Ticino: Where Switzerland meets Italy

A view of Lugano from behind the bell tower of the Lugano cathedral

A view of Lugano from behind the bell tower of the Lugano cathedral  

As Switzerland bundles up for the cooler months, there is a sun-drenched part of this country that offers scores of Italian history and culture. Here is how you can make the most of Ticino

Between the snow-dusted mountains of the Alps, the Swiss Railways train races like a bolt of lightning. Phone camera at the ready, one cannot help but try their best to capture the postcard scenery as it zips past; but no technology can exactly reproduce the Swiss landscape peppered with little villages.

For about seven minutes, though, passengers will find themselves heading at full throttle through a dark tunnel which is not unlike a portal; when the train emerges out of the other end, it is a whole new world with Mediterranean weather, clear skies, greenery dotted with daisies and the prettiest cows.

One for all
  • Visiting Switzerland’s iconic hotspots and accessing the streamlined public transport lines are the best way to make the most of the nifty Swiss Travel Pass. The cost for which ranges from CHF 232 (for Second Class three days validity) to CHF 810 (for First Class 15-day validity). The SBB Mobile app is useful for digitally storing your Travel Pass, too, if you’re not down to carrying one more thing in your surely-full backpack.

Switzerland has a one-of-a-kind draw and one of the biggest questions tourists often have when visiting — whether it is the first visit or the fourth — is around the cultural identity of Swiss people. Ask this, and you will get a fairly standard response: the Swiss’ fingerprint comprises four cultural veins: German, French, Italian, and Romansch. This is the result of a tumultuous history with neighbouring nations, which led to the now-mosaical multi-religious and multi-lingual communities.

“The Italian-speaking region is worth a visit because of the extremely strong symbiosis between Italy and Switzerland, and it’s seeing a growing interest among Indian travellers,” says Ritu Sharma, deputy director, Switzerland Tourism. The proximity of the Ticino region to Italy will, in fact, have your roaming going haywire.

A plate of carpaccio

A plate of carpaccio   | Photo Credit: Divya Kala Bhavani

One of the experts of the Ticino district is Anna Bezzola of experience and tour company Alps And Beyond. The academic and tour-pro resides in Bellinzona, which lies east of the sparkling Ticino river. “Bellinzona is one of the must-visit settlements in Ticino,” she recommends, “largely because it’s so rich in history and it often makes you look at Switzerland in a different light. This place is steadily growing in tourism popularity but also promotes a stronger conversation around the heritage preservation”.

Of course, the restaurants in the surrounding area are more reflective of long-existing Italian inclinations. Aside from pizzas and pastas, we are talking plates of fresh tomatoes and thick slices of dripping mozzarella with beef carpaccio and peppery rocket. To cool off the Ticino way, guzzle down the well-known Coldesina, a local, iconic soda dating back to the 1880s.

But to truly comprehend and appreciate the history of Switzerland, look not just at people or culture, but also at its stone and biodiversity.

Through battle history

The three Neolithic Period castles in Bellinzona — Castelgrande, Montebello, and Sasso Corbaro — and their encompassing walls, which stand at overwhelming heights, were all declared by UNESCO as a single World Heritage Site in 2000, and rightfully so. Just a glance at these fortifications will have you searching for your armour and sword, as if you have taken a time machine into the past. Look closely at the walls and you will see distinct lines where new layers of stone were added atop the old, as various rulers transitioned, making it almost impenetrable.

Castelgrande, Bellinzona

Castelgrande, Bellinzona   | Photo Credit: Divya Kala Bhavani

There is a certain pull about Castelgrande and it intensifies as you proceed further into the depths of the dark bricks, the smell of aged parchment and rich wood emanating from within makes evidence of early human settlement clear.

Anna explains the shift in leadership from Lombard to Carolingian and emphasises that the city truly thrived under the Milanese Visconti and Sforza dynasties.

Isole di Brissago

Follow the squawks of swans and the tunes of street musicians to the gem-hued Lake Maggiore. Peacefully located in the centre is Isole di Brissago, comprising two green-brimmed islands: Isola Grande, the larger island which is open to visitors. The foot traffic here is controlled, a reminder to visitors that the botanical garden’s tranquillity is priority. Then there is Isola di Sant’Apollinare, the smaller island, which thrives in its natural, untouched state.

Some of the flora at Isole di Brissago

Some of the flora at Isole di Brissago   | Photo Credit: Divya Kala Bhavani

It is not just the prettiness of the islands that keeps the visitor-filled ferry boats leisurely going back and forth — it is the back-story of how Isole di Brissago came to be, which dates as far back as 1885 when Baron Richard and Baroness Antoinette Fleming de St Leger bought the islands in their raw states, including the ruins of a monastery.

Over the years, until 1897, Baroness Antoinette breathed life into the islands, creating havens for tropical and sub-tropical plants from all over the globe, from Mediterranean spurges to the heath-leaved banksia from Australia. Plus, one can spot a bale of endangered turtles at a pond at the base of the villa’s stairs, a hint at the ongoing fauna conservation on the island. However, in 1927, she had to sell the property due to wartime debts. German merchant Max Emden who was the next owner, developed the luxurious palatial estate which overlooks the lake.

Isole Di Brissago in Lake Maggiore

Isole Di Brissago in Lake Maggiore   | Photo Credit: Divya Kala Bhavani

As of 1950, the islands officially belong to Canton Ticino, where resilient conversations around conservation, culture, science and tourism are held.

Walk through the gardens and your phone battery and storage will take a hit, with you snapping picture after picture. The smells on the islands are also worth a meditative pause; they are an amalgam of fresh water, hundreds of species of blooming flowers, rich soils and the occasional dishes brought out to the al fresco dining area of the villa.

The respect paid by visitors and backers towards Isole di Brissago is one for the books.

(The writer was in Ticino, Switzerland at the invitation of Switzerland Tourism)

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Printable version | May 27, 2020 1:28:54 PM |

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