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It is strange how different the sun-dried, ancient, southern slopes of the world are, from the northern slopes. It is as if the god Pan really had his home among these sunbleached stones and tough, sun-dark trees. So I was content, coming down into Airolo . . .
The Italian-speaking canton of TICINO (Tessin in German and French) occupies the balmy, lake-laced southern foothills of the Alps. It’s radically different from the rest of the country in almost every way: culture, food, architecture, attitude and driving style owe more to Milan than Zürich, and the famously sunny skies even draw in fog-bound Milanese for a breath of air. Every Swiss has their own favourite bit of the country – the mountain panorama above Interlaken, morning mist on Lake Luzern, perhaps the waterfront promenade at Vevey – but everybody loves the Ticino. The place is simply irresistible: a short train ride under the Alps and you can emerge in glittering sunshine to a tiny corner of the Italian Mediterranean that is forever Switzerland, peopled by expressive, stylish, hot-blooded folk as different from the stolid farmers of the north as they could possibly be. And it’s no wonder they’re hot-blooded. As an ethnic and linguistic minority of eight percent in their own country and nothing more than a quaint irrelevance to the city hotshots of Milan and Turin next door, the Ticinesi consistently have to struggle to get their voices heard in the corridors of power.
The glamour of their canton, and its stunning natural beauty – lushly wooded hills rising from azure water, date palms swaying against deep blue skies, red roofs framed by purple bougainvillea – often seem to blind outsiders with romance. And the German-speaking Swiss in particular fall head over heels for the Latin paradise on their doorstep. It takes just three hours from the grey streets of suburban Zürich to reach the fragrant subtropical gardens of Lugano, and from March till November German Swiss come in their thousands to sit beneath vine-shaded outdoor terraces of simple grotti or osterie (rustic local taverns) and choose polenta, risotto or herb-scented salads from bilingual Italian-German menus, sample a carafe of one of the dozens of varieties of Ticinese merlot, and still pay with francs at the end.
Although linguistically, culturally and temperamentally Italian, the Ticino has been controlled by the Swiss since the early 1500s, when Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden moved to secure the southern approaches of the Gotthard Pass against the Dukes of Milan. For three centuries the Ticinesi remained under the thumb of the tyrannical northerners, until Napoleon arrived in 1798 to reorganize the area under his new Cisalpine Republic. But faced with a mere exchange of overlords, the Ticinisi held out for independence, and under the banner “Liberi e Svizzeri!”, “Free and Swiss!”, the Republic of Ticino joined the Confereration as a new canton in 1803.
Since then, the Ticinesi – appearances notwithstanding – remain resolutely Swiss, and have little truck with foreigners calling them Italian, although it’s also almost impossible for an outsider to tell the locals apart from the 36,000 Italian frontalieri who cross into Ticino daily to work for salaries well below the Swiss average. A cruel irony of life here is that Ticino suffers Switzerland’s highest unemployment rates, even while its service industries thrive – staffed by Italians and paid for by thousands of Swiss-German tourists and second-homeowners. Similarly, young Ticinesi, who would naturally gravitate towards universities or jobs in nearby Milan, are forced by their lack of an EU passport to go north into culturally and linguistically “foreign” Switzerland instead. The reality behind Ticino’s glamorous front is a tale of fifty years or more of social dislocation and a draining, deep-rooted frustration with chiefly Swiss-German-inspired isolationism.
Architecture and design have been taken seriously for centuries past, with a string of world-class architects emanating from the Ticino from the Middle Ages onwards – among the contemporary crop, Mario Botta stands out (his most famous building is perhaps the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), along with Luigi Snozzi and Aurelio Galfetti. The tradition is now augmented by an Academy of Architecture, affiliated to Lugano’s brand-new Università della Svizzera Italiana, the first Italian-speaking university in the country, founded in 1996. Much time and money is devoted to architecture, with cities, towns and villages throughout the canton full of sympathetic, subtle restoration of ancient buildings. Kitschy Alpine chalets are confined to Oltre Gottardo, the locals’ somewhat disparaging term for the rest of Switzerland “beyond the Gotthard”.
Ticino is divided topographically in two by the modest Monte Ceneri range (1961m), two-thirds of the way down: the area to the north is the Sopraceneri (“Above Ceneri”), that to the south is Sottoceneri (“Below Ceneri”). The main attractions are the lakeside resorts of Locarno and Lugano, where mountain scenery merges with the subtropical flora encouraged by the warm climate, although the cantonal capital Bellinzona and the quiet valleys of Alto Ticino also hold a great deal of charm. Ticino is known, too, for its plethora of ancient churches in hamlets and villages across the canton, many of them Romanesque and containing medieval frescoes, and most also featuring huge external murals of St Christopher, patron saint of travellers.
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