This morning we head off to the centre of Lugano. Warm and bright, the sun diamonds the water. According to the Internet, the temperature’s going up to twenty degrees today, though at first the breeze is a bit chilly. Far in the distance the Alps tower around us.
Our bus driver, Matteas, takes us to the train station, where we meet Iliana, our guide for the morning. She tells us that the city’s population is 58,000, a far bigger place than I’d pictured in my mind. Lugano is in Canton (similar to a province or state) Ticino, the only canton in Switzerland where Italian is the official language. As we pass by the ornate homes, decorated with green or red shutters, painted hues of orange, brown and yellow, the Italian influence is obvious. Tiled rooftops spread beneath us as we climb the hillsides; wrought iron balconies dot the narrow buildings. The walls around the city are block and stone, leftovers of protectionism, the holes where cannons once protruded are now filled with grass. I listen to Iliana’s lilting voice – the way she makes a little hmm? at the end of each sentence – and I realize I haven’t heard most of the history lesson, except that there is official documentation of Lugano’s existence in 742, though it was here long before that.
I also pay attention to her information about the microclimate, because it allows the fascinating greenery that surrounds us. I am astonished by the intertwining of pine and cypress trees, firs, palms, wisteria, bougainvillea, hydrangeas, oleander, banana trees, climbing roses, and cacti. Beauty and fragrance follow us everywhere. Crisscrossing the city are tumbling waterways, tributaries that race to the lake. We climb a narrow road that winds around the mountain. The vistas are breathtaking. Far below the sheer cliffs on one side of us, the lake shimmers in the sunlight, dotted with sailboats and rowers. This is Monte Bre (Bray).
The bus drops us off at Parc San Michele, where we walk along terraced steps inside the shade of huge old trees. Worn sculptures, their features faded like old black and white photos, nevertheless give the park a grand face. An ancient chapel stands sad and disused on the peak of a hill. From here we face the lake once more, surrounded by mountains green with crowded forest or terraced vineyards. The waterways twist in and out of the peaks, a veritable feast of rock and sea.
Back on the bus, we pass the university campuses, stately homes and modern buildings of glass and steel. Iliana tells us that Lugano hosted a Terry Fox run a couple of weeks ago and is, this very day, hosting another race, this time for Telethon. The roads in the centre are therefore closed, so we stop again at the railroad station to walk. Once more, we are balleting down terraced cobblestones, in and out of shade and sun, the street yawning toward the lake. Surrounded by plain trees with their expansive leaves, we are amazed at the perfect temperature. We stop to admire the façade of San Lorenzo, where we can hear the harmony of voices echoing from inside. Just as we turn to leave, church bells ring out over the city.
We walk along the Via Nassa, under arched buildings that house expensive shops, such as Cartier and Bvlgari. Runners and bikers pass us as they pant to the finish line. We applaud them, but most of them cannot afford the time to nod or smile in return. One of them is greeted by his family, his little boy a reflection of the father, face suffused with pride.
We reach the church of Santa Maria Delgi Angioli in the Piazza Luini. It’s surrounded on one side by a hotel and on the other, a construction zone, but it faces the beautiful lake. Built as an abbey in 1492, it has gone through many transformations: abbey, church, hotel, and once again, a church in the 1920’s. During the renovations, early frescoes and paintings were discovered behind wooden slats. The paintings are the work of Bernardino Luini, who includes himself in his art: a Roman soldier on horseback at the crucifixion, his wife and children as spectators; next he plays Judas in the Last Supper. I read with interest that little is known about Luini’s background; the website writer wonders if he was an egoist or if the inclusion of his own personal images was a code. I wonder if he simply had a wicked sense of humour. Gerlinda sings Ave Maria in her amazing operatic voice and then we sit to listen to Iliana’s history lesson.
In the Last Supper painting, St. John has his head on Jesus’ shoulder. Judas/Bernardino holds a bag of silver and his own pet cat sits at his feet. I am sitting in the back, where I can see the arched separation of the church with its chapel and altar, upon which the huge fresco of the crucifixion is painted. Beside me older faded frescoes look like an etcha-sketch drawings that someone half erased.
Later we emerge into the sunshine and walk along the lakeside among the crowds. Ducks paddle along the shore, one species a white-faced beauty. We are halted by guards at several stops to allow the runners to race onward. From the centre of town, we can hear the announcements of the timing as each participant reaches his or her goal. A group of children race around an enormous block, their little faces red with exertion, and we applaud loudly.
When we get back on the bus, we pass under the archways of the Ponte Tresa, a reminder of the railway that carved itself into Lugano’s history in the 1890’s. Now we head to San Giorgio church, which is, naturally, perched on top of a hill, so that we are once again climbing cobblestone steps. The interior is solid and silent, the altar surrounded by stone carvings, the pews wooden and hard. Half the art is from medieval times, while the altar area at the front is from the Baroque period. Father Marc is a wonderful preacher; he’s inspired and sincere, his voice a deep rumble with an enthusiastic cadence.
Afterward, we tumble onto the bus again and are dropped off near the finicular. The train is quite large and hitches its way fairly slowly up the mountainside. Halfway up, we change trains and chug even higher. Suddenly we are at the top, but we are too hungry to look for very long. We head straight for the self-serve restaurant.
Now I have to stop and tell you about the ham and cheese sandwiches. When Mary Jo heard that we would not have dinner on the plane (or so the website stated!), she thoughtfully decided to make sandwiches. Ken ran out and got buns and cheese and ham. Throughout the trip, she offered me a sandwich several times, but we did have dinner on the plane, and breakfast too, so I was never in the mood. At the airport, I didn’t feel like eating one either, though Father Marc did.
So, on the top of a mountain in Switzerland, what do I have for lunch? A ham and cheese sandwich. Only this time, it costs me about ten dollars Canadian. I tell Mary Jo that it’s my policy only to eat sandwiches that are outrageously priced. In fact, this restaurant indulges in highway robbery, except that it is on a mountain.
After lunch Mary Jo and I climb to the peak. Carolyn and Cugina wait on the terrace below, where the vistas are still lovely. We make it up one long set of stone steps and stop to get our breath, but then we have to draw it in again: the view is stunning. From here we can see the layers of Alps, set one string after another, looming in the distance, piercing the clouds. Below us the lakes and rivers shine in the sunlight. Sailboats and motor craft and rowers are tiny specks of white or red.
But now we go even higher: up another set of steps, then another, onto a platform where an old fortress/church stands. At the side, we find the set of stairs that climbs to the rooftop. Just as we reach the third set of stairs, a doorway leads into the air. I am gobsmacked! The stairway is now a mere railing, open to the sky, and I am hit with vertigo. By the time I reach the roof, I am sweating and nervous. Denyse asks me to stop for a picture, but I breathe, I can’t…vertigo…and she and Nancy are immediately solicitous. I recover, first because I stand in the middle of the building and don’t go near the railing, and second because the view is even more spectacular up here. Now we can see the mountain ranges and waterways all around us, a 360 degree panorama of magnificence. Nancy asks a university student if we can see the Matterhorn (Monte Cervino in Italian) from here, and sure enough, it looms behind a cloud in the distance.
Mary Jo decides to do a stitched picture of the vista, but her camera doesn’t cooperate. I stand in the centre and watch. Soon we are only two of a very few people standing in the breeze.
I manage to descend safely by taking off my glasses so I can’t see in the distance if I wanted to, and watching the wall and Mary Jo’s back. When we return to the funicular, we realize we don’t see any familiar faces. It’s soon obvious that we have been left behind on the mountain. We laugh and decide that, if the bus has left too, we’ll find a city bus or maybe a ferry to take us back. Neither of us paid any attention to the streets on the way to the train, so all we know is that we must head for the lake. The ride down is spectacular and, as long as I am moving, my head doesn’t spin except from the splendor.
At the bottom, we see John and Fred, kindly waiting for us. We’re very grateful and happy to see them. We chat amicably as all four of us make our way through the winding streets to the lake, where everyone is enjoying ice cream in a café. We haven’t missed the bus after all, so we don’t get to hop on a ferry.