The Swiss Family Carlson Journeys to Locarno and Lugano

As I mentioned in my last post (SFC Goes to Bellinzona) we also wanted to go to Locarno and Lugano. A lot of our friends who know about our quest to explore Switzerland and read the blog have recommended that we check out Locarno and Lugano as long as we are down in Bellinzona.

Lugano is the furthest south of the three cities. It’s in that very bottom tip of Switzerland. It is on Lake Lugano. Being that it’s on a lake just over the border with Italy it is rather a large resort town.  In fact, they bill themselves as the “Monte Carlo of Switzerland.”  I guess if anyone is going to get crazy and have a good time in Switzerland you’d have to be close to Italy, right?

Archaeologists have found signs that Lugano has been inhabited since the Stone Age. The literal Stone Age.  Lugano’s position on the lake made it the perfect location to be a hopping market town and The Visconti, with blessings from the leaders in Como and Milan, were also in charge here for awhile.

Things were a little rocky for awhile. The French invaded in 1499.  Then the Duke of Milan was in charge and no one seemed to like him so in 1513 they asked to join the Swiss and the Swiss said, “Sure. Why not.”

The various groups that lived in the city built some beautiful things, though too often you can’t see their improvements anymore. Developers have destroyed most of what they did and replaced it with these square glass and metal modern monstrosities that go winding up the hillside and almost ruin the view.

This is the view from the train station.
This is the view from the train station.  If you squint you can barely see the horrible buildings.

You have to walk down a steep, but nicely paved, hill down to the beginning of the Old Town section of the town. This really awesome clock/church bell tower is right at the first landing. It was built in 2002, but you can see they at least tried to keep it looking historic.

IMG_2088 This is right at the top of the Old Town section.  The buildings look so very Italian it’s hard to believe you are still in Switzerland! (Until you look at the prices for things. 😉 )

IMG_2089This street was lined with shops and restaurants. To the children’s dismay we walk right past several ice cream shops without even stopping. They couldn’t seem to believe that we just weren’t going to eat ice cream at 10:00 in the morning.


We were lucky enough to be there in the morning and we could experience the fresh foods market and street stalls.  There were tons of foods to see, smell, and try.  Including about $3000 worth of truffles.  They are charging 4 francs per 10 grams of truffle. That would be about 1 franc per thin, thin, thin slice.

(They didn’t actually let us try the truffles. We were encouraged to smell them, though.)

At one of the bakeries they had a whole basket of these 1 Augst Brot. They are the traditional bread they eat to celebrate National Swiss Day.  The top of the loaves are cut in a cross and baked and so that when you see them from the top they look like the Swiss flag.  They also sell them in bigger, more family sized loaves.  And there is a sharp toothpick flag for the kids to play with.

Right next to the bakery and the truffle sellers was this gem: A cured meats and charcuterie shop.  It was a goodly sized shop packed to the rafters with cured meats.  Look at those salamis hanging there!

IMG_2093And the hanging legs of pork and lamb!

It’s like garland at Christmas.


They also had some sandwiches ready to go. IMG_2095

We picked up four sammies and took them along with us to the lake. We were planning on taking a boat tour around the lake and thought it would be nice to have a little picnic on the water.

We were just in time for the boat. In fact we had to run, dragging little H along behind us, to make it in time.  Once we caught our breath we could enjoy the views.

About halfway through the ride we decided to jump off at Gandria, a small village on the North side of the lake just before the border with Italy known for being a hotbed of smuggling.

Gandria is a village of tunnels, winding streets, and steep staircases.  Within a short hiking distance there are iron-age Celtic stone carvings, so archaeologists know this area has been inhabited since 800BC!  Even the Romans came to visit in 196BC and (no surprise here) decided to stay.  I mean, really. Is there anywhere the Romans visited that they didn’t then decide to just take over?

IMG_2105This is the hallway/road/path right off the dock.  You can walk for about a kilometer without even seeing the sun.


IMG_2106People actually live down there!  It’s a bit of a maze in here so many people put up “Private” signs so you stay on the main route.

It’s possible that the Illuminati live here. Or they are minting dollars. But I’m going with the Illuminati.

One of the things I love about traveling around without a real agenda is the neat little places of beauty that we stumble upon. Gandria is a perfect example of a “stumbleupon” place.  We hiked up these steep stairs until we finally found sunlight and we also found this neat old church in a tiny square.

This is the Church of St. Vigilio.  Named after Saint Vigilius of Trent, the church was built in 1463.  However, the inside of the church is covered with molded facades and murals that weren’t completed until about 1870.

IMG_2111Keep in mind this is a church in a town of only 275 people.  It is a hidden work of art!

IMG_2114The painting behind the altar is by the Torricelli brothers depicting how Saint Vigilio was martyred. IMG_2112IMG_2113The work on the inside is so intricate. No wonder it took over 300 years to get it all done.  And the stone that looks like marble?  It’s faux painting.  (Is Trading Spaces still on? Vern would totally do this.)

After ogling and walking around the town for well over an hour we found our way back through the maze, into the tunnels, and back onto the boat.  In an unexpected moment I found that we were right on the border with Italy!

IMG_2117Mark says I can’t quite count Italy on my “countries visited” list yet. But don’t worry, I get to add that one to my list in September when we visit Pisa!

Almost immediately after we got off the boat E insisted that rent 30 minutes of time on one of those little paddle boats. (Well, after we had ice cream, that is.)

IMG_2118Being on the paddle boat offered us a great view.  I was a little nervous my phone would fall out of my butterfingers and into the lake so I didn’t get many pictures from the paddle boat, but the day was beautiful and it was so fun to be out on the water.  It wasn’t so relaxing to have the 9 year old in charge of driving us around.  In fact, if this is an indication of how I’m going to react when he’s 15 and learning how to drive we are going to have to hire a professional teacher.IMG_2120We didn’t die or even run into anyone, though there were a couple of close calls.  After our 30 minutes were up and Mark and I vaulted ourselves onto dry land we went on down the path around the lake and found a little rocky beach.

IMG_2121It was only on the cusp of being a warm day, but there were lots of people swimming on the lake and hanging out in their swimsuits on the beach.  We rolled up the kids’ pants and let them frolic a little.

They totally did not want to leave, even though they were all hungry.  We convinced them we’d find pizza (not hard so close to Italy) and they were won over.

We trekked back around the lake and up into the old town area of Lugano.  We found this awesome plaza that hosted the town hall and had restaurants ringing around it.  It was a no-brainer to eat at one of them.

IMG_2135We picked one that had just enough customers to tell us their food was good, but still enough space so that we could sit down immediately and have a conversation.  And we picked correctly. Within 40 minutes of us sitting down there were people standing and waiting for seats even though the restaurant immediately next door had oodles of room.

I had the best gnocchi with pesto I’d ever eaten. Mark had an amazing and freshly made chicken and mushroom ravioli. E had his pizza and H had his chicken and fries.

Once the sharpness of our hunger was gone we started noticing what other people were eating. And I stealthily tried to take photos of two of the more amazing items.

The first was a calzone that was bigger than an American football.  Seriously, it was about 20 inches long.

The other was a pizza the menu called “The Yankee.”  It is a regular pizza with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese and topped with French fries.  I have never, ever seen anything like it. Ever.  The photo is a little wonky because I was trying so hard to look like I was just checking my email and wasn’t taking a photo.

IMG_2137The person who ordered it was a teenage boy. His brother ordered steak and fries. Mark basically told me to observe them and note what our future was going to look like. He isn’t wrong.

We took the train, happy and tired, back to Bellinzona and rested up for our trip the next day to Locarno.

Locarno is on Lake Maggiore.  Being on a Mediterranean-quality lake makes it a huge resort town.  Even the people in the 14th Century BC recognized that it was a happenin’ place to live. (And to give some perspective, King Tut was alive then and could have visited the newly established city.)

Then the Romans moved in and spruced things up.  The same Visconti we met in Bellinzona and their ilk followed.

What's not to like?

What’s not to like?

We’ve seen painted buildings like these in Lucerne and in other areas across Switzerland, but these have a slightly more pastel/Mediterranean color palate.

IMG_2144One of the things that E really wanted to do in Locarno was to see the Wild Bird Sanctuary.  There had been a brochure in the lobby and he had been very taken with the idea of seeing raptors in flight and other types of birds.

It was not the kind of sanctuary that we were used to.  It was a research and entertainment experience.  The actors/experts were dressed in William Tell garb complete with Tyrolean hats and breeches.  They had eagles, falcons, hawks, vultures, buzzards, and owls flying literally inches over our heads.  The hawk actually hopped along the audience members heads as part of the act. We were forbidden from taking any photos during the show, but we got this great shot of E holding an owl.

IMG_2406 We had to walk across town to get there, but on our way back we found this really awesome sculpture just hanging on the wall of a garage. I think it might be a William Tell kind of sculpture even though William Tell’s neighborhood was actually way north of here.

IMG_2145With the rest of our afternoon in Locarno we walked around the lake and took in the beauty of the valley. Lake Maggiore is kind of at the bottom of a big bowl surrounded by mountains.

IMG_2146There are boats absolutely everywhere!  Private boats, public boats, tour boats.  And I can see why.  The lake is beautiful and there are public docks all over making boat travel as practical as it is romantic.

And there are ducks and swans everywhere!  Well, all along the shore anyway. They definitely know where their snacks come from.

Hey kid! You gonna eat that?

IMG_2150IMG_2153Oh well. I guess we will just have to find some ice cream instead of actually eating those pretzels I packed and lugged around in my purse.

Before we knew it we had spent the day in Locarno and were headed back to Bellinzona for dinner.  We had experienced such a great dinner the night before in Lugano we were actually kind of looking for a small and quiet local place that might have some nice pasta or something.  We did find it.  A hole in the wall down and alley way off the main old town area of Bellinzona.

Mark, feeling rather adventurous, sort of sussed out a probable seafood dish of some kind and pointed to it without having any real idea what he was ordering when the waiter inquired in his direction.  And this is what came to the table.

It’s a bowl filled with mussels, tomatoes, shrimp, and octopus in a white wine broth baked with a bread dome over the top, complete with a little bread pom-pom on the top that made it look like the stocking caps we used to wear as kids.  I wish I could have gotten a picture of it closed, but our waiter was not wise unto the ways of food blogging and cut the top off before I could fish my camera out of my pocket.

Mark was delighted. I was jealous.

And, really, that was the perfect end to our stay in the canton of Ticino.  It’s an Italian land that tries the best it can to be Swiss.  Thank heaven that it fails from time to time.

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