Ticino is a canton apart: graceful, open, laissez-faire. This is the most glamorous of Swiss regions: the waterfront promenades of Lugano, Locarno, and Ascona contain a rich social mix of jet-set resorters among the tightly pruned trees, rhododendrons, and bobbing yachts. Yet a drive of a few miles brings the canton's impoverished past into view. Foothill and mountain villages are still scattered with low-roof stone cabins, although nowadays those cabins have been gentrified into chic vacation homes. The climate too is different, with an extraordinary amount of sunshine, much more than in central Switzerland and even sunny Italy, immediately across the border.
Hearing names like Lugano, Ascona, Locarno, and Bellinzona, it's quite natural for visitors to assume they're in Italy. Color photographs of the region might not even set them straight, as nearly every publicity shot shows palm trees, mimosas, azure waters, and indigo skies. Surely this is the Italian Mediterranean or the coast of the Adriatic. But behind the waving date palms are telltale signs: fresh paint, manicured gardens, and punctual trains. Make no mistake; it's a little bit of Italy, but the canton Ticino is decidedly Swiss.
For the German Swiss, it's a paradise. They can cross over the St. Gotthard or San Bernardino passes and emerge into balmy sunshine, where they fill up on gnocchi and polenta in shaded grottos, drink Merlot from ceramic bowls, gaze at the waters of Lago Maggiore and still know their lodging is strictly controlled by the Swiss Hotel Association. There's no need to even change currency. The combination is irresistible, and so in spring, summer, and fall they pour over the Alps to revel in low-risk Latin delights.
The Ticinese welcome them like rich, distant cousins, to be served, coddled and—perhaps just a bit—tolerated. The Italian-speaking natives of the Ticino—a lonely 8% of the Swiss population—are a minority in their own land, dominated politically by the German-speaking Swiss and set apart from them by language and culture.
Their Italian leanings make perfect sense. An enormous mountain chain blocks them from the north, pushing them inexorably toward their lingual roots. Most of the territory of Ticino belonged to the pre-Italian city-states of Milan and Como until 1512, when the Swiss Confederation took it by force. It remained a Swiss conquest until 1798, when from the confusion of Napoléon's campaigns it emerged a free canton. In 1803 it joined the confederation for good.
Although prosperous, with Lugano standing third in banking after Zürich and Geneva, the Ticinese hold on to their long-held mountain culture, which draws them to hike, hunt, and celebrate with great pots of risotto stirred over open outdoor fires. It's that contrast—contemporary glamour combined with an earthy past—that grants visits as balanced and satisfying as a good Merlot.