Bellinzona, Locarno and Lugano
Trip: Switzerland May 2022
May 7 Drive to Bellinzona
Saturday, in a budget saving move, we bought sandwiches for a picnic lunch and started a long drive around the eastern side of Lake Lucerne, an area called the “North Shore.” Though it was cloudy and misty, the drive was dry, and the clouds high enough that we began to see a hint of the famous Swiss mountains, until then totally obscured by fog and rain. Beautiful resort towns chain along the shores of the lake. There are flowers everywhere (and I shouldn’t need to tell you we have yet to see a speck of litter!)
Following the weather in Switzerland from Wisconsin before my trip, it appeared that the weather here would be much the same weather we have at this time of year in Wisconsin. At least the temperatures were comparable. However, here Spring is well underway. The trees are fully leafed out (in Wisconsin we had the barest buds) and flowers are abundant (in Wisconsin, only daffodils had bloomed when I left). It is so lush and verdant; one can only thank the rain for all this beauty.
Our first stop along the way was to see the Hohle Gasse (the sunken road) purported to be where Willhelm Tell slew the evil overseer, Gessler, and allowed the Swiss Federation to be reunited. The walk was suggestive beyond belief. Old paving stones between banks of trees and boulders covered with moss! Like a fairy tale, which the story of William Tell may just be.
We stopped in a few of the resort towns to walk along the boardwalks and had our picnic on the shore of Lake Lucerne. These were Weggis and Vitznau. We did not visit the Rigi Kulm – we were not going to climb to the top to spend a night and wake up to see the sunrise…we didn’t even know it was a thing to do, until we read it in the guidebook. Next trip. (Because you always have to leave one or two things for a return trip, don’t you agree?)
Once beyond Lake Lucerne we drove on the highway. Finally, the terrain is mountainous, and we see snow-capped peaks rising in sheer cliffs covered in forests on either side of the road. Cleared areas with dark brown farm buildings, and the occasional cows or goats, appear like dots on the hillsides.
We arrived in Bellinzona in the late afternoon and checked into our hotel.
My decision to stay in Bellinzona was based upon Michelin’s three stars for the town, and because the hotels were somewhat more affordable than Lugano. We stayed at the Hotel Unione, specifically recommended by Michelin. It was an excellent choice because it was within steps of one of Bellinzona’s three UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Castelgrande.
(You can walk around the ruins for free, but you can also buy a ticket for 18CHF to visit all three castles and their museums. Those tickets are good for 6 months, so you don’t have to see them all in the same day.)
The first evening in Bellinzona, we visited the lowest and the oldest of the castles, the Castelgrande, exploring the ruins and the views.
Afterwards we walked around the perimeter streets of the old town, happening upon what to date is the only nightlife we have encountered in Switzerland – a wine festival in a square with accordion music. Relatively restrained by our standards, it was most likely ebullient by Swiss standards!
We enjoyed an aperitif in the plaza near the Jesuit church, and got a restaurant recommendation from a local family: the 10-year-old daughter translated to English!
We are walking at least 5-6 miles every day, so this evening, like most so far, we were tired after dinner and ready for bed. The streets were basically deserted. Just a few people still at tables outside under the umbrellas, smoking a final cigarette while the staff cleaned up.
May 8 Mother’s Day Bellinzona & Locarno
Today is Mother’s Day (Dia della Mamma) here in Ticino, too. Other than special menus in the restaurants, it is like every other day. It is raining again, so we decided to use the car to visit the other two Bellinzona castles.
It took a little doing, but Google got us to Castello Montebello, the middle one in both height and age. It is in excellent condition. As the second of the castles it was nicknamed “il piccolo castello” (the little castle – the one down lower being the grande). The museum here covers the ancient history of the whole area, not just Bellinzona. There are some interesting artifacts, and it is very well presented but it isn’t particularly deep and all the exhibit narration is in Italian or German. The castle itself however is very interesting and you can walk all over the ramparts. Because it is higher up the mountain than Castelgrande, the views are even nicer.
Bellinzona was a strategic location in the middle ages, controlling access to the St Goddard pass between Italy and northern Europe. The three castles form a defensive bastion; they were connected by huge walls. Travelers had to stop here, and probably pay a tax to continue.
As I said, all three castles are a must, so we drove up to the highest and newest (15th century) and smallest, il Castelo di Sasso Corbato. We enjoyed the views of course, but by now they are old hat! So, we tried out a virtual reality exhibit featuring Michelangelo. First, with the aid of an I-pad we got to look at the images on the walls of Michelangelo’s famous sculptures and see them in 3-D! Then we sat down (to be safe) during the virtual reality tour of an imaginary Florence populated with sculptures by Michelangelo, paintings by Rafael and demonstrations of Leonardo’s inventions. It was a good thing we sat down for this as it was quite disorienting: We’d go up and around and even over the sculptures as well as have things fly right into us. Yes, I ducked, even though I knew it wasn’t real!
We stopped in an outdoor restaurant in a square for lunch – sharing two different plates of gnocchi. Good and tasty, but probably not the healthiest lunch we could have chosen.
After lunch we made a short drive – about 25 minutes to the lakeside town of Locarno. There we walked along the boardwalk and admired the views. Situated on Lago Maggiore, one of Italy’s most famous lakes, it is a lovely town, slightly less trafficked than the more popular Lugano. Lots of people were out for an evening passeggiata (walk).
We returned to Bellinzona for dinner and decided to try a restaurant near the hotel called Il Grottino Ticinese, specializing in local specialties. A couple of surprises! I tried vitello tonnato for the first time. I didn’t know what to expect but I have seen that dish on Italian menus for decades and never tried it, so this seemed the right time. It was odd. (That’s probably why I was never tempted to try it.) But it wasn’t bad. It was thinly sliced veal, cold, covered with mayonnaise with tuna fish in it. Even sounds odd, right? One would love to know the origins of that dish and why it would be served in the mountains of southern Switzerland far, far from anywhere you would think of tuna. Gerry and Jackie got an even bigger surprise. Their trout, carpione style, was also cold. Prepared with tomatoes and carrots, onions and herbs, it was quite good, but I had led them both astray thinking of cartoccio (foil) instead of carpione (marinade). The trout was first lightly breaded and fried, then left to marinate for a few hours in an oil, vinegar, garlic, onion, carrot and celery preparation. I found it quite tasty and filed it away mentally, thinking it a great summer meal. Reading up about it, I found it is used for fresh water fishes., so perfect for Wisconsin.
We really enjoyed this restaurant. Our waiter, Luca, was very friendly and helpful and laughed with us over our attempts at Italian. He invited us to come back. (And we did, the following night.)
May 9 Lugano
Finally, our first sunny and warm day! As I mentioned, the drizzle and the cold really didn’t prevent us from doing anything, thanks to our umbrellas and the car. But life is always better when the sun is shining, benevolently! Thanks to the clear skies, this was also the first day we could see the peaks of the mountains without clouds.
We made a day trip to see Lugano. I should explain that we decided not to go to Como and see Lake Como in Italy, both because of time, but mostly because of transportation logistics. We did not want the hassle of taking the rental car into Italy. This little preview of alpine Italy though has given me a real desire to come back and explore the other side of the border.
Lugano is a beautiful city! Of course, it’s right on a lake that is ringed with snow-capped mountains. Have you heard that before? Of course, we sauntered along the boardwalk (il lungomare).
Here, too, we found lots of flower beds in full bloom and picturesque sailboats bobbing in the sun. At one end of the walk is the Parque Civile, a really lovely formal garden along the lake shore.
We had lunch at the Osteria del Porto Antico. After lunch, walking back, we found time to visit the cathedral of San Lorenzo, Via Nassa (a renowned shopping street), as well as the Dei Angioli church and its amazing frescoes.
Gerry and I had dinner again at il Grottino Ticinese. This time I tried the vegan tartar and Gerry tried the real tartar. Both were excellent but the vegan version was quite unique and we decided it was the better of the two.
That evening, struggling to stay up until it got dark, we walked near the castles in Bellinzona and took some night pictures. Keep reading to travel along with us as we drive through the mountains for two days on the way to Lausanne.