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.

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.

Morcote itself seems indifferent to the boat's arrival, though touristy shops stacked with pottery and lace sit behind the archways lining the shoreside lane. You can lunch on board ship - spaghetti, cold cuts, roast pork with potatoes; but I chose instead the Ristorante Torre by the dock and downed a hearty dish of risotto alla funghim, salad, and a concoction of ice cream with yellow currants and whipped cream.

Morcote is a tiny but demanding place. Built straight up the side of a mountain, it is topped by a landmark church, Santa Maria del Sasso, with its Lombardian-style campanile. Reached by 408 steps slapped crookedly across the hill, the church overlooks a stunning view of the lake and Italy beyond.

The effort on the way up the three-centuries-old stairway is as breathtaking as the view. I recommend stopping briefly to examine the frescoes of the chapel of San Antonio Abate, after which you will gratefully reach the oratory of San Antonio da Padova - a wedding cake of an octagon surrounded by an arched portico of eye-pleasing proportions.

A sea of red tile roofs tumbles about at all sorts of odd angles and mixes with stone, lake, and cypress, spread below after you at last reach the top.

The next day I turned eastward on the lake. The tiny village of Gandria is just beyond the villa, in a spot accessible not by car but by walkway or boat. Gandria has the intimacy of a tiny Greek village hugging the mountainside with stone and stucco, but here the white facade of the Greek village is replaced by an almost strident ochre, peeling beige combined with touchable tiles.

Here you can wander in and out of shops, compartmentalizing the schlock and the charming, dismissing the Indian cottons you could buy at home, and admiring some baskets arranged in a half-moon of sunshine.

At lunchtime, cross the lake to Cantine di Gandria and eat polenta and veal on a cafe's sunny terrace. Then rouse yourself for the highlight of your stay - a visit to the Villa Favorita.

My obsession with the collection had begun in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where a stunning selection of ''Modern Masters'' had just opened to the public. Those paintings were part of more than 750 19th- and 20th-century paintings collected by the present Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza. The Villa Favorita collection is fundamentally the accomplishment of his father, Baron Heinrich von Thyssen-Bornemisza, an industrialist whose systematic acquisition of 14th- to 18 th-century masterpieces matched the skills of a true museum curator.

I made my way through the villa's 18 salons, tagging along awestruck in the wake of Simon de Pury, curator for the galleries and right-hand man for the present baron.

''It's a panorama of the history of European painting,'' Mr. de Pury explained, illuminating step by step and masterwork by masterwork how these treasures were compiled. It was not until after the elder baron's death that the galleries were opened to the public.

The Villa Favorita is not the only museum in Lugano, of course. The municipal park's Villa Ciani houses a small collection of Rousseau, Matisse, and painters from the Ticino, and the Cantonal Museum of Natural History will cater to those with zoological or paleontological bents. The San Rocco Church and the San Lorenzo Cathedral add their treasures to the frescoes of Santo Maria degli Angioli, and idle wandering in town reveals great combinations of arch and arcade, street market and fashionable shop.

Lugano is more than a place for lakeside dreaming and forages into the fine arts. You can use it as a springboard for journeys to the flamboyance of Venice or over the Alps to Zurich. However, don't be surprised if you find yourself reluctant to leave this land of controlled abandon. Practical details:

The Villa Favorita is open from Good Friday to the second Sunday of October; its hours are Friday and Saturday, 10-12 and 2-5; Sundays, 2-5.

I stayed at the 5-star Grand Hotel Eden, Riva Paradiso 7, 6900 Lugano, (091) 54-26-12; a room for two with breakfast, service, and taxes included runs from $ 90 to $105, November through March (low season), and $112 to $150, April through October (peak season).

Two less expensive hotels are the Hotel Admiral, Via Geretta 15, 6902 Lugano, (091) 54-23-24; $60 to $80 low season and $75 to $100 peak season; and the Pensione San Carlo, Via Nassa 28, 6901 Lugano, (091) 22-71-07; $35 to $40 low season and $38 to $45 peak season.

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