The waiter presented me with a menu. Not surprisingly, this being Switzerland, each item was described in several languages. I looked up at him: “Do you speak English?” I asked. “Yes,” he said with a big smile. That, too, should not have been a surprise – Switzerland is a country with four official languages – French, German, Italian, and Romansh (the rarest of the four, but still a living language) – and in my experience, many Swiss citizens also speak English, perhaps Russian, and possibly Spanish.
So I confidently placed the order for my meal… and was somewhat surprised when the food appeared, bearing no resemblance to what I had requested.
I pondered. I tried to explain that I had ordered beef, and this was clearly fish. He nodded. I spoke some more. He nodded some more. I asked again, “Do you speak English?” “Yes”. Hmmm…
So I asked, “Parlez-vour français?” An enthusiastic nod. “Oui!” Great excitement. Fine. “Parlez-vous anglais.” A sad shake of the head. “Non.” Turns out, he knew one word of English – “Yes”.
So I explained, in my admittedly lousy French, that what was on the plate was not what I had ordered, and he agreed, so I ordered my meal again en français, and eventually, dined very well.
That might not have happened in any other Canton of Switzerland, but I was in Ticino, the magical and unique part of that diverse country where Italian is the chief official language, and multi-lingualism is is less common. Ticino is utterly different from any other part of Switzerland – it shares its climate with Italy, so there are palm trees and balmy temperatures. It’s culture is very Italian (although trains still run on precise Swiss schedules). The food is unique, the wines (ah, the wines) are superb, and seldom find their way out of the country. The cities are fascinating, and the landscape – mountains, deep valleys, and a couple of important lakes – is stunningly beautiful. I fell in love with Ticino – even if my warm and friendly waiter knew only one word of English.
Locarno's lakeside – Lake Maggiore.
Ticino is on the south side of Switzerland; visitors tend to land at the Zurich airport, in the north. But there are no transportation challenges here – trains leave at least every hour from the Zurich station that is connected to the airport, carrying you to any of the three cities in Ticino. Those three wonderful destinations include the Ticinese capital of Bellinzona – a city with three ancient castles within its borders – as well as the arts and couture centre, Lugano (on Lake Lugano), and Locarno (on Lake Maggiore), at the base of the Alps.
You could spend an entire vacation in and around any one of these cities. But Ticino is small enough that you can sample the best of all three, as well as a couple of day trips to nearby wonders.
In Bellinzona, do visit the castles. In Lugano, be sure to take in the neo-classical architecture surrounding the city’s Piazza della Riforma. (And speaking of piazzas, any visitor to Ticino has to set aside time to sip wine or espresso in the ubiquitous town squares. If you choose wine, order white merlot – I think Ticino is the only place in the world that uses merlot grapes to make red, rosé and white wines, so it’s your chance to sample this unusual and tasty white.)
The Piazza Grande in Locarno.
Locarno is the eastern terminus of the Centovalli Railway. “Centovalli” translates as “100 Valleys”; this two-hour ride runs from Locarno to the Italian town of Domodossola. It’s one of the most scenic routes in the world, winding through valleys bordered by soaring mountains. You can get off, and hike – or even ride a small gondola up to a mountain-side village with a friendly café. You’ll need your passport, because you will be crossing the border into Italy (Switzerland is not part of the European Union). Spend some time exploring the market in the central square of Domodossola, and then come on back to Locarno.
Just south of Lugano is a terrific destination – Monte Generoso. You can hike up the mountain, or ride the precipitous rack railway that has been carrying passengers to the summit since 1890. The view at the top is astonishing – all the way from the Apennines to the Alps, including the Matterhorn.
I really enjoyed the succession of microclimates as I ascended the mountain – especially the delicate, amazing wild flowers all along the way. And also the tiny lizards – who knew there are mountain lizards in Switzerland?
Stunning views of soaring mountains and Alpine streams abound on every side of Ticino.
There is so much to love about Ticino – the culture, the cuisine (try veal piccato, risotto with saffron, or the delicious pork stew called cazzola), and did I mention the wines? And Ticinese wineries also make a very potent grappa, and a delicious, chestnut-flavoured liquor called Nocino.
There are places in the world I am glad I have visited, and a much smaller list of wonderful destinations I would happily return to, again and again. Ticino is definitely high on the latter list.
Photos provide by Switzerland Tourism