LUGANO, Switzerland -- The trains run on time, but the people may not. That is Lugano.
A cozy town in southern Switzerland, it defies all the stereotypes of this alpine country. The flags indicate you are in the land of fondue and no-nonsense bankers, but the language, the attitude and the food all point to the Mediterranean neighbor to the south, Italy. You speak Italian and pay in Swiss francs.
Deep, emerald green Lake Lugano is the centerpiece of this Italian flavored Swiss treasure in the Ticino region, but it's not always the focus of activity.
So what do you get when you mix such diametrically opposed cultures? Hiking, biking, sailing, swimming, shopping, praying, drinking and, of course, eating. Lugano is equally suited to fitness fanatics and those with an appreciation for relaxation.
At the end of the day, no matter how you spent it, a visit to one of the local grottos for a bowl of merlot to sip with either polenta or risotto and grilled luganighetta (Lugano sausage, a speciality of the region) is perfecto.
Grottos are rustic eateries tucked in the mountains along the lake. Grotto Morchino is just a quick cab ride from town, while others may require a boat trip to the fishing villages of Morcote or Grandia. Morcote is the more popular of the two villages. Taxi boats run regularly and offer the lake's perspective of the city.
Ticino is famous for its smooth and full-bodied merlot with hints of happiness, which is traditionally served in Ticino pottery bowls (you may have to ask in some places where they will pour you a glass instead). One restaurant in the city where you can be sure to get a bowl of wine is La Tinera. Gabbani, another typically good restaurant in the old town section of the city, is known for its risotto, but the sausage and bread sandwich will have you craving it long after the trip is just a pile of snapshots.
Another taste you won't soon forget is Nocino, an Italian liqueur made from unripe walnuts, spices and secret ingredients. Because it is homemade, the taste can vary; some versions have more cloves, others more cinnamon.
"It's an old family recipe," explained Pierluigi Olgiati, owner of Grotto Morchino, as he poured two shot glasses of the dark brown liquid. The grotto has been in his family for generations.
Nocino goes down very easily and definitely inspires some interesting dreams. A great way to shake off a Nocino night is by diving into the cool water of Lago Lugano the next morning. There are several dock areas set up for swimmers and sunbathers.
If you stay at the Grand Hotel Splendide Royal, which sits directly across the street from the lake and the tree-lined promenade, you can use the dock at the Grand Hotel Eden. It's about a seven-minute walk along the lake. The Eden is much more contemporary with a sort of 1970s vibe, but the swimming dock and dockside service is excellent. Stay at the Splendide Royal, swim at the Eden for the best of both worlds.
The old city for shopping and touring is a pleasant 10-minute stroll from the Splendide Royal along the lake. Restaurants and boutiques line the narrow colonnaded Via Nassa and Via Passina, which share real estate with the Coop department store and open up to the Manor department store housed in a modern building with glass facade on the Piazza Dante.
This was the third year Lugano hosted the trials for cycling's Tour de Suisse, which turned several of the lakeside piazzas into one big party. Hats, bags and T-shirts were just some of the items being given away by sponsors in the various vendor tents. Fans lining the race route made a thunderous noise by pounding the barriers as each rider came flying into the finish line by the lake. Many of the riders joined the crowds in the cafes afterward.
To get a sense of the terrain, you can take one of the funiculars up to Monte Bre or Monte San Salvatore, which overlook the lake. Hike down if you are feeling energetic and Swiss. The ride is fun and the views are fantastic. Because the city is built on a slope, steps and inclines are a common way to get around, much like Pittsburgh. For a look around town without having to climb the steep steps, there is the La Freccia Rossa (the red arrow), a train that gives tourists a good overview. It costs 9 Swiss francs and runs until October.
The promenade is a popular place to stroll, especially if you don't feel like climbing. It winds along the lake going from a thick canopy of trees to a sunny open path that leads eventually to the Parco Civico. The park is the home of Villa Ciani (circa 1840), which has housed the city's fine arts collection and is the site for art exhibits.
To see Switzerland's most famous Renaissance fresco, be sure to stop into the unassuming Santa Maria degli Angioli to see the Passion and Crucifixion and the Last Supper by Bernardino Luini (1475-1532). The 15th-century church was once part of a Franciscan monastery and sits at the end of Via Nassa on the lake. Be sure to offer a prayer of thanks that you found Lugano and one that you will return.
Patricia Sheridan: email@example.com or 412-263-2613. First Published August 14, 2012 4:00 AM