The Swiss Riviera by Rosario Albar
Map of Switzerland
Lake Lugano
The Swiss Riviera

In the Ticino region are several little jewels of beauty and tranquility.  The train from Zurich dropped me off at the station in Lugano after traveling for about four hours through green, rolling countryside  hip-hugging precipices and tunnels that wove in and out of the mountains and unexpected waterfalls.

In front of the station I took a bus to the Casa Santa Birgitta, a hotel operated by nuns from the Order of St. Bridget.  Bus tickets are bought from ticket machines at bus stops or at tobacco/magazine stands.  As I had no idea of this, I bought a ticket from the bus driver who spoke Italian only but was very helpful.

Switzerland has four major languages - German, French, Italian and Romansch.  Lugano is in the southern section of the country, near the Italian border.  Many of its residents speak Italian.  The people living in areas bordering France on the west such as Geneva and Lausanne speak French and those living in Zurich in the northeast speak German.  Only about 1% of the population speak Romansch and they live in the area known as the Grisons on the southeastern part of the country.  English is widely spoken.

The Casa Santa Birgitta is a modern and very clean hotel with a small chapel on the premises.  The rooftop terrace has a view of Lake Lugano and Monte San Salvatore.  The nuns gave me a key to the hotel so I could come in after the doors are locked in the evening.  I appreciated the calm and peace the hotel offered. And I could walk to the center of Lugano in only 10 or so minutes but I usually lingered to admire the lake and the surrounding mountains.  This was how I started and rounded off my days in Lugano.

The Piazza Riforma is in the center of town surrounded by pastel colored buildings dominated by the town hall.  This is a great place to sit at a terrace cafe and people watch.  Pedestrian only side streets lead to inviting store windows such as those on Via Nassa while another leads up a flight of stairs to an area with a panoramic view of the lake and the mountains.  Lakeside from the piazza is the Parco Civico where you can take your picnic basket and bask in the natural beauty of your surroundings.

One day I took the funicular to Monte San Salvatore.  The funicular hugs the side of the mountain on its way up.  I was under the impression that the pull of gravity would make the ride down a roller coaster experience. Not so.  But it is an exhilirating and novel experience.  The 360-degree view from the mountaintop is breathtaking.  You could see Italy, the Swiss Alps and the three lakes - Lugano, Como and Maggiore from this vantage point.

Locarno is a short train ride from Lugano.  It sits on the shores of Lake Maggiore.  In this small, cozy town, flowers bloom in colorful profusion lending an air of the tropics.  In fact, the weather is mild enough for palm trees to flourish.  The narrow streets have pleasant surprises to share.  On one I saw a man hanging from a balcony but on closer inspection, it was just a
dummy.  Another street led me to a sleepy neighborhood leaving me to wonder if everyone had gone on vacation.

To get to Locarno, you must change trains in Bellinzona.  This fascinating walled town has three castles.  Castelgrande sits on top of a hill at the center of town.  You can take an elevator up to the castle.  Continuing my walk, I chanced upon the elaborately decorated facade of what might once have been the home of a rich Italian merchant.  Bellinzona once belonged to the Duke of Milan.

For a change of pace you can go to Milan.  Only an hour's ride by train but the transformation is complete.  Gone is the tranquility of the lake towns.  Milan engulfs you the moment you arrive.  If you are overwhelmed by the crowds in front of the Milan cathedral, dive into the Galleria and try a risotto dish, a specialty of Northern Italy, from one of the restaurants here.  Or visit the Leonardo da Vinci Science Museum and see how this Renaissance master wrote backwards to protect his ideas.  Or enjoy shopping on Via Napoleone and Via de la Spiga where the famous fashion houses are ensconced.  Then in the evening return to Lugano to rest and relax your soul.



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