Lugano – Switzerland, but very close to Italy

Sunday, 30 July 2023

▲ I Love Lugano

On the waterfront at Lugano, the lakeside city in the heart of the Italian region of Switzerland. Supposedly 63% speak German, 23% French and 8% Italian which does not add up to 100%. I spent a week in May teaching a tourism course with the USI (Università della Svizzera italiana) masters in tourism. Fortunately for me the course at this Italian language university in Switzerland is conducted in English.

◄ Obelisk & Tortoise Monument, PKB Bank – of course Switzerland is all about money and Lugano is the third most important banking centre, after Zurich and Geneva. This ‘obelisk balancing on top of a tortoise’ monument is outside the PKB Bank in Lugano and I walked by it and photographed it several times, but afterwards I have been totally unable to find anything about it! Who it is by, what it symbolizes, when it was created?

▲ Chiesa Santa Maria degli Angioli – the town’s most important church is on the lakefront and was built in 1499-1500 and is undistinguished externally, but inside there’s a huge ‘passion and crucifixion’ fresco by Bernardino Luini. It features more than 150 people and is claimed to be one of the great early masterpieces of the Renaissance.

Just beyond the church is LAC (Lugano Arte e Cultura), a very new looking and very large art centre which I really do not warm to. Really this is the most unwelcoming gallery I’ve ever seen, a huge empty entry floor with absolutely no sign of any art at all. That’s all hidden away two floors down or two floors up. Plus there’s absolutely nobody – members of the public that is – there. It’s empty empty empty, the handful of people (me included) are outnumbered by people behind the ticket counter who are not selling any tickets. Including to me. It strikes me as a huge and hugely expensive white elephant, for art at least. I descend two long flights of steps to one of the exhibits where I’m told I should have put my bag in a locker upstairs and also got a ticket back up there. I climb back up to the entry level and decide to hell with it.

After which I stroll along the hyper-wealthy Via Nassa (lots of watch shops of course), wow Lugano is an affluent looking little lakeside enclave and I keep finding more of it. After a couple of days I’m still finding the geography confusing. I strolled through the lakefront Parco Ciani several times where I visit the Museo Cantonale di Storia Naturale which is essentially stuffed animals, some fossilized skeletons, lots of rocks and stones, and, if you were a mushroom enthusiast, a big mushroom collection. I never get to the Herman Hesse Museum, it’s way out of central Lugano and I didn’t feel like sorting out a bus to get there. Or taking a taxi.

◄ Lugano Cathedral – the cathedral, much more impressive from the outside than the lakeside Santa Maria degli Angioli, is half way up from the town centre to the railway station.


◄ funicular to the train station – if you don’t feel like slogging uphill from the centre to the train station this neat little funicular shuttles between the two. Conveniently, for when I depart by train to Zurich and on to Paris, the town terminus for the funicular is right beside the Lugano Dante Hotel where I’m staying. While I’m there I discover Switerzerland’s white merlot wines and check out the ‘bat homes’ installed in the roof garden. No bats have moved in as of yet.

▲ old radios in the RSI (Swiss Italy Radio) building, I went there to do a couple of interviews in the very architecturally interesting red-brick building dating from 1961, there are no square corners, everything meets at an angle. The station has nice gardens where we sit outside between interviews, I comment that Swiss birds are far too polite to clean out the fish from the pond. They wouldn’t survive 10 minutes in the fish pond I used to have in Hawthorn in Melbourne where those aggressive Australian birds decimated our fish population.

▲ Smuggling submarine, Swiss Customs Museum – found abandoned in 1948

My favourite Lugano excursion was across the lake from Lugano to the Swiss Customs Museum. It is almost on the border to Italy and clearly has had a lot of money spent on it. Boats runs across regularly from Lugano and there’s plenty to see, particularly about the once busy smuggling trade between Italy and Switzerland. Displays include the wonderful pedal-powered submarine, the main contraband was coffee, sugar and alcohol, all heading south to Italy since they were cheaper in Switzerland

▲ Trained dogs were often used to carry smuggled goods across the border. This 1913 photograph shows a smuggler dog – Cane Contrabbadniere indeciso contro il pericolo – that is to say in Italian a smuggler dog not realizing the extreme danger it is facing. Which is to say the customs officer is about to shoot it. In German that’s a schmugglerhund, which sounds even better doesn’t it?

◄ I get arrested, Swiss Customs Museum – clearly I don’t recognize the extreme danger I am in either.

▲ Gandria on Lake Lugano – a town on the Lugano side of the lake which we passed en route to the Customs Museum.

◄ Who said the Swiss don’t have a sense of humour? Road works in Lugano meant the normal entrance to La Bottega dei Desideri sex shop was closed off and customers are advised, in Italian, that they should ‘enter from the rear’

Across the lake from Lugano is the 2.68 square km enclave of Campione d’Italia, a little lakeside piece of Italy totally isolated within Switzerland. Once upon a time it survived due to its casino, but now Lugano has its own casino so why bother going to this little piece of Italy in order to gamble?

▲ Mario Botta’s Casino Municipale, Campione d’Italia – the enclave clusters around the truly gigantic Casino Municipale, a less-than-successful creation of Lugano star-chitect Mario Botta, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art gets much more praise. The casino, which accounts for most of the enclave’s income, went bankrupt a few years ago – how does a casino go bankrupt? It’s also amazingly unwelcoming, a great blank slab from the front with endless stairways leading up to … to what? I venture inside, but it’s equally blank inside and I soon retreat. What a strange, strange, place.

Along the waterfront, past the short stretch of ‘old Campione’ that survives and is quite attractive, is the Santa Maria dei Ghirli church. That’s a reference to ‘ghirli’ swallows, the locals who fly away from their Lugano homeland. The church is notable for its 13th to 17th century frescoes although the most interesting ones, featuring Adam and Eve on a Lugano-like lakeside, are outside the church, locked up so they can only be seen through grubby windows and sunlight reflections.

I’ve always been fascinated by enclaves (and exclaves), there are quite a lot of them between India and Bangladesh, relics of the India-Pakistan partition in 1947. There are also the strange Belgium-in-the-Netherlands enclaves and exclaves of Baarle-Hertog and Baarle-Nassau. A few years ago I made a diversion there to check them out, travelling via the enclave when I went from Brussels to Brussels Airport.

Coming back from Campione d’Italia to Lugano we pass the Swiss Miniature site which we went to with the kids in 1991, on our exploratory Europe road trip the year before we launched Lonely Planet’s first Europe guides. The site became very unfashionable and was almost demolished, before coming back into lower key fashion as an amusingly retro tourist site. I’d have been tempted to have a look if we had time.

◄ Italy-Switzerland border, Campone d’Italia – the border sign as you enter the enclave from Switzerland

▲ My students at USI with the Claudio Visentin, the professor of the USI Master in International Tourism course – and me! My students were from all over the place – Italy and Switzerland of course but also India, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Ukraine and the USA. In one session we discussed ‘favourite train stations’ which I passed on to Simon Calder at The Independent in London which resulted in a ‘top train stations’ article. Last year at the Ulisse Fest in Pesaro, Italy Claudio had persuaded me to come to Lugano for this course.

Arriving in Lugano at the start Claudio picked me up from the train station in Milan, I’d come from Turin on the high speed Frecciarossa train. From there we made a circuitous trip to Lugano, driving through Como and up the west side of Lake Como before climbing up into the hills where we met his son for lunch in a very local restaurant where I ate far too much. Claudio has a place near that village – and in Milan – and commutes into Lugano, because living in Switzerland is so absurdly expensive and it’s much cheaper to live in Italy. From the restaurant we drove up to a lookout – ‘the Balcony of Italy’ – from where you can look down on Lugano and (if only it had been a little clearer) all the way to Mt Blanc and across to the Matterhorn.