The road to Lugano - Switzerland’s little slice of Italy
It’s easy to ignore one of the world’s most efficient internal transportation networks when you’re busy capturing ‘Instagram worthy’ digital memories in one of the world’s most beautiful nations.
That’s the thing with Swiss efficiency and punctuality — you take it for granted. It’s the same way that spectacular landscapes in the country are a given. It took me three visits to one of my favourite countries in the world to finally put a perspective on Switzerland’s clinically efficient transport system. It helped that I got a sneak preview of the world’s longest railway tunnel.
My prep for this journey began in Luzern, a city that is often treated as a gateway to popular mountain getaways like Titlis and Pilatus. I’ve always wondered why people don’t fall for the charms of this charming city and stay back, instead of rushing off to the mountains. The city is home to Europe’s oldest covered wooden bridge (it’s also the world’s longest surviving Truss bridge). The surrounding mountains make the perfect backdrop for Lake Luzern with panoramas that look particularly stunning during sunrise and sunset. All these charms suddenly faded when I stepped into the confines of Luzern’s other attraction – the Swiss Museum of Transport.
A prayer for the flying
I started trying to get airborne the same way aviation pioneers probably did in the second half of the 19th century – flapping my wings furiously as the flight simulator took me a few feet above the ground. With 3,000 exhibits spread over 20,000 sq metres, it’s easy to understand why this is the country’s most visited museum. From heaps of vintage automobiles, to a space walker where you can experience weightlessness to a collection of aircrafts that transcend time, this is stuff of fantasy, especially if you want to roll back the years. It’s at this museum that I came to terms with Switzerland’s love affair with its railway network – the world’s most intensive.
I had to wait slightly longer before riding into the world’s longest railway tunnel, there was another facet of Switzerland to experience. The legends of Wilhelm Tell (the same Swiss folk hero and ace archer who skilfully shot an apple off his son’s head) surround Lake Luzern. The Wilhelm Tell Express connects central Switzerland to what the locals like to call its Mediterranean South. It’s actually two journeys rolled into one seamless experience. The first begins on Lake Luzern aboard one of Switzerland’s art nouveau steamers or paddle steamboats. Some of these steamers are a century old and each of them has its own signature horn, that locals recognise. The three-hour journey winds through the lake offering picture perfect panoramas of the Alps and tiny villages along the lake.
Tunnel of love
In 1871, Switzerland embarked on a bold project, one that would change its map and economy forever. Since the 13th Century, the 2106-metre-high Gotthard Pass was an important trade route that bridged Southern Europe with the North. This new proposal proposed a 15 km-long train tunnel that would cut travel time from 30 hours by stagecoach.
The Gotthard tunnel took 11 years to construct and was one of the first modern structures that extensively used dynamite (invented in 1867) in its construction. In 1882, at the time of its inauguration, the Gotthard Tunnel was the longest railway tunnel in the world. Over a century later, the Swiss public voted in a referendum in 1992 (the Swiss love their referendums) in favour of another historic train tunnel.
The Gotthard Base tunnel was open to the public in December 2016; it’s 57 km long, nothing short of an architectural marvel and cuts travel times from Zurich to Ticino by almost 90 minutes. The underground tunnel was a complete contrast from the picturesque views from the steamboat. For a few months before the official launch of Gotthard base tunnel, the Swiss public could (in limited numbers) experience a sneak preview with a stopover in the middle of the tunnel.
I alighted at the Sedrun multi-function station that is more than 800 metres deep inside the mountain. Nearly 28 million tonnes of rock were excavated by the 1800-strong workforce and the project eventually cost $15 billion. The Swiss travel system had set up a special exhibition at Sedrun to give visitors insights into one of the world’s most complex architectural feats. Ploughing through the Alps and different types of rocks with minimal impact to the environment required special skill. I came out of Sedrun completely over-awed; this was Swiss efficiency at its very best; what’s more, this project was completed slightly ahead of time.
The last risotto
Over two days, almost everyone I met prepared me for the Swiss canton of Ticino. They told me that this canton (that borders Italy) is nothing like the Switzerland I’d ever seen or experienced. The first few palms I saw on arrival in Lugano confirmed everything I’d heard. My first stop was at Lake Lugano and if I had any doubts if I was in Switzerland’s only Italian canton, they were quickly dispelled by the Gelateria along the lake. So, what if it was a cold day, I wasn’t going to give these sinful gelatos (the best I’ve tried outside Italy) a miss.
A few hours later, I was whisked away to Morchino, an authentic Ticinese Grotto (an eatery ensconced within a cave) just outside Lugano. No Michelin star chefs here, just the family Oligati, who have been running this restaurant since 1842. At that time, sourcing local wasn’t just a fad. It’s what the family continues to do, showcasing fine ingredients from the Ticino canton. I didn’t have to try much more than the rabbit served with Polenta and the homemade Gnocchi with fresh gorgonzola to realise that this was indeed food heaven.
My host wasn’t too impressed — “you still haven’t tried the best risotto outside Italy yet”. A quick boat ride along Lake Lugano the next day transported me to another grotto with a view. The Grotto San Rocco offers sweeping views of the lake and the region’s most famous mountain – San Salvatore.
It’s here that I learned the art of putting together a perfect Ticinese risotto. My guide was right; this was indeed the finest risotto I’ve sampled outside of Milan. Add the restaurant’s dazzling array of local wines including a stellar Pinot Grigio and this was the perfect place to spend a lazy afternoon. Except that I had to hit the local market in Lugano where I also made a fantastic discovery.
On God’s green earth
The Church of Santa Maria degli Angioli is located along the lakeside promenade of Lugano. It’s where Benardino Luini painted Passion and Crucifixion, a vibrant fresco that features more than
150 figures. Luini was one of Leonardo da Vinci’s most celebrated disciples and this work of Luini would have made da Vinci very proud. All roads in Lugano eventually lead to the funicular that takes visitors all the way up to the top of the San Salvatore. In the 13th century pilgrims made their way up this mountain on foot.
Local fables suggest that the Son of God stopped here for a short break before his heavenly ascent. It’s easy to understand why. With 360-degree panoramas and endless views of the valleys, lake and the spectacular Alps, these views might have been irresistible even for the Son of God. The climb is much easier in 2017 with the funicular. It’s when I took in the view at San Salvatore that all the dots in the Swiss Transport system came together – the steam boat, the train that scythed through the Alps and the funicular that completed the last mile.
All these views wouldn’t have been possible without every cog in the wheel. Workers braved gruelling conditions over centuries to bridge every conceivable obstacle. I dug into my pocket to pull out my phone to snap a set of panorama images and I also found a tiny souvenir – a piece of rock from the excavations to build the Gotthard base tunnel. That sits on my table now, serving a better memory than all my Instagram posts.
Best time to visit: Around the year. Summer months (June-August) tend to be more crowded.
Accommodation: Lugano: Hotel de La Paix (www.delapaix.ch) is located just off the Lake promenade.
Luzern: Palace hotel (www.palace-luzern.ch), a luxury address located on the edge of the lake.