YOU are in Switzerland you keep telling yourself as you shop for prosciutto and parmegiano on your passeggiata along Lugano’s gourmet street, the Via Pessina. Along the lake in a very Mediterranean feeling Morcote village, the two nuns sharing a (non-alcoholic) aperitivo at a pavement table do nothing to dispel the sheer Dolce Vita of it all. Even the weather is a few degrees warmer.
'The walk became easier, a saunter through pastures filled with horses grazing. The villages dotted around are uniformly lovely, painted with pastel shades and ingenious trompe l’oeil effects'
Welcome to Ticino, the Italian-speaking Canton, welcome to its deep south, indeed, where Mama Italia wraps this extended Swiss isthmus in a mountainous embrace. Milano is only an hour south of here and it all feel as one with North Italy’s Lakes – Maggiore, Como, Iseo and the rest.
Lake Lugano loses nothing in the comparison. There are countless vantage points to gaze down on its shimmering blue waters – I was further blessed because it was the default view from the balcony of my room at the Kurhaus Cademario. Locazione, locazione, locazione, as they say round here.
No expense has been spared to transform this century-old TB sanatorium, high (at 850 metres) above Lugano, into an 82-room hotel and seriously well-equipped spa facilities. Open just a year, and despite a canny conversion that respects its heritage, on first acquaintance the Kurhaus all feels slightly unreal. Then the energy and warmth of husband and wife management team Rafaela and Peter Hoeck Domig kicks in. Glasses of the local speciality, Merlot, on the terrace help us to feel molto bene. This is very much a summer destination – this is far from Swiss ski territory.
The huge draw at this hotel is the 2,200 sq.m DOT.Spa wellness centre and pools (there is an outdoor sun-trap pool, too, in the extensive gardens). I didn’t partake of the numerous treatments available, but was oddly transfixed by the philosophy behind it:
“Our forefathers gained extensive experience in sensing energy, power structures and places of exceptional intensity. One such example are churches, which are often based in such centres of energy. Our DOT.Spa is also based in a special location with charisma. It has been planned in accordance with geomantic criteria and all of the five elements have been integrated. Waterfalls and cascades represent the element of water, weathered trunks and beech timber symbolise wood, warming fireplaces and flickering candles encompass fire, tuff and stone walls embody the earth and mineral resources such as iron and copper represent metal.”
There is a similar attention to detail with the (primarily Italian and regional) food in their fine dining restaurant, La Cucina. It’s all a far cry from the 1920s heyday of the Kurhaus as a sanatorium with its revolutionary for then diet of salt-free, steamed vegetables and raw fruit. Today’s hotel spa is respecting that heritage with a gluten-free, allergy sensitive menu using local products. The healthiest thing I managed during my stay was a gorgeous mountain and lake walk, led by private guide Anna Bezzola. We cheated a bit by using the vintage funicular to reach our starting point, the 912m high San Salvatore, topped by the church of that name, the 360° views from which are stupendous.
From there we plunged down into the chestnut forests of the Ceresio peninsula. Ceresio is the old Latin name for the whole area and means ‘land of the cherries’. It is certainly a fruitful year-round destination for hikers and cyclists with abundant trails.
The steep, stony paths were fortunately dry that day, but still we were glad of our hiking boots. We picnicked by the locked-up 17th century Sanctuary of Madonna d'Ongero, disappointed not to see at close quarters the Baroque frescoes glanced through a window. The walk became easier, a saunter through pastures filled with horses grazing. The villages dotted around are uniformly lovely, painted with pastel shades and ingenious trompe l’oeil effects.
Our destination, Morcote, 10km from Lugano city, is at the tip of a peninsula around which the 49 sq.km lake does a complete U-turn. The handsome waterfront hamlet deserves an afternoon’s exploration of its narrow alleys, arcades and gardens, culminating in an ascent of the 404 steps leading up to the impressive Renaissance Baroque church of Santa Maria del Sasso. Deceptively affluent, it deserves its sobriquet, the Pearl of Ceresio.
Once a fishing village, it is now a mecca both for watersports and mere mooching. We took the regular boat back to Lugano, a bustling financial centre, but one with some lovely architecture, parks (notably the sub-tropical Belvedere Gardens) and a Latin heartbeat. Sample the wares of Emporio Armani and Louis Vuitton along the fashionista drag Via Nassa and you could be in Milan. Which is where we came in. Ciao.
Music is in the air
We were there in September when the free Blues To Bop Festival scattered acts across the streets and squares. April sees the Lugano Festival, in the Congress Centre, which has in the past hosted the likes of Daniel Barenboim and Cecilia Bartoli, while Estival Jazz dominates July.
Best day trip from Lugano: Bellinzona
30 minutes north by trail, this laidback town, surrounded by the verdant Alto Ticino countryside, boasts a trio of amazing medieval castles, Castelgrande, Montebello and Sasso Corbaro that together comprise a Unesco World Heritage Site. Go on a Saturday for its excellent market; go in for February (12-17 in 2015) for its carnival known as the Rabadan, which features a huge, masked parade. Very Italian!
Neil Sowerby stayed just outside Lugano at the Kurhaus Cademario Hotel and Spa, Via Kurhaus 12, CH - 6936 Cademario, Switzerland. +41 (0)91 610 51 11. Note it is a 13km drive,and hefty fare from the city centre, the last part up vertiginous narrow roads, though there is a regular bus service to Cademario from the main railway station.
For full tourism on the Ticino region visit this link.
For more information on Switzerland visit www.MySwitzerland.com or call the Switzerland Travel Centre on the International freephone 00800 100 200 30 or e-mail, for information email@example.com; for packages, trains and air tickets firstname.lastname@example.org.
Swiss International Airlines
UK to Zurich:
SWISS offers up to 19 daily flights from London Heathrow, London City, Birmingham and Manchester to Zurich. Fares start from £147* return, including all airport taxes, one piece hold luggage and free ski carriage. For reservations call 0845 6010956 or visit: www.swiss.com.
*A leading fare and is subject to change, availability and may not be available on all flights. Terms and conditions apply.
The Swiss Travel System provides a dedicated range of travel passes and tickets exclusively for visitors from abroad. The Swiss Transfer Ticket covers a round-trip between the airport/Swiss border and your destination. Prices are £96 in second class and £153 in first class.
For the ultimate Swiss rail specialist call Switzerland Travel Centre on 00800 100 200 30 or visit www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk.
The Swiss Pass offers you unlimited access on the network of Swiss Travel System, by boat, bus and train. The Swiss Pass is sold for 4, 8, 15 or 22 days or one month and allows a free entrance to over 400 museums and exhibitions.
To get round Ticino take out a Ticino Discovery Card, which allows you to travel anywhere the Canton, with access to a range of attractions, any three days out of seven for a price of around £45.
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