
This is an area rich in panoramic beauty, historical significance and its own cultural identity that seems to be an integration of Swiss attention to detail and Italian flare.
While dining in the old fishing village of Gandria, with an inexpensive pair of binoculars, it seemed like we could have easily spied on the Italian homes just a couple of kilometers away.
But we were too busy feasting on the fresh perch taken from Lake Lugano and cooked with a delicate blend of herbs, mixed vegetables and potatoes to have any interest in being nosy neighbours.
I love European history. Tales of conflict and castles from bygone days fascinate me. And Ticino offers a number of historical bonanzas.
Our guide explains the historical significance of the three UNESCO Castles that rise above the hillsides in and around the town of Bellinzona.
“In the 14th and 15th Centuries Bellinzona was a thriving and wealthy market city. Under the control of the Dukes of Milan, it was the main commercial passage for commercial products going from Germany to Italy and the Dukes made tons of tax money from traders.”
The Swiss Germans wanted control of this cash cow area and dramatic battles ensued that would shape the futures of both Italy and Switzerland.
Visiting these few castles can easily whet one’s appetite to travel through the rest of Switzerland to unearth the links that connect Swiss past to present day Europe.
In the meantime we did find a way to visit most of Switzerland in just a few short hours.
It is called Swiss Miniature, a family business that was started in 1959 by the grandfather of current assistant manager, Joel Renier.
“At Swiss Miniature you will see scale models of the majority of important castles in Switzerland, in addition to other landmarks and symbols of Swiss history and development.” Renier explains proudly.
While the mountain peaks that hem Lugano in may be accessible only to the fittest of climbers, a funicular transports us to near the peak of Mount San Salvatore. A somewhat arduous, but not insurmountable pathway leads up to the Christo Salvatore Church of Lugano.
From the roof, a spectacular 360 degree view of the entire region unfolds, making the climb entirely worthwhile.
This is a place where most residents seem to be able to speak at least three of the four official languages of Switzerland. And even with their Italian background they convey a strong sense of pride in their own definition of their Swiss identity.
Travel should be about different horizons and broadening experiences. For us this journey did turn out to be a memorable unexpected discovery, and well worth another exploration.