Thursday, November 6, 2008

Not quite Italy... but we can see it from here!

Lugano was chosen as our rebound from so-so day tripping to Lucerne the previous weekend. Why was I so certain this was the place to help us bounce back? It's in Ticino, the Italian speaking part of Switzerland! Ticino is actually surrounded by Italy on three sides, it just dips down into "the boot" like a little peninsula into another world. Lugano is quite close to Milan and Lake Como. We reserved a hotel room with a few days notices as opposed to a few hours like our last weekend trip. The train ride was twice as far, three hours, so we figured we should be well prepared. We packed one suitcase with a change of clothes and after reading about the hiking found in the area we packed our newly arrived boots. They were too late for a Gruyeres cheese hike but we knew we could still put them to good use! The train ride was ridiculously pretty. It was like we had been sucked into someone's ideal model train setting. Hills and tunnels, bridges and meadows... CF said he expected to see Heidi running by any moment now.

We arrived in Lugano and wandered a bit before we figured out how to find our hotel. We got a peek at the Lake and I knew we were in for some lovely views! The last time we had been in an Italian speaking setting (besides the restaurant down the street from us) was my family's 2005 trip to Italy, only the second time that CF and I had traveled out of the country together. We had taken an Italian class before going, but it had been years with no brushing up. Like trying to remember some French in Fribourg, Lugano tripped us up with Italian. But it wasn't too long before we got a bit of it back, at least enough to be polite. We mostly just wandered that day and enjoyed feeling like we got our Weekend Travel Warrior groove back. For lunch we had a disappointing pizza and for dinner some bizarre Chinese food. Hmmm, I didn't think the food would be so bad when you can pretty much see Italy right across the water! What's going on here? We did have a good time getting reacquainted with Italian culture, you know, like gelato and prosecco happy hour drinking!

The next day we put on those hiking boots and took off in the direction of Monte Bré. We hadn't done a whole lot of reading but we knew the experience included taking a funicular up the mountain and then there was hiking to be done up on top. So when we got to the ticket booth and they asked if we wanted round trip fare for the funicular we both nodded and wondered if this guy was crazy... of course we were going to come back down! We got seats on the funicular as it was filling up and off we went, into the sky. There were a bunch of kids on some sort of excursion together in the different sections of the strange vehicle. It was the littlest one who noticed CF and I speaking English to each other though, I realized this when I heard her mother, or maybe teacher slowly whisper to her, "Where are you from?" She was prompting her! The little girl looked at me but shied away, I tried to think of a way to start talking to her but got distracted by the amazing view revealed as we came to the top of the mountain.

It was incredible. Perhaps the grandest view of my lifetime. And we both agreed that my mom would cry (this is our new way of judging the beautiful things we see). We meandered around a bit, I think the view had blown our minds. And then we saw the trails sign. Ohhhh. All of the sudden we realized we had overpaid our funicular fare; if we really wanted to hike, we were not leaving this mountain the way we came. We almost got a little overly ambitious and took off in the direction that would have actually brought us down into Italy. However that hike was pushing three hours in predicted duration and we weren't carrying any water or food. So instead we decided to descend towards the water, it was estimated to take about an hour and a half and the view appeared to be dazzling. So after soaking in just a bit more gloriousness we started downwards.

It started with 10 minutes of cement stairs and then we arrived in the small town of Bré. Then we found our trail and I quickly realized this was not going to be easy. The trail was almost entirely made up of steep, steep stairs. CF's long legs climbed down the path easily. My legs are quite short and it wasn't long before my quads were tingling. I wasn't sure at first if it was muscle fatigue or if I was shaking a bit from worrying I was going to fall and go tumbling down the hillside. Maybe it was a bit of both. CF was a great hiking partner, he had brought his backpack and when he realized I was nervous he took my heavy camera and carried it whole way. Halfway through I thought to myself, "I'm not having fun. But there's no way I'm going back up that hill so all I can do is keep going!" After a little while the drop off the side of trail wasn't quite so... severe and I relaxed and actually enjoyed the hike. I hadn't had a tough work out like this in quite some time!

Most of the way down we were actually enveloped by trees, so much for the great view! Eventually (closer to two hours later), the trees opened up and we were deposited into the small town of Gandria, right on the water. Hungry and thirsty from our adventure in funicular-fare-wasting we quickly spotted Ristorante Gandria and decided to have lunch. We were given a lovely table out on the terrace and had a great meal. It was the kind of meal I was expecting to have in Lugano, aha, maybe you need to get out of the more touristy city! Once we started to get into the right mindset CF thought to order a half-liter of house red wine, and we were happily accommodated. We had a nice caprese and a great polenta dish (which is the Ticino specialty) with braised beef goulash served over it. The bad side of the hike sort of faded away and I was just so pleased to be right where I was, somewhere I couldn't have planned to end up.

Gandria itself turned out to be teeny tiny and practically spilling into the lake. We figured out this was our chance to get out on the water and bought tickets for the next boat back to Lugano. There were two restaurants right by the boat dock, each with a large back patio filled with happy diners. There was a man playing accordion in one patio and a few people were dancing. Including the chef! It was all very charming. The small waiting area we had filled with people as we waited most of an hour for the next boat. Scoring seats on the outer deck or even by a window was out of the question, so it wasn't the best boat ride but it got us back to our luggage quickly. During the 20 minute boat ride I saw little hotels and restaurants along the water. I wouldn't actually recommend staying in Lugano, if I were going back I'd stay somewhere just out of town and on the lake. This was a happy little paradise.

We hadn't learned much from our wander the day before and getting back to the train station didn't go so well. The good part was getting another gelato, I tried to order two fruit flavors together: melon and strawberry. However, my pronunciation of "melone" sounded too much like "marroni" and we ended up with creamy chestnut! CF was a good sport and ate most of the erroneous cone while I had chocolate and hazelnut. We ended up climbing a terrible flight of stairs, between CF carrying our shared suitcase and my blown out legs we were very unhappy. We just caught a train though, so we didn't have to wait at the station once we were there. Maybe we should have waited, the timing of our departure meant that we were on a route that required a train change. And oh what a change it was. A whole slew of people ran from our train to our new one just across the platform and we found one very full train. The older gentleman who had crossed the platform found a seat and I was glad for him. We were not so lucky, so we started walking towards the other end of the train, one car at a time. There were no seats to be seen. We passed some open space where two people had settled on just standing, my gut told me this was the best we were going to do but for some reason we kept going. A bunch of people in front of us just gave up and decided to stand in an exit way, leaving us bottle-necked behind them in the aisle. The seated passengers were started to look up at us annoyed by our semi-hovering. There was an Indian family behind us who were budging when we turned around hoping to go back. I guess they thought they could somehow move forward? We squished through them and then found a man standing in the aisle holding a dog. And he wouldn't budged either. It was all very weird and suddenly the language barrier seemed worse than ever, when you find yourself in a bind and needing of some extra understanding it is best if you can at least ask for help nicely. CF lifted the suitcase up, trying to lift it over his head so he could get past this man with the dog. The train car rattled a bit, CF stumbled and BAM, went our suitcase into the face of a man in the seat next to this hot mess. I was horrified. CF, who had been insisting on using his Italian all day poured out apologies in English. What an awful moment. We mostly just kept walking, we needed out of that car. We got back to the open space and found a little corner to lean in. I found looking out the window of the exit door fascinating but riding while standing up was making CF motion-sick. I'm not quite sure how long we rode like this, but finally there was a stop that was fairly big and enough people left so we were able to snag seats. The train car was muggy and smelled awful. Why is Sunday travel always so miserable? We could not have been happier to arrive back in Zürich that evening. We take the good with the bad, and this trip included that incredible view, challenging hike and rewarding meal so we did our best to shake off the terrible train ride. However we did agree that we needed to reserve seats when traveling on Sundays whenever possible from here on out!

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