Let me just start by saying this is a beautiful walk. I won’t call it a hike, in which there is implied a sense of grim purpose that includes the word exercise, which I have difficulty fitting in the same sentence with the word enjoyable. So yes, in spite of its probable 7 miles of length, you will have a great time admiring scenery that is by degrees stunning, interesting, bucolic, historic, and even idyllic, without the need of humping a water blivet, a Swiss Army knife, an emergency First Aid kit, a means of triangulating your position using a satellite in geosynchronous orbit with the Earth, and of course the all-important emergency ration of toilet paper. No, this is a little simpler than that. Just put on your shoes and go (but, staying close to the lake is a good idea)!
I am staying at the Bellevue Au Lac, so that is where our journey begins. It is a 3 star hotel situated directly across the street from Lake Lugano, which means that the view from the portico is spectacular, and that if you want more luxury you are either incredibly spoiled or are so rich and famous you need to hide from the Paparazzi. Suffice it to say that my room has Swarovski crystal light fixtures arranged in a star pattern on the ceiling that diffract light like a prism in a rainbow of colors and the bed is so comfortable I am thinking of making this my home. It’s kind of like what an expensive room in Vegas would be like if that city had taste or refinement. I’m thinking I’m not doing so badly for a country boy from Alabama after all…and that my ego is way bigger than my sense of modesty or decorum. The hotel is actually in the “commune” of Paradiso, which is to the south of the city center of Lugano proper, though like many obscure American towns you cannot tell when you leave one area and enter another. So part one of the stroll is to cross the street and head north (left) into town on the wide lakeside walkway.
And right from the beginning you know this is something special, because after all there is a reason tourists have flocked to this region since the funicular to Mt. Salvatore first opened in 1890. The lake is the color of deep sapphire, and fiery sparks of light dance off of small wave caps while sailboats scud across the water in a coordinated ballet. In the southeastern distance, you can see the exclusive enclave of Campione d’Italia with its giant casino, while towering peaks in every direction (foothills to the Swiss, though some distant mountaintops are snow capped), provide a grand and impressive backdrop to the milieu. The towering spray from a lakeside fountain provides a playground for swans. I stroll down the wide walkway with the sun on my face and smile in my heart.
The walkway itself is something of an attraction. The ornate Belle Epoch balustrades and lampposts line the entire length of the promenade all the way from Paradiso to the Parc on Lac, where they give way to an even older pedestrian path leading to our final destination of Gradzio. Here the sidewalk is lined with bright flowers, there a viewing platform jutting into the water. There is an abundance of sculpture which, although fairly modern, manages to be at least materially comprehensible, some of it even whimsical and fun. I know this because the college students have strategically placed a beer in the crook of an arm of a naked woman. I think it’s called “Hot Babe with Bud in Prose”. But remarkably none of these unintentionally interactive exhibits have been defaced with the artistic terrorism that defines graffiti. Much of the early going is lined with trees that arch over the path and provide shelter for birds, which swoop and dive, hoping for scraps from the delighted children throwing breadcrumbs.
This is a family destination, though it seems it attracts its share of lovers and college kids too. But there are huge numbers of Muslims making their presence known and the Africans are here in force also. Mostly there are Italian speaking Swiss, a curious mix of cultures said to combine Italian passion with Swiss efficiency. That’s certainly better than the other way around, I’ll wager. But they all seem to be having fun, although not for the first time I wonder how Arabic women can stand even the moderate noonday heat in Switzerland when wrapped head to toe in blankets. By the way, Americans are very rare here, though almost everyone speaks English, so no worries!
About a kilometer along you’ll never imagine what you’ll come across, so I’ll tell you, since I’m kind of like your tour guide and all. Under a modest cupola within the tree canopy you will find a bust of one “Georgi Washington”, a tribute to a truly great American, placed there by an Italian American immigrant who wanted to recognize his love for the USA in his own native land. Poignant. A nice moment on the walk, and gets you to thinking what a great reputation we still have in some parts of the world…
As you approach city center the landward side becomes a solid mass of older 18th and 19th century buildings paying tribute to 21st century gods in the form of Armani, Gucci, Hermes, Louis Vuitton…in fact, you name it, and the grossly overpriced store of your choice is here, some with names that I can’t pronounce and with prices I can’t really comprehend, either, but a solid stream of Ferraris, Maseratis, and Lamborghinis attests to the fact that there are plenty here who can in fact afford it and actually enjoy squandering their wealth in this fashion. By the way, in my exotic car category, I would also note such rare machinery as a Shelby Mustang and a vintage Hemi convertible ‘Cuda roaming the streets as well (not to mention a Harley or two). I love big block American muscle cars, and I’m glad they found a good home over here!
So no, this isn’t exactly the mean street of Switzerland, which is an oxymoron to begin with, but it actually detracts from the old world charm of the place. Too much money is like too much wine. A glass or two makes you feel good and is actually a fine accompaniment for dinner. A bottle or two and pretty soon you just don’t know how to behave properly. So I’m actually glad to look at the lake during this stretch, where I can see one of the fleet of sightseeing riverboats leaving the dock, its bow flag flapping proudly in the crisp air.
And what air! Oh my god does it feel good! I’ve lived in Florida so long I’m always amazed when my shirt doesn’t immediately slap a wet seal on my back when I walk outside for ten minutes like some kind of vapor lock for humans. Here, it’s like walking through cool thin clear water, and it smells like rich earth. It cleanses you as you progress. Nice. I’d like some bottled up for the trip home, please…but just don’t charge me for designer air!
I’m in the city center now and it’s a circus because it’s Saturday afternoon. Here the crowds become seriously touristy and threaten to overwhelm the town, but somehow the traffic keeps moving, as it must, since this is still after all the 3rd biggest financial center in this mountain country and so some of the people have real jobs not connected to tourism. For example, there’s a guy right in the main square making obscene balloon figures to the delight of a small audience of adults. I wonder with a quick thought what happened to the farmers and fishermen who used to live here, centuries ago, but of course we already know that sad story. Let’s not dwell on it.
Now I’ve passed the obligatory McDonold’s ensconced within a grand 200 year old commercial plaza and am approaching the park. There are minstrels playing flutes at the granite arch defining the entry to the grounds, which are of course perfectly manicured. Lovers stroll arm in arm along tree-lined paths, while children and dogs frolic in the broad expanses of green. Exotic flowers cascade from lush beds in brilliant purples, oranges, reds, pinks, and yellows. I stay on the path nearest the lake and meet my companion, a lovely Latvian girl who works on one of the tour boats, and I am once again in awe of the easy grace that women carry so effortlessly. I am also in awe of my unbroken streak of incredible luck lately.
Outside of the park, we walk past a series of tennis courts, public pools, and the like before heading down winding centuries-old stairs into the heart of old Switzerland, where stone buildings line the walkway, affording glimpses of the shimmering lake only through the flowered arches of paths down to the boat docks. Gone are the tourist shops now, gone the sounds of motor vehicles. The cobblestone path has been worn slick by the passing of ages, and our progress is only occasionally punctuated by a dog barking in the distance or the buzzing of bees. Moss grows along the northern wall of the path, while higher up the hill, in the sun, we can see the lavish gardens of the old inns and homes of the locals. We have descended into the cool dark passages of time into another world. This is Gradzio.
Our trail ends abruptly at an ancient stone pier. Kids are diving into the crystalline lake. I ask my friend if she’d like a swim, but she sweetly demurs. We sit gazing out upon the lake in silent contemplation. A boat cuts a silent wake through the water, which sparkles in the bright afternoon sun. The green hills across the lake are overshadowed by the great grey peaks behind them. A hawk slices a silent circle in the sky. It is one of those rare moments in your life that you know you’ll never forget.
We head back toward town, stopping at a lakeside café’ for a sip of wine and to admire the view. The tour boat from town stops to let some passengers off at the dock in front of us, and one of the hands, a handsome young man with a beaming face, waves to my companion. She smiles. They exchange some courtesies, and he is on his way. We head back into town and enjoy some delicious gelato near the city center. It has been a perfect day.
I nap at the hotel, waking only when the sun is nearly down. I decide it’s a perfect night to head over to the enclave of Campeone d’Italia to do some gambling. This obscure commune of Italy is perched on a hillside above the lake and is surrounded on all sides by the Swiss border. Of course there are no border checks or guards as you enter, but there is a sign reminding you that you have entered Italy. The entire city is composed of only a few hundred acres, and I’d guess only a handful of residents, most of who work in banking or tourism. It’s known as a tax haven, and I’m given to understand that there are some famous people domiciled here, but everyone’s too discreet to say whom.
For my own part, I’m not rich or famous, so I get there on a bus. It’s clean and comfortable and is only occupied by two other passengers, both of whom work at the casino. I ask them if they can give me any tips on the best table. Roulette, they say.
Roulette it is. In Europe, the odds are better because there is only a “0” on the table tipping the scale in the house’s favor (instead of also a “00” as in America and most other places). I eschew the bizarre “virtual roulette” in favor of the real thing, but wonder why anyone would want to allow a computer to dictate their losses. In any event, I try my luck at the table and I am winning, though not enough to attract even one of the many bimbos in the place, so I decide to step outside for a moment and enjoy the sun setting over the lake before it’s too late.
There is a crowd gathering, lining the walls and steps that afford the best view of the lake. I wonder what’s going on. I don’t have to wait long to find out.
One of the things I love about Europe in general is that they have a full calendar of celebrations throughout the year, and today it is Ferragosto (The day of the Assumption) in Italy, and, once again by luck, I have a ringside seat for some of the best fireworks I’ve ever seen. These are not your garden variety everyday Disney magic, oh no. These are huge fantastic clusters that burst into ever smaller units as they descend, glowing all the way to the surface of the lake. Shimmering dragons of fire, cascading through the clear night air. Bursts of vibrant color and huge booms of sound. It’s an incredible show, and I watch it ‘til the end.
I head back into the casino to gamble a little more, and,, like the idiot I am, have another drink. Or two. So it’s no surprise that I begin to lose. Not a lot, but enough to make me want to quit, which I do, but it is only then that I realize I haven’t planned any transportation back to Lugano, some 15 miles away on winding mountain roads. I think that might be a problem when I find out from one of the bimbos that the last bus out left an hour ago.
So it’s one in the morning, and I’m stuck in a tiny Italian enclave on the south side of Switzerland. I’m a little tipsy, and I don’t speak the language, and I’m almost broke, but, fortunately, I have a plan, which is to go back inside and gamble some more.
If that sounds like a bad idea to you, bravo, sir! You are correct! By the time I lose almost all of my money, it’s closer to 2, and I decide that I should just walk back. Fifteen miles. I figured, what the hell, I’m not on a schedule, and it didn’t seem so far when I was riding…no, that isn’t true. I didn’t figure anything at all. I was drunk.
So I’m walking along, and it’s pitch black outside of the Italian gate, and I’m thinking maybe this wasn’t a great idea after all, when it starts to rain. At this point, I’m hoping a cab will come by, but at this hour, the chances of one willing to make the Lugano run are diminishing rapidly. So I am thrilled when a Mercedes pulls over when I stick my thumb out, and, for a mere $50 on my American Express (I’m never really broke, after all), I get to ride home in style.
I don’t know how long I slept the next day in that heavenly down-filled bed, but it was late even by my standards, which is to say no real standards at all. So the moral of the story is: quit while you’re ahead, choose gorgeous eastern European chicks over casino floozies, and don’t leave home without your Amex card.