A Taste of Ti­cino

World Travel Magazine - - Contents - BY ALEXIS MU­NIER

In glo­ri­ous Ti­cino, the Mediter­ranean heart of Switzer­land, new meets old in de­light­fully un­ex­pected ways.

This isn’t the Switzer­land I know and love. Gone are the snow-car­peted peaks and tidy green mead­ows speck­led with dairy cows. Gone are the deep brown larch wood chalets with bursts of colour­ful gera­ni­ums at each minia­ture win­dow. Gone as well, the gut­tural bursts of lo­cal Sch­wi­iz­ertüütsch dialect. Chuchichästli (the test for any for­eigner, the nearly un­pro­nounce­able word for kitchen hutch), be­comes, with a deft roll of the tongue, cre­denza.

Here, lush yel­low mi­mosas and tall date palms line the shores of cerulean lakes, and an­cient stone houses hud­dle to­gether in tiny moun­tain­top vil­lages like ants in the rain. There’s laugh­ter in the warm, breezy air and the Mer­lot flows like mother’s milk. Italy? Not a chance. The trains ac­tu­ally run on time, and the wind­ing cob­ble­stone lanes are unusu­ally tidy. Rather than bumper-to-bumper Fi­ats beep­ing a ca­coph­ony of horns, I spot two Fer­raris ca­su­ally parked on a sidestreet, their own­ers ei­ther very con­fi­dent or very re­laxed. Wel­come to Ti­cino, the Mediter­ranean heart of Switzer­land.

Castel­grande, as seen from Castello di Mon­te­bello

DAY ONE

I ini­tially landed in Ti­cino 15 years ago, as a care­free 25-year old on a week­end trip from my home base in Zurich. I hadn’t been in the coun­try long, and it was my first glimpse of a dif­fer­ent sort of Switzer­land. Sure, it was clean and beau­ti­ful and full of pri­vate banks, but here, life moved at a slower pace. Dolce vita, lit­er­ally “the sweet life”, ex­isted here in a way un­seen in the vast Ger­man-speak­ing sec­tion. But alas, as said Os­car Wilde, youth is wasted on the young. I found Lugano dull, As­cona too re­fined. I craved the dizzy­ing thrill of un­pre­dictable Italy, where a stolen pass­port and se­ries of long-de­layed trains seemed like the happy an­ti­dote to my pre­dictable Zurich ex­is­tence.

More than a decade later, the tides have turned. Life is busy. When I es­cape, I crave a rare com­bi­na­tion of nat­u­ral beauty, peace, and calm, mar­ried with the en­joy­ment of fine food and wine that don’t typ­i­cally grace my ta­ble on a daily ba­sis. With a last-minute week to my­self, I quickly plot an itin­er­ary of both the hip and the his­toric high­lights of Ti­cino. I’ll treat my­self to grand ho­tels and Miche­lin-starred din­ners, but make time for a meal in a tra­di­tional grotto and boc­calino of lo­cal wine. I’ll don a pair of dirty hik­ing boots for an Alpine walk, but fin­ish up the even­ing in heels at a cock­tail bar. I’ll mar­vel at mod­ern struc­tures from world-renowned ar­chi­tect Mario Botta, right along­side 12th-cen­tury Ro­manesque fres­cos.

Ten min­utes later I am packed and ready to go. I but­ton my bright Ital­ian de­signer rain­coat and grudg­ingly sling on my trusty green vin­tage leather mil­i­tary back­pack. Old habits die hard.

With the open­ing of the new Got­thard Base Tun­nel—the world’s long­est—the trip from Zurich lasts just one and a half hours to Ti­cino’s cap­i­tal, Bellinzona. I could ex­pe­ri­ence the fa­mous loops of the for­mer track as I did a decade ago, with mul­ti­ple views on Wassen Church by sim­ply tak­ing one of the trains that op­er­ate on the his­toric moun­tain route across the Got­thard Pass in­stead. But I’m keen to dis­cover the Got­thard base tun­nel, which at 57 kilo­me­tres sets a record for the world’s long­est and deep­est rail­way tun­nel.

In sum­mer 2016 the new Got­thard tun­nel was in­au­gu­rated with great fan­fare. But it wasn’t just the tun­nel it­self that stirred up at­ten­tion; it was the bizarre Swiss artistry of the open­ing show, which fea­tured furry ibex rolling in an in­ti­mate em­brace and a top­less wo­man with wings and a cupid’s face meant to rep­re­sent a guardian an­gel of the nine work­ers who died dur­ing its con­struc­tion. Watch­ing the show along with dozens of other jour­nal­ists, it was mo­ments like those that made me love the Swiss. Just when you think they’re too bor­ing for words, they shock you with an un­ex­pected and ab­so­lutely in­ex­pli­ca­ble ges­ture.

I hardly no­tice that we’ve left the tun­nel. It’s late and the sun has set hours ago, leav­ing the dark sky a happy home to a half-dozen con­stel­la­tions above me. It’s just an­other few min­utes to my first stop, Bellinzona, where I’m in­trigued to sleep at a ho­tel I’d passed a dozen years ago that has now been re­stored to its for­mer Art Nou­veau glory, the Ho­tel In­ter­nazionale. It’s late, but not too late to en­joy a cock­tail on the ad­join­ing ter­race.

“An­other glass of wine, sig­no­rina?” the waiter asks an hour later, rais­ing an eye­brow and shak­ing back a head of cho­co­late curls.

I smile at his use of “miss”. Hes­i­tat­ing, I nod si. I am not in Italy, though at just a dozen kilo­me­tres away, I could be. While North­ern Italy’s Lake District gets all the at­ten­tion—and Ge­orge Clooney—a por­tion of Lago Mag­giore’s shores ac­tu­ally be­long to Switzer­land.

DAY TWO

Maybe it’s my Amer­i­can side, but noth­ing says Europe to me like a good, old cas­tle. While Switzer­land doesn’t boast as many as France or Ger­many per square kilo­me­tre, those she does have are ab­so­lute beau­ties. The crown­ing jewel is a trio of an­cient stone fortresses in Bellinzona, Ti­cino’s cap­i­tal. A quaint lit­tle city, Bellinzona’s down­town spans just a few blocks and is dwarfed by Lugano and the Lo­carnoas­cona area. It’s small size and coun­try­side set­ting far from any lake have helped Bellinzona es­cape a pro­lif­er­a­tion of lux­ury ho­tels and bou­tiques, keep­ing it de­cid­edly lo­cal and the best place to be­gin a Ti­cino idyll.

Ti­cino has two UNESCO World Her­itage sites and I am de­vot­ing this morn­ing to ex­plor­ing one of them. I’m feel­ing full af­ter a hearty break­fast and three—no make that four—espressi. The deep, rich

This Page, A colour­ful room at the Eden Roc in As­cona Op­po­site, nar­row street with cafes and restau­rants in the old town of Lugano; bustling Satur­day mar­ket in Bellinzona

Geo­met­ric artistry at the Church of Mogno built by ar­chi­tect Mario

sweet­ness of Tici­nese cof­fee re­minds me of the Ital­ian brands fur­ther south, a world away from the slightly ashen taste of the un­der-roasted Swiss stan­dard.

I walk briskly down the ho­tel’s stairs, stop­ping to ad­mire the colour­ful over­sized sculp­tures that con­trast the Art Nou­veau iron­work stair­case and orig­i­nal stained glass win­dows. Five min­utes later and I’m head­ing through the bustling Satur­day mar­ket, a weekly or bi­weekly tra­di­tion in most Euro­pean towns. But a world away from the markets in Ger­man-speak­ing Switzer­land, these en­er­getic gath­er­ings bring sta­ples like miele d’ac­ca­cia (ch­est­nut honey) and dap­pled ground po­lenta as well as shiny pur­ple egg­plant and other or­ganic veg­eta­bles. Sand­wiched in be­tween sur­pris­ingly stylish racks of clothes and hand­made sil­ver jewellery there are even stands of carved wooden chil­dren’s toys and walk­ing sticks. I touch the tallest of the bunch, run­ning the top of my fin­ger over the smooth oak sculpted into a bear’s head. Bears? This area hasn’t seen them in years, which is prob­a­bly a good thing for hik­ers like me, for whom the oc­ca­sional wild boar and poi­sonous viper seem risky enough.

A minute later I ar­rive at Castel­grande. The first of the cas­tles is lo­cated in the town cen­tre on an enor­mous hill, and to my sur­prise, an el­e­va­tor has been carved into the rock. I luck out of the first climb and tour the ram­parts and tower, be­fore head­ing up the large moun­tain fac­ing Bellinzona and on Castello di Mon­te­bello and Sasso Cor­baro. Af­ter half an hour, I’m at Mon­te­bello, which is sur­rounded by de­fen­sive moats and vine af­ter vine of grapes. These vine­yards, like 85% of oth­ers in Ti­cino, pro­duce the much-loved Mer­lot. Hardly known out­side the Switzer­land, this ex­cel­lent wine-pro­duc­ing re­gion is just now, like the Lavaux re­gion in Can­ton Vaud, start­ing to be rec­om­mended in in­ter­na­tional wine cir­cles. With both white and red va­ri­eties, Mer­lot here ben­e­fits from warm days and cool nights, which leaves it slightly less lush and fruity (read: sweet) than its French and Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts and pairs beau­ti­fully with Ti­cino’s hearty cuisine.

The views from Sasso Cor­baro, at nearly 500m up, are stun­ning. I take a short walk through the mu­seum that dis­plays de­tailed ex­hibits into the cas­tle’s his­tory and fin­ish up on the open square. I can now un­der­stand why Bellinzona was selected as the can­ton’s cap­i­tal. From here, all val­leys and main en­try­ways into the re­gion are vis­i­ble—i look out over past the Riviera Val­ley and can see Lago Mag­giore to the south, beck­on­ing me. Next stop, Lo­carno.

I’m sur­prised to find that my trip to Lago Mag­giore won’t cost me a dime. To cel­e­brate the open­ing of the Got­thard Base Tun­nel, all train and bus travel is free in Ti­cino un­til the end of 2017. With the high price of Swiss rail­way jour­neys, this can amount to a sig­nif­i­cant sav­ing to all ho­tel guests upon presentation of a Ti­cino Fare card. For the fer­ries that ply the waters of the two lakes, Lago Mag­giore and Lago di Lugano, there are 30% dis­counts.

It’s a balmy 20*C as I board the short train to Lo­carno. When most of Switzer­land is still shrouded un­der a fog of rain and snow, spring brings blue skies and mild tem­per­a­tures to Can­ton Ti­cino, snug­gled at the coun­try’s south­ern bor­der. As the only Ital­ian-speak­ing re­gion in a land that over­whelm­ingly favours Ger­man and French, Ti­cino, like most peo­ple south of the Alps, has had it harder than most of Switzer­land when it comes to climb­ing out of his­toric poverty. Star­ing at the fash­ion­able lake­side prom­e­nades, it’s hard for me to be­lieve that just a few decades ago Ti­cino was one of the poor­est re­gions of what is one of the rich­est coun­tries in the world.

To­day Lugano is a ma­jor bank­ing cen­tre, while As­cona and Lo­carno are thriv­ing re­sort towns. While it’s some­times hard to find a real lo­cal in these areas, the tourism surge has made Ti­cino a year-round hub. With ev­ery­thing the city has to offer, it’s no won­der more than 75% of the pop­u­la­tion lives in these ur­ban areas that spread out over the can­ton’s main val­leys. This means, though, that a 15-minute trip out of town finds you in quiet moun­tain vil­lages where life moves at a snail’s pace and undis­turbed Alpine val­leys bring an in­fi­nite num­ber of trekking op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Upon ar­rival at Lo­carno sta­tion, I see a hand­held sign which reads Mr Mu­nier and I smile at the driver, who, like many oth­ers in a coun­try where Alexis is an ex­clu­sively mas­cu­line name, did not ex­pect a blonde in fiery lip­stick. A short drive later and we ar­rive at As­cona’s pretty traf­fic-free main drag. Against a back­drop of moun­tains and sea, there are just a few small restau­rants and a maze of old streets wait­ing for ex­plo­ration.

DAY THREE

I’m not sure I agree with famed lo­cal son and world-renown ar­chi­tect Mario Botta, who says

Lavertezzo, a rus­tic vil­lage along the breath­tak­ing Verza­sca River (Val­ley)

“Ar­chi­tec­ture is a never-end­ing fight be­tween man and na­ture.” In Ti­cino, this fight ap­pears more like a care­fully ne­go­ti­ated agree­ment in which both sides come out the win­ner. Botta was born in Men­dri­sio in 1943 and de­signed his first build­ing at the time I was get­ting my first driv­ing li­cense. His ca­reer shot to fame af­ter de­sign­ing the San Fran­cisco Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in the late 80s show­cas­ing his unique post­mod­ern style that uses ma­sonry in­stead of typ­i­cal glass and metal. Luck­ily two of Botta’s best re­li­gious works are just an hour or so from where I’m sit­ting.

Hik­ers know Botta’s work bet­ter than most, as sev­eral of his most im­por­tant churches are spec­tac­u­larly iso­lated in the Alps. From the black and white checker­board Chiesa San Gio­vanni Bat­tista in Mogno to his por­phyry-red Cap­pella Santa Maria degli An­geli on the peak of Monte Ta­maro, it’s a rev­e­la­tion to wit­ness these geo­met­ric build­ings amidst a for­est of dom­i­nat­ing pines. It’s nearly 11am and I’ve just fin­ished a break­fast of smoked salmon, fresh for­mag­gini and home­made pane tici­nese, a tasty white bread ren­dered soft by a bit of oil added to the bat­ter. Note to self: Next time I stay at the Eden Roc, fast for a week be­fore­hand. This trip is go­ing to be rough on my waist­line…and I’m only tak­ing break­fast into con­sid­er­a­tion. To avoid yes­ter­day’s jit­ters, I’ve lim­ited my­self to two espresso mac­chi­ato and a glass of bub­bly pros­ecco, and pried my­self from the lux­u­ri­ous co­coon that is this 5-star su­pe­rior ho­tel. I’m in the mood for a shock to my sys­tem, and Botta’s rep­u­ta­tion for strik­ing moder­nity is just what I need.

It has been de­scribed as an ar­chi­tec­tural won­der, a truly new take on re­li­gious ar­chi­tec­ture. I’m not a Chris­tian, but that makes lit­tle dif­fer­ence. Af­ter a jour­ney on the ca­ble car from Rivera to Alpe Foppa, it’s a short walk to Cap­pella Santa Maria degli An­geli. There are crowds de­spite the cloudy skies, but I don’t mind; a bit of spring rain helps keep the peaks downy green. I don’t have to re­vere the re­li­gious icons to feel like a tiny speck in a vast, beau­ti­ful uni­verse. Gaz­ing out at the Alpine panorama around me, and walk­ing back via the nar­row viaduct that con­nects the chapel with a look­out point. I be­gin the trip back down, and I feel a swell in my chest, a be­lief in some­thing greater. The feel­ing is short-lived, as a deep grum­ble sets my mind back to re­al­ity. Lunchtime.

There’s a rea­son those in the know come to Switzer­land to eat, and it isn’t just the cheese. While the coun­try’s dishes are lit­tle known out­side fon­due, raclette, and the ubiq­ui­tous hashed brown pota­toes called rösti, there are more Miche­lin-starred restau­rants here per capita than in any other. In Ti­cino, the cuisine is mostly Ital­ian-in­fused Swiss, where a Mediter­ranean heart mar­ries stick-to-your-ribs Alpine sta­ples with the sub­tle flavours of the boot.

Na­tives of south­ern Italy have a name for those in the north—“po­len­tone”, po­lenta-eaters. This isn’t the wimpy golden por­ridge that passes for po­lenta in many over­seas restau­rants; made with corn grown on the fer­tile Ma­gadino plain, the only large-scale agri­cul­tural area in Ti­cino, it’s thick-grained and hearty. The recipe of­ten calls ground buck­wheat, giv­ing the creamy sta­ple streaks of dark brown and an al­most nutty flavour.

With a bit of rain and a cool, sweep­ing wind, it’s the per­fect day for a warm grotto meal. Grotti, cave­like restau­rants dec­o­rated in tra­di­tional style serv­ing lo­cal spe­cial­i­ties, are dot­ted all over Ti­cino. Af­ter to­day’s ad­ven­ture, this rib-stick­ing meal is well-earned and well-ap­pre­ci­ated. Were it au­tumn or win­ter, I could or­der a steam­ing bowl­ful straight from a large pot on a crack­ling fire at La Baita, in Ma­gadino across the lake from Lo­carno. To­day I choose just a small por­tion of the good stuff to leave room for a se­lec­tion of lo­cal cheeses. I love the creami­ness of Piora and Val­mag­gia, two of the best hard moun­tain pas­ture cheeses de­noted by a PDO, or “Pro­tected Des­ig­na­tion of Ori­gin”, but it’s hard to re­sist a sec­ond help­ing of Zin­car­lin, a soft goat’s milk cheese en­hanced with coarse black pep­per and alpine herbs. Be­cause the pop­u­lar grotto spe­cialises in house-made char­cu­terie, I save room for an un­usual dessert…a sam­pler of pancetta, mor­tadella and the “made our way” salume­ria nos­trana. I let the last salty bite linger on my tongue, and this meal proves to me yet again that those who de­scribe Ti­cino as “Italy Light” haven’t eaten at a grotto in some time.

DAY FOUR

I stop to catch my breath in Lavertezzo. It isn’t the view of the emer­ald green waters of the Verza­sca River, or the Ro­man arches of the Ponte dei salti, the “bridge of jumps” im­mor­talised in so many pho­to­graphs, although that de­serves breath­less sigh. It’s the steep moun­tain ahead of me. Thighs scream­ing and calves bulging, I con­tinue on, mak­ing my way along the rocky mule path to­ward Sonogno, the last vil­lage in Val Verza­sca. There are a few brave spring swim­mers tak­ing dips in the icy water at

This Page from top, Art work at Villa Castag­nola; view of Mogno and Mario Botta’s Chiesa di San Gio­vanni Bat­tista Op­po­site, Lago di Lugano’s rounded green peaks have a Rio-like feel

Ponte dei Salti bridge in Lavertezzo,verza­sca Val­ley, Ti­cino

Lavertezzo, tak­ing ad­van­tage hav­ing the river all to them­selves. The sum­mer heat, as they well know, will bring hordes of bathers hop­ing to cool down in the sparkling blue-green pools.

James Bond fans will recog­nise Val Verza­sca from the open­ing scene of Gold­eneye, in which Pierce Bros­nan’s bungee jump from Verza­sca dam has gone down as one of the best Bond stunts in his­tory. I wasn’t cer­tain a free fall one hun­dred me­tres up was my thing, so I de­cided kept my feet firmly on the ground. Sev­eral hours later I am nearly half­way through hik­ing up the rugged gorge to the top of the 26-km val­ley. Along the way I’ve passed the pic­turesque vil­lage of Corippo, cling­ing pre­car­i­ously to the moun­tain­side. It is so steep that a lo­cal leg­end says the in­hab­i­tants pre­vented eggs from rolling down the moun­tain by ty­ing a fab­ric sac un­der their chicken’s tails. Hop­ing to avoid an un­ruly egg’s fate, I cut out early, tak­ing the yel­low Post­bus back to town and on to the last leg of the Ti­cino tri­an­gle, Lugano. I aim to spend the hours I’ve saved hik­ing en­joy­ing a fine meal in­stead, and af­ter some ca­jol­ing, I man­age to score the last din­ner reser­va­tion at Gallery Arté al Lago, the Miche­lin-starred restau­rant that is housed in an art gallery at the Villa Castag­nola Ho­tel.

I clean up well, the concierge jokes, and af­ter a long, hot soak I ease my sore legs down to the lobby for the wind­ing ride down to Lugano’s Cas­sarate neigh­bour­hood to the restau­rant. I have stud­ied the menu in ad­vance, dream­ing of his scal­lops with miso and wasabi in­fu­sion, steamed oys­ters and caramelised spring onion, but let’s see what Chef Frank Oerthle rec­om­mends this even­ing. I know one thing for cer­tain—he won’t stop me or­der­ing the crispy rhubarb tart­let “Arté style”. I’m not sure what that means ex­actly, but I’m game to try es­pe­cially since sweet-tart rhubarb is in sea­son. The walls are dot­ted in paint­ings and sculp­tures line the halls, fea­tur­ing a va­ri­ety of artists, and the ex­hi­bi­tions change twice a year. But bit­ing into my sweet-tart dessert—it turns out “Arté style” means served with rhubarb sor­bet and driz­zled with straw­berry-vanilla mousse—i’m aware that what’s in my dish is just as beau­ti­ful, just as vir­tu­osic, as the mu­seum-qual­ity art all around me.

DAY FIVE

The old say­ing “L’abito non fa il monaco” lit­er­ally, the dress doesn’t make the monk, or clothes don’t make the man, isn’t ap­pli­ca­ble here. Swiss style may be pre­dom­i­nantly ca­sual, but Ti­cino takes on flair un­seen in other can­tons. With all the burst­ing colour of the semi-trop­i­cal veg­e­ta­tion—there’s a dar­ing use of coloured cra­vats, scarves and sun­glasses. Well-dressed men in crim­son or mus­tard trousers are the norm, not the ex­cep­tion.

Af­ter care­fully con­sid­er­ing the lobby fash­ion at my ho­tel, the gor­geous hill­top Villa Principe Leopoldo—once a prince’s pri­vate res­i­dence—i know I’ll have to ditch the back­pack and pick up a taste­ful hand­bag in time for af­ter­noon tea. I don’t have much room for in­dulging in re­tail ther­apy, but I won­der if I shouldn’t ven­ture to­ward Lugano any­how. A trip to the largest city and lake­side re­sort has more to do than just shop­ping, although that it­self can eas­ily fill a day in the Lugano area. If you don’t mind a shop­ping mall—peren­ni­ally packed with day-trip­pers de­ter­mined to find a bar­gain—there’s the op­tion of Fox­town, a lux­ury out­let with over 60 stores not far from the city. But rather than spend my last day max­ing out my credit card, I de­cide to take it easy at the ho­tel, swim­ming in the mas­sive out­door pool over­look­ing vivid man­i­cured gar­dens. When my ex­po­sure slips dan­ger­ously close to sun­burn, I quickly dress and head down to Lugano proper for a tour of Lac—lugano Arte e Cul­tura. This new cul­tural cen­tre has a 1,000-seat con­cert hall for var­i­ous the­atre and mu­sic per­for­mances, and is also home to the Museo d’arte della Svizzera Ital­iana, which formed when Lugano’s two art mu­se­ums merged.

The col­lec­tion boasts some­thing for every­one, from the 17th cen­tury to to­day. I stroll the halls, which are cov­ered in French mas­ters like Dé­gas and Renoir as well as Tici­nese painters like Gio­vanni Bat­tista Dis­ce­poli and Pier Francesco Mola.

The sun was slid­ing west­ward as I ex­ited the mu­seum, and that meant I’d soon need to catch a train home. But there was some­thing I’d for­got­ten. Ge­lato! The af­ter­noon sun warm­ing my face, I walk to the Lun­go­lago, Lugano’s lake­side prom­e­nade. Af­ter hes­i­tat­ing, I fi­nally de­cide on cocco, co­conut, and noc­ci­ola, a hazel­nut flavour that wasn’t avail­able in my home state of Cal­i­for­nia, where I spent lazy sum­mers on the beach. But this was in no stereo­typ­i­cal beach town. While it’s al­ways been the pre­ferred week­end get­away of na­tive Swiss, Ti­cino is now com­ing into its own as a des­ti­na­tion in its own right, a sober al­ter­na­tive to a chaotic hol­i­day in the boot be­low. It’s the sim­plest way to par­take in all the Ital­ianate plea­sures Switzer­land has to offer, with­out any of the has­sles of the real deal across the bor­der.

I sat down on a wooden bench fac­ing Lago di Lugano and watched the crowds stream by. Mid­dleaged busi­ness­men in tai­lored suits, grey-haired ladies in wide-brimmed hats and So­phie Loren-es­que sun­glasses, and young Tici­nese cou­ples walk­ing hand in hand wan­dered by, paus­ing only now and again to kiss un­der the tall palms. I think back to my first im­pres­sions of the re­gion years ago. Ti­cino, bor­ing? I think I could get used to it.

This Page, Lavertezzo, a rus­tic vil­lage along the breath­tak­ing Verza­sca River (Val­ley) in Ti­cino

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