Travels & Traditions: Ticino, Switzerland - #311

BURT WOLF: At the very center of Europe, surrounded by France, Germany, Austria and Italy, sits a confederation of 26 democratic states known as Switzerland. The states are called cantons, and the most southerly is Ticino. Just north of the Italian border it is one of the most beautiful parts of Europe. Snow-capped, alpine peaks ease down into mountains covered with thick forests of laurel and chestnut trees. Thousands of waterfalls flow into lakes that twist their way through the mountains. Mountains that are the key to Ticino's history. Ticino is the only Swiss canton that is located entirely on the southern side of the Alps. And through much of the year, it has a mild and sunny climate. It is one of the cantons in Switzerland where the official language is Italian. And right there is Ticino's most fascinating aspect ... a blend of the warmth of Italy with the efficiency of Switzerland. Passionate people ... and their phones work. 

The capital city of Ticino is Bellinzona. It's been inhabited since prehistoric times and with good reason. Let's say you were looking for a nice place to live during the Neolithic period ... about 7,000 years ago. You'd want a spot on a high hill so you could get a good look at any conquering hordes that might be coming into the neighborhood. You'd also want your hill to have a dependable source of fresh water, just in case you were stuck up there during a long battle. And if you could get the landlord to paint every two years, you were golden. 

A citadel with a deep well. That's what you were looking for and that's precisely what you have in Bellinzona's Castelgrande. The ancient Romans started building the present structure because they wanted to control this valley. It was the most important gateway on the trade route between Italy and the rest of Europe. To be the ruling power in this valley was worth a fortune. And during the 1200s the two great families of Milano, the Visconti and the Sforzas, constantly battled for control.

The Dukes of Milano took what the Romans started and built it into a chain of three fortresses that extend across the valley floor. The highest is Castello di Sasso Corbaro. Midway up is Castello Montebello. The lowest fortress is Castelgrande. All three are connected by a wall. Not a great wall but not bad. And all three are UNESCO world heritage sites.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In the end, however, the castles were unable to stand up to repeated sieges and by the early 1500s had been conquered by the Swiss Confederation, which at the time was made up of the three original states of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden. And each of those states took one of the castles for themselves.

BURT WOLF: The highest castle is also the home of an excellent restaurant, which is only fitting since the castle once belonged to both the Visconti and Sforzas families of Milano. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The Viscontis and the Sforzas were serious eaters and kept written copies of their family recipes. The guy from Ticino, named Martino di Rossi, collected those recipes and used them to publish the most important cookbook of the 1400s. He got rid of the heavy oriental spices that were being used and replaced them with local herbs. He also set up the idea of a pasta course. The man was a genius!

BURT WOLF: And Athos Luzzi, the owner and chef of the castle restaurant, has a genius for the traditional dishes of the region. 

CHEF LUZZI ON CAMERA: So we have a risotto with mushrooms and chanterelles.

BURT WOLF: Oh, yummy.


BURT WOLF: Thank you. Below the castle, Bellinzona looks very much as it did during the Renaissance. On Saturday mornings, there's an open-air market.

And if you're lucky, you will have hit town on one of those days when Ticino's answer to the Mamas and the Papas is giving one of their informal concerts. 

By the middle of the 15th century, the Swiss dominated the northern part of Ticino. But the Dukes of Milano still held the town of Bellinzona. The Milanese felt threatened by the growing influence of the Swiss and decided it was time to fight. On December 28th, 1478, their soldiers marched into the small town of Giornico, just up the valley from Bellinzona.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: On a hill high above Giornico, 200 Swiss troops and 400 local partisans watched the Milanese arrive. And then, without the slightest warning, sent down hundreds of huge boulders that crashed into their encampment. The Milanese were crushed ... and at the same time, defeated. The encounter became known as The Battle of the Stones. It was the first major success for the Swiss and eventually led to their control of the entire Ticino.

BURT WOLF: A stone’s throw from the center of Giornico is San Nicolao. Built there in the early 1100s, it is the best preserved Romanesque church in Ticino. My guide was Marina Guzman-Metzger and she started by explaining the unusual sculptures that are at the front of the building.

MARINA GUZMAN-METZGER: These animals here, the statues that we see outside, are really strange if you want because this is not a situation that you would find in nature. First of all, we have two lions that protect the church. We have here a rabbit and there a lamb that are looking at the guests arriving. And moreover, you have very near the lions two lying rabbits that are not scared. 

BURT WOLF: The rabbits are just sitting next to the lions.

MARINA GUZMAN-METZGER: Exactly. They are just sitting there and not being scared of the lions. So this is not normal but this means probably that this a safe place to anybody.

In here we have frescoes coming from the 1478. Very beautiful but amazing ... especially is the center of them. Look at the three heads that have been designed there, representing the trinity. One is the Father, the second, the Son and the other, the Holy Ghost. If you look at them, you will see that they have only two pairs of eyes. Incredible ... but this is a symbol. It's the technique of the pagan to show the bond of mysticism. And this is also a fresco that you will never see again, as they have been all destroyed after the Council of Trento as declared, in fact, not acceptable by Catholicism.

BURT WOLF: Too mystical.

MARINA GUZMAN-METZGER: It's too mystical, exactly. It's something that represents the ... uh, encountering between the paganism and the Catholicism.

BURT WOLF: The force field in the Church of San Nicolao may be hidden. But the energy of the town of Locarno is right up front. Locarno has been a resort since the time of the ancient Romans. Historians tell me that if you had been gladiating day after day, during the busy season, or marching along with the Roman legions and needed a break, Locarno was the perfect spot. These days, the thing to do is sit at one of the cafes that face out on Lake Maggiore, have an espresso and then take a ride on the Centovalli Railroad. If you purchase a Swiss pass in the United States, you can use it on the Centovalli trains, which run through the day and take you from town to town in one of Ticino's most beautiful valleys. Dirk Meyer is the director of the company. 

DIRK MEYER: This is a train we are taking. You see, we have low floor entrance, which is very comfortable for elderly people. We go from Locarno to Domodossola. That is from Switzerland to Italy. With this train you can discover nice little villages with a lot of art in their churches. Every village has its own character. The train takes you to many places. For example, in this place, Ponte Brolla, we have a rock-climbing school up on these steep slopes. And in Intragna we’ve got the tall railway bridge 75 meters over ground. And there we installed bungy jump center and outdoor center. 

DIRK MEYER: In the meantime, we do as well in this location ... free climbing at the end of the bridge.

BURT WOLF: At one point we got off the train, and took a cable car to Rasa.

DIRK MEYER: This village, Rasa was built in the 700s. It is a 900 meter altitude and you can arrive only by cable car and/or two and a half hours by foot walking. People of this village before 1700 ... they were working almost over the whole year as tallymen unloading ships in Livorno and be custom officers. With this activity, they own so much money that they decided to give up their village and they built between 1680 and 1720 ... they built up this village, you see here and it was systematically planned and built. And which is very seldom for that time, so far away, and you see the people must have been very wealthy because the houses look very nice and they're very big. And they are not attached one to the other but they have space in between themselves.

BURT WOLF: A sign in the center of town directs you to a series of footpaths. But instead of giving you the distance, they give you an estimate of the time it will take you to get there based on a speed of two miles per hour. Just across the river from Locarno, and tucked into a sunny bay, is the town of Ascona. Its history as an artistic and cultural community goes back to the time of the Renaissance. During the early 1900s, a hill above the town known as Monte Verita, became home base for a society interested in alternative lifestyles.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The place attracted philosophers, artists, writers, nudists, anarchists, and vegetarians. It was kind of like Woodstock, only everybody stayed.

BURT WOLF: The Locarno and Ascona area is also the perfect place to begin a visit to the Valley of Verzasca. Verzasca is a deep narrow gorge being cut even deeper by rushing streams of emerald green water. 

And the way to get there is by postbus, which in Switzerland, is an extremely efficient form of transportation. In 1849, Switzerland established a national postal service carrying mail by horse, carriage and sleigh. It was a cross between Santa Claus and the Pony Express. In 1906, they extended their service to include passengers. These yellow buses are a familiar sight all over the nation and they haven't changed their look since 1921 when the first bus started navigating through Switzerland's mountain passes. 

One of the villages we passed through was Corripo. Welcome to the 1500s. Small granite stone buildings and a 400-year-old church hang from the canyon walls. Every stone is protected by the government as a national treasure. 

My first stop was a small bridge built by the ancient Romans that’s still standing. Over 2,000 years old. In perfect shape. And it’s never had a toll-booth. The valley is a popular hangout for swimming, hiking and biking. The buses run every hour so you can hike for a while and then pick up another bus when you're tired.

The rural roadsides of Ticino are peppered with small open chapels that are dedicated to minor saints, or local folk heroes who hope to be sainted. Like Lorenzo di Lago, who was venerated for his abstinence. He never ordered dessert though it was usually included in the price of his meals. 

While I was in Ticino, I stayed at The Villa Principe Leopoldo, a five-star hotel and member of The Relais and Chateaux Group. It's named after Prince Frederic Leopoldo, a descendant of one of the great families that ruled the German empire when it was first formed in 1871.

The house was built in the late 1800s as a summer residence for Prince Leopoldo's father and the prince lived here until he died in 1931. The villa remained a private home for European aristocracy until 1986 when it was turned into a hotel. Fortunately, the villa has lost none of its royal charm. 

The villa is located on top of a hill with a fantastic view of Lake Lugano, the nearby mountains, and the Alps, a view which you can take from poolside. Under the direction of General Manager, Maurice Urech, who was named European Hotel Manager of the Year, it's become one of the most respected properties in Europe.

Executive Chef is Dario Ranza. The kitchen specializes in traditional Mediterranean recipes like octopus salad with potatoes, and steamed sea bass with tomato and parsley oil. The wines come from the villa's excellent and extensive cellar. In the evening, the Collina d’Oro Bar has live music and serves its signature drink, which is Campari and ice, shaken not stirred, and quickly poured into a martini glass. The villa has 37 spacious and elegant rooms with private terraces overlooking Lake Lugano. Across the street is a building known as the Residence. Forty-one more rooms with restful views of the garden and the park, and a second pool. The city of Lugano was built on the edge of a bay facing two mountains that rise out of a lake. The warmth of the sun and the restful beauty of the surrounding Alps have made it a health resort and tourist attraction for hundreds of years. People call it "the Rio of the Old World." 

The best time to walk Lugano is first thing in the morning. Start along on the lakefront promenade and watch the sun rise over the mountains. Then turn into the old city, a pedestrian area, with many small shops. 

At the end of the street is the Church of Santa Maria, a former Franciscan monastery, it was built on the lakefront in 1499. Inside is the most famous Renaissance fresco in Switzerland ... a majestic and expressive presentation of the Passion of Christ. Just down the block is the Piazza della Riforma. The Piazza is a large square lined with cafes. And on one side, the town hall, which was built on a slightly shifting foundation.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, it leans a little more each year. And like most political institutions, depending on where you stand, it leans a little bit to the right ... and at the same time, a little bit to the left.

And while you're in the neighborhood, stop into Gabbani. In 1937, Domenico and Juliet Gabbani opened a small delicatessen and butcher shop. In the seventies, their son Lino took over the business and started adding additional shops. Today there are six stores. Gabbani is a good place to taste Ticino. Through most of their history, the Ticinese were mountain people and their cooking resembles that of the Piedmont in Italy. 

BURT WOLF: Across the street is a shop with the cheeses of Ticino. They're often named after the villages in which they are made. They're served with a pinch of salt, a twist of pepper, and drizzle of olive oil. At the edge of the old town, is a dock where boats leave for the little villages that line the shores of Lake Lugano. They navigate through a landscape that really looks like it came off a postcard. Get off at Gandria ... a fishing village with a history that goes back to the ancient Romans. 

The small houses that line the narrow streets date from the Middle Ages. A headcount in 1590 indicated that 330 people lived in Gandria. A census in 2001 turned up only 215 people. An ominous trend. If it keeps up, in 900 years, Gandria will be empty! Get here as soon as you can! I came here to eat at a restaurant called Locanda Gandriese. It's in a house that was built during the 1500s as an inn. There's a small bar, six tables inside. And five tables on the balcony that hangs out over the lake. Most of the town's fishermen have left for better-paying jobs in the cities. But fortunately, the fish stayed behind. The catch of the day was a filet of salmon trout with boiled potatoes and seasonal vegetables. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: They also make just about every local specialty you can imagine. They make veal shanks with polenta ... rabbit with polenta ... mushrooms with polenta ... sausages with polenta. And, as a special, but you have to order a day in advance ... polenta with polenta!

BURT WOLF: The peaceful sail back to Lugano takes only 30 minutes. Upon returning to Lugano, there was one more thing I wanted to do. And that was take a ride up to the top of Monte San Salvatore. A cable-car leaves every 15 minutes and the trip to the top takes only 12. Monte San Salvatore runs up 2,992 feet from its base. At the top, there's a 360-degree view of the Alps ... Lake Lugano, and the Lombardic Italy. 

As I pointed out earlier, Switzerland has four official languages, Swiss German, French, Italian, and Romansch, and many people have a working knowledge of English. Translating from one language to another is a daily part of Swiss life.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: To make things easier in Switzerland and around the rest of the world a company in Ticino called Simultanphone is developing a real time translation service. You pick up your phone, call them up, tell them what language you want to work in, who you want to talk to, they make the call for you, and they stay on the line doing the translation. They’re also working on a face to face system. You take your cell phone, plug this contraption into it, call Simultanphone, tell them the language you want, put this speaker and earphone into your ear and give this end, which is a speaker and an earphone to the person you want to talk to, they stay on the line and do the translation. It’s going to change my life. I hope you’ve enjoyed this visit to Switzerland and I hope you will join us next time for TRAVELS & TRADITIONS, I’m BURT WOLF.