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By Kathleen Hinton-BraatenSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 25, 1983

Lugano, Switzerland

THE traveler to Lugano arrives, Eskimo style. This, too, is Switzerland? he cries, hastily replacing woolens and heavy shoes with cotton and sandals. Alpine vigor and freshness evaporate as he contemplates seas of brightly colored geraniums and honeysuckle. No propensity for Brooks Brothers suits and sensible pumps could survive this invasively tropical scene - only discipline keeps shoes on feet or flowers from women's hair. From leather bags emerge pinks and turquoise, striped sashes, and a mood of frivolity.

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You should try splurging here. I squandered my riches for amenities and a room by the lake with a miniature terrace, seemingly a mere tumble into a private sea.

Lugano - a neat balancing act on the edge of Italy - Swiss order beginning to fray, a melange of Italian language, food, and architecture tempered by allegiances of another sort altogether.

You may have come here specifically for art - or so you think. A pilgrim, you may call yourself, for Old Masters, eager for a look at one of Europe's most magnificent art collections: the Villa Favorita, where the shore of Lake Lugano inches eastward toward the Italian frontier. At least temporarily, however, Lugano and its lake, its mountain-clinging villages, its dual cuisine of robust Italian and elegant French, stall the colder intellectual bent and make the traveler a tourist.

Lugano lies in a land of lakes, its own Lago Lugano a dark body of water surrounded by blue-green mountainous cones which rise from its shores almost without intermediate slopes or plateaus. A clean - not barren - landscape here, with sentinel cypresses and villas with lines so pressingly vertical they embrace the lake and suggest both intimacy and a leap to the skies.

At first you may toy with the idea of excursions to Lake Maggiore to the west and to Italy's Lago di Como and Lago di Lecco to the east. You may dabble,too, with the notion of a mad dash to Milan, a mere hour to the south.

After all, the traveler to Switzerland is probably no longer sure what country he is in. Lugano is in the canton of Ticino, whose southernmost point dips straight into Italy. Shifting linguistic gears as you move through Switzerland, meager French is abandoned for German, experiments are attempted perhaps with Romansch in the Grisons region, after which you revive a little bedraggled Italian. . . . The locals will set you straight on geographical features, explaining that the River Ticino is a tributary of Italy's famed River Po and slips in and out of Lake Maggiore to join the Po just below Milan.

There is a beguiling serenity about Lugano, however, that's not quite Latin. The chaotic drama of Mexico City, the frayed-about-the-edges order of Spain, the promise of excitement just around the corner that's thoroughly Italian - these are not found in the peaceful order of Lugano's winding streets.

Though my hotel was in Lugano's Paradiso suburb and only minutes on foot or by trolley from the center of town, I perversely decided to approach Lugano outside-in - first circling the lake for its tiny villages, then heading back to town and - at last - to the Villa Favorita. Your trip might be different, but in any case, the following itinerary should be included on any visit to the area.

On the first morning, therefore, leave your hotel early for the boat to Morcote, to stroll by Lake Lugano beneath an arch of thick shade trees and past fountains and kiosks with newspapers from Berlin, London, and Zurich.

The tourist office is beneath the same broad arcade. Here you can breakfast with guidebook in hand. The boat schedule to tiny Morcote leaves time for a dash to the church of Santa Maria degli Angioli to see the frescoes of Renaissance painter Bernardino Luini.

The traveler's usual conflicting goals of both unwinding and absorbing everything in sight will be momentarily resolved in the church's dark, peaceful interior. The persuasiveness of art and the brief isolation from the hubbub outside pushes city-born tensions away.

The steamer to Morcote zigzags from one side of the lake to the other. It'sm no island of serenity, with its hordes of noisy school kids and quieter groups of young ones on excursion with maiden aunts. Past Campione, Bissone, Melide, Brusino - the liquid soft names soothe as much as the warming sun.