Lugano: Olive Oil and Castles
Updated: Oct 26, 2020
After a week in Switzerland I was still searching for some quintessential Swiss identity. So far on this trip I’d felt the presence of Germany and a little bit of France. I’d eaten enough cheese fondue to clog my arteries forever. I’d had my fill of butter biscuits and white-sauce coated salad. I wanted to find out what else goes into defining this unique part of Europe. I never found that one defining moment, but the trip did stop in Switzerland’s other, southern, influence.
Traveling south to Lugano brings into focus Switzerland’s other national influence, Italy. If there is a unique “Swiss” identity, I’ll leave the definition to others. All I know is arrival into Lugano could be arrival to any picturesque city along a beautiful lake in Italy. The difference from my other stops was immediate. Conversations were in melodious Italian. Fashions were different: women wore smooth leather boots and walked gracefully in 3” heels, silk scarves elegantly flowing over tailored wool jackets. Men wore ties and tailored suits. We were thrilled to find an unassuming restaurant in the old town area serving a wonderful Italian minestrone, a salad of crisp greens with just a little olive oil dressing, and a glass of dry Italian red wine.
My lunch was delicious, the stylish shops were inviting, but the December weather was unforgiving. I’ve seen photos of a beautiful Lake Lugano surrounded by spectacular mountains. Unfortunately, with the constant downpour that is not what I saw. Next time I’ll plan for better weather and better photographs.
The next day came with more rain in the morning, but not enough to stop exploration of historic Bellinzona and her castles. A slight drizzle did not seem to hurt the town’s commercial market stalls. This was different than the trinket-dominated Christmas Markets I’d been seeing. In Bellinzona there were food stalls selling everything from cured meats to aromatic Italian cheeses to sweets, as well as a few gifts and winter clothes.
The anchor of the old city is the castle turned city hall. Strategically located between the old Italian city states and the emerging Swiss confederation, the site had been fought over since Roman times. Whoever controlled the mountain passes controlled tax collection. Whoever controlled the access to Bellinzona controlled important trade routes and would be very rich.
Vestiges of the fight for regional control remain in the three famous castles high in the surrounding hills. The largest, most accessible, and most visited is Castelgrande. With turreted walls, steep winding staircases, and lookout towers, Castelgrande could be inspired by Disney. It is easy to imagine medieval jousts, swordfights, or boiling oil poured through holes in the stone fortifications. I can imagine that on a clear day, the almost six-kilometer hike up to all three medieval castles would offer spectacular vistas. But with clouds and a slight drizzle, after walking up slippery stone steps to exploring the castle walls, I was perfectly willing to take the modern elevator back down.
After retreating out of the cold drizzle to a lunch of hot minestrone, dry Italian wine and tiramisu for dessert, a fitting end to my trip was over the hills and past the rivers to always-favorite Como. There are reasons everyone loves Lake Como: the town is always delightful, the cathedral beautiful, and in December the surrounding square full of Christmas shoppers. Besides, what could be better than people watching from a sidewalk café with a tasty aperitif and freshly made appetizers? Perfection.