Our last day in Lugano was Sunday, 18th March. The weather was chilly and overcast but not raining and Marco and Soraia took us out for the day again, this time headed up into the Alps, well the Alpine foot hills, above Locarno.
We drove up the Maggia valley leading north from the shore of Lake Maggiore at Locarno and followed it up above the snow line, passing through Cevio towards Val Bavona. The valley seems to have old stone built villages every 1 or 2 km along its entire length.
Originally working villages they are now predominantly holiday homes, but at the top of the valley we found a working farm selling goats cheese (an honesty box and an open fridge!) On the way back down we found a nice restaurant, the Grotto Baloi in Fontana, for a simple lunch of Polenta and Cheese. Valeria was just happy with the roaring log fire!
From there we drove back down the valley to Locarno on the shores of Lake Maggiore and stopped for a wander around town before returning to Lugano.
Marco and Soraia treated us to another great day out in the magnificent countryside where they live. Despite being overcast and a bit damp Valeria loved it because she hadn’t seen snow for, oh, about 2 weeks!!
But, sadly, this was our last day here; on Monday we catch the train south again to Florence. It’s been fantastic to spend time with Marco and Soraia again and they made our first, fleeting, visit to Switzerland a great experience.
From Gandria Marco and Soraia drove us north to the town of Bellinzona, the capital of the Canton of Ticino. The city is at the head of the Lake Maggiore valley and boasts the well preserved and extensive remains of its original town walls which includes the three separate, but linked, castles of Castelgrande, Sasso Corbaro and Montebello.
Bellinzona is situated on one of the main north south Alpine trade routes and as such has been fortified for centuries with newer fortifications simply being built on top of the older ones.
In the 14th century the Milenese Visconti family actually built a wall across the entire 1 km width of the Tessin the valley to ensure control of the trade route over the St Gothard Pass and the current fortifications originate with the modernisations under taken by the Sforza, the last Milanese Dukes. In 1499 the French took Bellinzona on their way to Milan, but only managed to hold the city until the following year when the townspeople revolted and kicked them out. Seeking protection from the French the city joined the Swiss Confederation in 1500.
The old town below the fortifications and within the remains of the city wall is wonderfully traditional and is centred around the Cathedral and Town Hall in adjacent ‘squares’.
The Town Hall (Palazzo Civico) is built around an open quadrangle. It has a fabulously decorated wood panel ceiling and the walls are decorated with murals depicting changes to the city over the centuries
The castles at Bellinzona are impressive, as they are supposed to be, and the old town is how I had envisaged Lugano might have looked; which is why Marco and Soraia brought us here! It was a great day out and we enjoyed our visit immensely!
On Friday the weather was the complete opposite to Thursday, gloriously bright and warm. Marco and Soraia took us for a drive around the Lugano area, starting with a trip part way up Mount Brè for some stunning views over Lugano and Lake Lugano and then down to lakeside Gandria.
From Brè we drove down to the delightful lakeside village of Gandria on the north western shore of Lake Lugano.
This quaint little place clings to the steep lake shore just inside the Swiss / Italian border. The village was originally higher up the mountain side but apparently was moved to the lake shore in about the 14th century. Always rather isolated the area was known for its olives. In my ignorance I had never associated Alpine lakes with such a Mediterranean crop! A harsh winter in 1709 killed off the trees but they have recently been replanted and the foot path between Lugano and Gandria is known as the Olive Path.
Gandria also produced silk and was a centre for smuggling due to high Swiss customs dues. Apparently there is a Customs Museum in Cantine di Gandria on the lake shore opposite Gandria which, according to Wikipedia, exhibits a submarine which was used to smuggle salami. Regrettably we never got to see the Salami Smuggling Submarine!
Gandria was a lovely suprise. Picture postcard quaint and the sort of place to enjoy lunch overlooking the lake, but we were off to spend the afternoon in Bellinzona.
We left Milan at lunch time on Thursday in the pouring rain, headed for Lugano, a 90 minute bus journey away. Unfortunately, with the exception of Friday, the weather remained rather wet and cold for the whole of our visit.
We were to stay with our friends Marco and Soraia, who we last saw in Brasil in 2016. They met us at the bus stop to drive us to their apartment and then, despite the rain which persisted all evening, we took a stroll around Luguano town centre. It has evolved over the years into an expensive shopping venue at the expense of its previous, more traditional appearance, but even in the evening rain it was pleasant to wander around.
Lugano originated as a market town some time before the 10th century and was a part of Milanese Lombardy, until coming under French control in 1500.
It was a Swiss domain between 1513 to 1798 when Napoleon arrived and created the Helvetic Republic which replaced the Swiss Confederation. The city burst onto the international stage in 1956 when Lugano hosted the first Eurovision Song Contest!
In the following decades Lugano became a banking centre, based on Italian cash; this in turn attracted people with money to spend. However, with the relaxing of Swiss banking secrecy the banking economy has reduced and a recent decision to ban wearing burkas has pursaded a significant number of visitors to shop else where.
In the rain it is difficult to wax lyrical about Lugano but as I said it is a pleasant lakeside city. As it transpired we spent little time here as, happily, Marco and Soraia had plans to show us a lot more of Ticino outside Lugano itself.