travel

The Italian Connection (Part 1)

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Switzerland’s Italian-speaking canton is a sensuous land of lakeside beaches, unspoilt valleys, literary greats and mountain peaks. Lee Marshall salutes the Swiss Riviera

Description: The Restaurant Seven in Ascona

The Restaurant Seven in Ascona

One day, while exploring one of the many valleys of Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, I stopped to give a lift to a hiker. He turned out to be a retired journalist from Zurich who had spent much of his life analyzing Switzerland. It made him mad, he told me, when fellow Swiss – especially Swiss Germans like himself – saw their country’s two main religions (Catholic and Protestant) and four linguistic and cultural groupings (German, French, Italian and Romansch) as some kind of burden. “We have this wonderful gift of having a large swathe of Europe condensed into one small country,” he said, eyes shining. “Think of the language skills it gives you, and the lesson in tolerance, not to mention being able to get in your car and go French or go Italian without leaving your country.”

Description: valleys of Ticino

valleys of Ticino

Mention the Italian part of Switzerland to anyone who knows the region even slightly and the chances are they will immediately think of its two lakes: Lugano and Maggiore. Both are shared with Italy, Switzerland having the lion’s share of Lugano and Italy dominating Maggiore. But Ticino makes a lot of its short Maggiore shoreline. At the head of the lake, Locarno and its neighbor Ascona are, respectively, the Nice and the St Tropez of the Swiss Riviera, the first a prosperous city with a sunny disposition and a vibrant cultural scene, the second a smart lakeside resort with some of Ticino’s top hotels and an old town crammed with art galleries, cafes and antique shops.

Description: Lugano is the biggest city in Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. However, it is not the cantonal capital

Lugano is the biggest city in Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. However, it is not the cantonal capital

The city of Lugano, to the south, combine beaches, old-town culture and shopping with a serious business remit: it is the third most important financial market in Switzerland after Geneva and Zurich. In the Morcote peninsula, Lake Lugano has Como’s mix of patrician, historic villas and romantic lake and mountain landscapes; and like Como it has long attracted writers and artists, from author Hermann Hesse (of whom more later) to leading Dadaist Hugo Ball.

Description: The city of Lugano

The city of Lugano

Ticino, though, has a life beyond its major lakes. I was particularly impressed by Bellinzona, the administrative capital but also a historic town girdled by three UNESCO-listed medieval castles that, lit up at night, transform a pleasant working town info a fairy-tale film set. The centro storico, with its multicoloured pastel houses and Veneto-style arcades, is perhaps the best place in the whole region to enter into the Italianate spirit of Ticino, and in Villa dei Cedri, Bellinzona has one of the Ticino’s most unexpectedly satisfying art galleries. Its permanent collection of artists who lived or worked in the area crystallizes something rather touching about the hopes and aspirations of local art patrons over the course of more than four centuries.

Description: Lake Maggiore, as seen from the Cardada viewing platform

Lake Maggiore, as seen from the Cardada viewing platform

Then there are the valleys, Alpine Switzerland may lie further to the north, but Ticino has mountains, waterfalls, hiking trails, flower-rimmed Alpine lakes and cute wooden villages in abundance. There’s even a summer “beach” scene on rivers rather than lakes, especially in the two valleys that corkscrew north from Locarno: the Valle Maggia, which has a full-scale summer lido in a dammed section of the river at Avegno, and the narrow Val Verzasca.

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