The year of 2020 has brought all travelling to a halt, but some trips cannot be avoided. One of them for us has been the other one of us taking a course to attain Swiss citizenship. This quest brought us to his other home city, Lugano, the Italian pearl of Switzerland -and offered me my first visit ever to this country of Alps and Kleine Heidi.
Living in the flat lands of the Netherlands, the first thing to take my breath away is of course the scenery made of mountaintops with clouds swirling around them. The view from our flat towards Lake Lugano and the Alps is the most stunning I have ever seen anywhere. When the Sun sets, the nearby Collina d’Oro breaks into a cascade of golden hues, and when the dark of the night arrives, it becomes a sea of twinkling lights from all the houses at the hill. The calmness of Lake Lugano, the sub-tropical plants surrounding it, and the mountains with their snow-covered tops are easily the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life.
Let’s Get to Know Lugano!
Lugano is a town in the Southern of Switzerland, in the canton of Ticino. Ticino is the only canton where Italian is the only official language, and together with the southern parts of Graubünden, it forms the bulk of the Italian-speaking communities in Switzerland. There are approximately 63 000 inhabitants in the municipality, making Lugano the 9th largest city in Switzerland.
Lugano is located in a bay on the Northern side of Lake Lugano and tightly surrounded by several astonishingly beautiful mountains (Lugano Prealps). The town centre lies right next to the lake shore. The climate is a humid subtropical one, with mellow winters and warm summers.
The shores of Lake Lugano have had inhabitants since the Stone Age, and it is likely that some Romans lived in the area now called Lugano. The lake is the size of 48.7 square kilometres, and 63% of it is in Switzerland and 37% at Italy’s side. Monte Brè and Monte San Salvatore bracket the ends of the waterfront. Both mountains can be accessed with a funiculare (read about our mountain experience in a separate post).
Visiting this Italian pearl of Switzerland truly brings you to very Italian scenery and architecture. The historic town center has squares and arcades in the Mediterranean-style and offers many places for rest with its parks filled with sub-tropical plants. This means that the Christmas of Lugano is green and flowery, something that is utterly confusing for a Nordic person.
For people outside Switzerland, Lugano might be known for hosting the very fist European Song Contest in the year 1956. Trade, tourism, and finance are the tripod on which the city stands. For the money savvy, Lugano is actually known as the third biggest financial center of Switzerland (right after Zürich and Geneve) with its up to 100 banking institutions. The city is also infamous for its connections with money laundering, both historically and recently.
Highlights of Lugano/Switzerland
The first highlight is simply its beauty. The views to the mountains and down from them are incredible. The openness of the Lake Lugano and the other lakes around combined with the protection offered by the mountains creates a very calming effect.
The second of the highlights of Lugano is how incredibly tasty the food is. In this respect, Lugano truly is the Italian pearl of Switzerland, as even the visit to the grocery stores is like a trip to Italy. There is a wide selection of organic products in the food stores, and even if you don’t go all bio, you’ll get a taste of real food without a million E -codes. The milk and yoghurt are amazing. The fruits and vegetables are absolutely yummy. The bread -all the various sorts of it, because the Swiss love their loaf- tastes like it was baked in small corner bakery with love and devotion. Even the cheapest package of unbranded tortelloni tastes like something that back home in the Netherlands, would be served in the best restaurants and charged royally. The water from the tub is the best I have ever tasted, and that’s a lot coming from a Finn proud of the clean water of my homeland.
The third highlight is the politeness and friendliness of the people. Maybe I’m biased and hear everyone speaking anything in Italian as reciting poetry, but the atmosphere and the treatment you get even in the grocery stores is truly heartwarming.
Observations of the City Life
The Luganese city life, even in these weird Covid times, is a case of its own. The people are stylish and their kids even more so. In fact, strolling down the Mediterranean-vibing streets downtown you end up wondering if you just all of a sudden crashed a children’s fashion shooting for Collezione Bambini. Don’t expect to land in Milan or Paris, though, when you arrive in Lugano: The locals are stylish and elegant, but not probably at the top of the latest fashion on the planet. A quick glance at the shop windows and at the people around can make you feel like you have just exited from a time machine and are back to the 80’s or early 90’s, but yet to the elegance of those decades, not to the aesthetics of sweatbands and fanny backs.
Speaking of Covid: During our visit, the city went into a stricter lockdown. The locals seem to be quite good with wearing a mask and mostly try to respect social distancing. During the few trips mainly grocery stores we made, disinfectant was easily available. Swiss have traditionally been preoccupied with safety, and even if the Covid numbers in the country have been ugly, it does not seem to be because of laziness in health protocols. Also, the number of people we saw outside was very modest to what you would expect. Perhaps the Luganese were doing the same as us most of the time and just stuck inside watching movies over the holidays.
The surreal time capsule effect of Lugano is merely strengthened by the fact that here I have seen more people smoking than anywhere else since the year 1993 when my mother would make her puffs out of the car window on our way to visit grandmother. In the cafés and restaurants, at the streets, outside hair salons and barbershops -everywhere- people hold cigarettes between their fingers and blow out smoke rings like it’s 1960’s and we are all in Godard’s Breathless. Even your small local pizzeria will host a cigarette machine in the corner, and not for its museum value but because people actually use it.
The Luganese are stylish, they smoke, and they are rich. During a little stroll in the city, you can entertain yourself counting the Lamborghinis, Porsches, and other expensive cars you see drive by. The city center houses shops like Hermes and Gucci. When you enter Manor, the cousin of Harrods standing in the city center, you will dive into an endless sea of expensive watches -how else could it be, you are in the country of clocks! As you take your tour admiring the costly brands and the ridiculous prices, mind your steps -the Luganese take their poodles and dachhunds with them also into the warehouses.
When you indulge in the sun in a walk around the lake, you will be invited to the biggest dog clothing contest you ever knew: Every single doggy is wearing a sweater, jacket, or at least a scarf of sorts, and chances are their apparel cost at least a three digit number.
A Little Bit of South and a Little Bit of North
In Lugano, my Finnishness and my partner’s Italianness seem to find a sweet spot. The weather is mellow as in Italy, the food is amazing, the people friendly, their lifestyle exactly what is the norm in Italy just a couple of kilometres away. At the same time, the emphasis on structure and safety of the society (and unfortunately also the skyrocketing prices) make me think we are in a satellite of Finland.
In this Italian pearl of Switzerland, I was also enjoying a refreshing break of everything I don’t like in the Netherlands: the flat landscape, the terrible, over-processed food, the rude people, and the amazing tackiness and unintended kitch-likeness of all aesthetics, whether we are talking about the Christmas decorations of a supermarket or the visuals of a magazine. As I’m still in square one of learning Dutch, it is also incredibly cozy to be in a city where I understand what people around me are saying and I don’t have to ask them to switch into English all the time.
In Conclusion: The Italian Pearl of Switzerland
Even if I totally fell in love with Lugano, the Italian pearl of Switzerland, everything in Lugano and Switzerland is not of course fine and dandy. For a Finnish woman, many details of the local politics, economy, and society make it very clear that the country is very behind in the equality of the sexes. Also, even if you are making a monthly income that across the border at Italy’s side would be considered fantastic, you are still perhaps just barely making ends meet. Almost everything is so ridiculously expensive that after Lugano, our home city in the Netherlands seems cheaper than ever.
All of this being said, it’s good to keep in mind that visiting Lugano is not the same as visiting Switzerland in general. This mini-Italian heaven with its palm trees and sweater-wearing poodles is a very special place, and the Switzerland of a small village high up in the mountains, for example, is very different.