The smell of butter wafted in, mingling with the scent of the woods around. The happy banter of the women trying their hand at making risotto created sweet music. A flock of ducks quacked nearby, adding to the melody. Sitting on a wooden bench under an olive tree by the turquoise lake, a glass of chilled blanc in hand and a charcuterie of the choicest cheese and cold cuts to nibble from, I looked at the scene in front of me and swore that I could have been in Italy. Only that this was Switzerland, and I was experiencing it in a way like never before.
I arrived in Lugano, in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino in southern Switzerland, in September. That morning, the temperature had plummeted to a biting 5 degrees in Zurich, as I braved the cold wind and boarded my train to Lugano. Around Lake Zug, an ominous fog enveloped the train and everything on its way. Then, around a bend, the fog cleared, a blue sky and a blue lake, against a green horizon, vied for our attention. The contrast of sceneries and the changing moods of the weather as we progressed south had me confused, yet excited. It heightened as the train entered a tunnel and pulled a plug on the cinema of the gorgeous landscape playing outside the window.
At 57 km, the Gotthard Base Tunnel is the longest and deepest railway tunnel in the world. It cuts the journey time from Zurich in the north of Switzerland to Lugano in the south by an hour. Located entirely to the south of the Alps, the canton of Ticino enjoys the best of both the worlds — the mountains, lakes and forests of Switzerland, plus across-the-border Italy’s mild, sunny climate and way of life. Its largest city, the charming Lugano, exemplifies this mélange best.
My heart danced a little as I stepped out of the train into the bright Lugano afternoon. Steep, cobbled alleys winded down the hilly terrain, leading me through laidback plazas, where people hung around drinking coffee or beer; busy market squares, where establishments of yore stood proud and crowded selling a mindboggling array of meats, cheeses, pastries and more; and boulevards shaded by trees, right down to the edge of the stunning Lake Lugano.
The glacial lake, an intrinsic part of life here, lay glistening in the sun, its blue waters overlooked by thousands of buildings rising up the hillsides. I boarded a ferry boat and spent the next hour or so lounging on its upper deck, as it cruised through the lake, affording us panoramic views of the city and the mountain ranges of the Prealps surrounding it. The boat occasionally stopped at what is, perhaps, one of the top attractions of the region — cave restaurants, locally known as grottos.
Nothing is more typical of life in Ticino than the grottos — rustic, unassuming taverns in quiet hideaways by the lakes or in the mountains. Hundreds of years ago, these cave-like structures were discovered by boatmen, who found cold air blowing in through holes in the cave walls, because they lay in areas that received the least sunshine. The boatmen realised that they could use these cool caves as natural refrigerators to store wine, salami and cheese. Eventually, they began selling their stored produce to passers-by and the sporadic curious wanderer, thus laying the seed for the first grottos to spring up.
Today, a typical grotto consists of a cave cellar, a kitchen and a garden, with stone tables and benches laid out under the shade of trees. They serve hearty local food — homemade sausages, salamis, mortadella, vegetable soup, risottos, polenta, roast beef, a platter of cheese, and, accompanying it all, a selection of delicious local wines. It was at Grotto Descanso, the last grotto before the Italian border, that I found myself taking part in a fun risotto-making workshop, one afternoon.
Another such cheery day was spent walking through the cobbled lanes of the delightful Gandria, the last Swiss village before entering Italy. This fairytale village on the shores of Lake Lugano has remained unchanged for over a century. Several restaurants stand by the lakeside, inside old buildings whose original characters remain intact even today. The Locanda Gandriese is one such establishment that serves authentic dishes made of the freshest local produce. Their specially curated menu, set around all things game meat, could send all food connoisseurs to heaven and back.
In Gandria, one must climb up and down angular lanes and steep staircases to walk through the village. In fact, the terrain is so steep and the houses so unlevelled that locals joke that people here can only lie down horizontal when they’re dead. The cemetery, overlooking the lake, though, is beautiful, with graves under the shade of olive trees. Reminiscent of the Mediterranean, the olive trees are spread across a 3.5 km-long trail that passes via old groves and new plantations, all the way from Gandria to Castagnola in Lugano. Each turn of the trail is lined with beautiful old houses, flowering plants and olive gardens on one side and the lake on the other. At certain points, you can even go down to the lake for a quick swim.
As I lazed around on a sunbed after one such swim, sipping on wine and looking out at the lake and the far mountains, the warmth of the setting sun caressed my skin and a guitar strummed somewhere nearby. I smiled and raised a toast to this slice of Mediterranean heaven in Switzerland.