Switzerland's Lugano -- spaghetti under the palm trees

The palms I expected to see, and the magnolias and banana trees were a small sweet surprise, but the sight that made me blink twice on that warm Sunday afternoon in Lugano was the outdoor cafe on the lakefront with the handsome orange awning and the familiar logo.

It was a Burger King, Switzerland's first, and perhaps the most smartly situated in the BK realm. Still, it was a hamburger joint by any other name, and I had to chuckle at the ironies. Lugano sends us 57 paintings from the formidable Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, a tour that will close at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art Oct. 9 to Dec. 6, and we ship them the Whopper.

Happily for me that the balance of the 14th-to 18th-century collection, so nobly mounted at the mansion called Villa Favorita on the shores of Lake Lugano, was there to appreciate. Happily also that I arrived on a weekend, for the villa is closed Monday through Thursday (and is locked up from mid-October through Thursday (and is locked up from mid-October to Easter). I can't say I'd pick a Sunday in July to arrive in Lugano otherwise. I came up from Milan by train to this faintly tropical Italian Swiss region called the Ticino to find the lakeside promenades aflutter with tourists and the water churned by a dozen different kinds of craft, from the tiny foot-pedal boats to the big open-deck ferries that glide all the way down the lake to Italy.

I checked into the five-star Hotel Splendide Royal, so quiet in the midday lull it seemed to be living, museumlike, in the vanished past: the summer of 1914 perhaps. I paused long enough in Room of 1914 perhaps. I paused long enough in Room 202 to throw open the shutters on lake and mountains, and then I was on the street beneath the palms heading for the Paradiso boat landing just down the lake from central Lugano.

At 1:55, after a quick plate of spaghetti and a salad on the lawn of the Ristorante Al Camino opposite the landing, I heard a toot that would have done credit to a Mississippi paddle-wheeler, and climbed on the ferry for the short ride to Castagnolo near the Villa Favorita. I exepcted a mass exit, thinking everyone else in Lugano was heading for what remained of the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, but as the boat pulled up at the Castagnolo dock, only three of us got off.

After entering the grounds of the Villa Faovrita, you walk between long rows of cypress, the air scented with wisteria and roses; through the trees you see the boats paddling, buzzing, or sprinting by, and, across the lake, the considerable green bulk of Monte San Salvadore, which reminds one of Rio's corcovado. The villa itself, all but empty of visitors when I walked in, has room after high-ceilinged room of valuable 14th- to 18th-century paintings, Holbein, Cranach, Rembrandt, Breughel, and other Dutch masters, el Greco, Goya, Chardin, Fragonard; there are wood sculptures by Riemenschneider, Tiepolos staring down from staircases, 15th-century tapestries decorating entire rooms done in period furnishings.

The gallery, which opens at 2 on Sunday, (10 to 12 and 2 to 5 on Friday and Saturday), was not my private villa for long, but the growing crowds were nothing compared with those I met when I strolled back around the lake to the main square of Lugano. Two combatants were poised on either side of a huge chessboard painted on the sidewalk with pieces the size of Barbie Dolls. One looked to be an East Indian; the other an older local man who was receiving the combined advice and support of four or five contemporaries seated on a bench. Outdoor, outsize chess is evidently a lugano summer staple. At the Paradiso landing, I had seen two young men locked in a serious game, gliding back and forth, making their moves on roller skates.

In the bright sunshine, which had been none too prevalent in recent weeks, I contemplated the various waterborne activities and decided to try another ferry. I was slightly puzzled. There are several landings to choose from in Lugano, and the printed and posted schedules seemed, for Switzerland, hard to fathom ("It's the Italian in us," a Lugano man was to tell me). So I deposited myself on the next boat, and a happy choice it was. We crisscrossed at midlake, pulling up to tiny villages and waterfront restaurants and hotels which seemed, in their isolation, a thousand miles distant and not merely around the bend from Lugano. The village of Gandria, with its shuttered stone houses clinging to the mountainside and the little Hotel Moosmann beckoning at water's edge, looked worth more than a passing peek.

So on Monday morning I was back at the Paradiso landing at 8:35 heading downlake to Gandria, marveling at the serenity that had come over the lake. From the deck of the Moosmann, where I stopped for an orange juice, I could see down the lake to the Italian villages of San Mamette and Porlezzo, which can be taken in on a three-hour afternoon ride.

Now I switched to two-legged transport, following a lakeside footpath back toward Lugano. Ahead I saw a man in work clothes pausing to smell a leaf. It was mint, growing from the earthy ledge above the trail which he, a city groundskeeper, was giving its periodic trim.He pointed with affection to a small flowering cactus. Lugano, I mused on the trail again, is a botanist's dreamland.

My last view of the Italian-scented Swiss city by the lake was from the top of Monte Bre which I reached by a funicular, choosing not to hike. From a cafe terrace you can see far beyond the lake and the Ticino to the whitened alps, where I was headed next secure that no Burger King awaited me there.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.