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Ticino Travel Guide

Places To Explore In Ticino

Visitors a bit weak on their geography might hear the names Lugano, Ascona, Locarno, and Bellinzona and assume—quite naturally—that they're in Italy. Color photographs of the region might not even set them straight: nearly every publicity shot shows palm trees and 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, punctual trains. There's no mistake about it: it's a little bit of Italy, but the canton Ticino is decidedly Swiss.

For the German Swiss, it's a little bit of paradise. They can cross over the St. Gotthard or San Bernardino passes and emerge into balmy sunshine, fill up on gnocchi and polenta in shaded grotti, drink Merlot from ceramic bowls, gaze at the waters of Lago Maggiore (Lake Maggiore)—and still know their lodging will be strictly controlled by the Swiss Hotel Association. They never even have to 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.

And the Ticinese welcome them like rich, distant cousins, to be served and 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 as well as 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 the Ticino belonged to the pre-Italian city-states of Milan and Como until 1512, when the Swiss Confederation took it over by force. It remained a Swiss conquest until 1798, when from the confusion of Napoléon's campaigns it emerged a free canton, and in 1803 it joined the confederation for good.

Ticino remains a canton apart nonetheless, graceful, open, laissez-faire. Here you'll instantly notice differences in manner and body language among people engaged in conversation; you'll also discover fewer English-speaking Swiss. The climate, too, is different: there's an extraordinary amount of sunshine here, more than in central Switzerland and even more than in sunny Italy, immediately across the border. Mountain-sports meccas aside, this is the most glamorous of Swiss regions: the waterfront promenades of Lugano, Locarno, and Ascona, lined with tightly pruned trees, rhododendrons, and bobbing yachts, contain a rich social mix of jet-set resorters. 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 often prove to have been gentrified into chic vacation homes.

Although they're prosperous, with Lugano standing third in banking, after Zürich and Geneva, the Ticinese hold on to their past, a mountain-people culture that 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 travelers a visit that's as balanced and satisfying as a good Merlot.

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