Associate Editor Bruce Woelfel pays a visit to the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino. There, among Lugano's sheltering palms, he rides lake steamers and sips the odd glass of Fendant.

Until completion of 10-mile St. Gotthard railway tunnel, the Alps were a formidable barrier separating the rest of Switzerland from the canton of Ticino, its largest city Lugano, and the many picturesque smaller towns along the shores of Lakes Maggiore and Lugano. Though that geographical impediment is now reduced, the differences remain. Italian Switzerland is still singularly distinct from the rest of Switzerland in climate, language, food and culture.

While Ticino has the subtropical climate, cuisine and architecture of Italy, it retains the prosperity, orderliness and efficiency that are uniquely Swiss. An excellent opportunity to observe the changing landscape is by traveling the rails from Zürich to Lugano.

In summer, take the late afternoon train, departing at 5:03 p.m. (two hours earlier in winter). The most exciting part of the journey comes after passing though the tunnel that pierces the Alps into Ticino. In this famous "triple spiral" section of the route the train continually circles back on itself as it loses altitude. Negotiating the tight circles, wheels screaming in protest, we viewed the same scene from different vantage points. Perched among the mountains were a narrow meadow, a steepled church and a small town which we seemed to pass repeatedly. Waterfalls coursed down the sides of surrounding snowy mountains. At this point, only 45 minutes from Lugano, our concentration on the magnificent scenery was broken by an attendant pushing a refreshment cart offering "coffee, brandy, Kirsch, something to eat?" Hungry and thirsty travelers could select from its six shelves of food and drink.

Arriving at Lugano's hillside station, the delightfully balmy early evening air invited a stroll to the town rather than aboard the funicular, which is conveniently located near the platform.

No directions are needed, for all paths lead downtown. Narrow, sloping, paved walkways wind down, soon widening to cobblestoned streets with Christmas-like strings of bright lights. Beautifully preserved stone buildings are set tight against each other. Shop windows are brightly lit and menus displayed outside small restaurants. The way levels to a plaza and soon passes the lower terminus of the funicular and into Lugano's car-free downtown at the edge of the Lake.

Soon we were ensconced at a table under the welcoming green awnings of Ristorante Lungalago (Riva V. Vela), enclosed by the quiet night and basking in the ambiance of this wonderful lakeside town. We sipped Fendant wine alongside a plaza alive with pink spraying fountains. The black waters of Lake Lugano reflected the outlines of brightly lit hotels and dimly illuminated passenger boats, which glided slowly back and forth.

Urban and urbane, yet relaxed, with all creature comforts at hand, it was an idyllic setting for a first go at Swiss-Italian cuisine. A light meal of salad with mixed lettuce and sliced cherry tomatoes, followed by Risotto Adriatico, richly-flavored rice with shrimp, scallops, calamari and small clams, came to 48 Sfr ($38) for one including wine, and was a marvelous beginning to our Lugano sojourn.

Lugano offers an ample selection of moderately-priced hotels. Here is our appraisal of several:

Lugano Hotels

Walter au Lac

(Editor's Choice)

Ideally located on Piazza Rezzonico, a square with fountains near the downtown boat landing, the comfortable Walter au Lac, with expansive water views, is the best value among the hotels reviewed in this issue. Though it has a small and unimpressive lobby and a rather modest restaurant, the Walter is spacious where it counts most: in the very large double guest rooms, many with wide terraces and tables and chairs overlooking the lake. Rooms are not air-conditioned, but this is seldom a hardship in the pleasant lake climate.

We found management to be particularly friendly, gracious and proud of its hotel.

• Address: Hotel Walter au Lac Piazza Rezzonico 7, CH-6900 Lugano
* Phone: 091/227425
* Fax: 091/234233
* Location: Facing the lake, near the town center
* Rooms: 6 singles, 30 doubles
* Proprietor: A. Cereda
* Prices: Singles 99 Sfr. ($80), doubles 166 Sfr. ($133)
* Meals: All available
* Facilities: First floor restaurant with lake view
* Credit Cards: All
* Disabled Access: Good
* Closed: Never
* Parking: Public garage 5 minutes walk from hotel
* Rating: Excellent 16/20 G $

International au Lac

A quarter mile from the center of town, this distinguished looking six-story hotel facing Lake Lugano has been run by the Schmid family for the last 33 years. They continually remodel the 200 year-old building which, before 1900, was a monastery. The latest renovation, in 1994, added a tiled outdoor swimming pool. There is a gracious lobby and several public rooms with high ceilings and ornamental chandeliers. The comfortable dining room one level up has large circular skylights. In the rear garden, stone steps lead to another courtyard and the new sparkling-clean swimming pool and lounging area.

Most rooms have views of the lake with private balconies. A typical lakeside single, though narrow and sans TV or air-conditioning, rents for 155 Sfr. ($125), has a wide balcony with lounge chair and a comfortable bathroom with a large bathtub. Average-sized lakeside doubles, which seem larger because of high ceilings, rent for 130 Sfr. ($100) per person. Double rooms which look toward the city and the hills are 90 Sfr. ($72) per person. A generous buffet breakfast is included in the room price.

• Address: Hotel International au Lac Via nassa 68, CH-6901 Lugano
* Phone: 091/227541
* Fax: 091/227544
* Location: On the lake, one-half mile from the center of town
* Rooms: 30 singles, 50 doubles
* Proprietor: Gaglio Schmid
* Prices: Singles 105-155 Sfr. ($84-$124), doubles 180-260 Sfr. ($144-$208)
* Meals: All available
* Facilities: Outdoor terrace and swimming pool
* Credit Cards: All
* Disabled Access: Good
* Closed: The week prior to Easter
* Parking: Hotel garage 18 Sfr. ($14) per night
* Rating: Above Average 14/20

Excelsior

The more luxurious, expensive Excelsior is next door to Walter au Lac and shares the quiet location, lake frontage and promenade. its guestrooms are not as large as Walter au Lac but are comfortably modern with air-conditioning and most of the usual conveniences such as hair dryers and minibars. The hotel also has two restaurants, with Italian and international cuisine, as well as delicatessen service and a bar.

• Address: Excelsior Hotel, Riva V. Vela 4, CH-6900 Lugano
* Phone: 091/228661
* Fax: 091/228189
* Location: On the lake near the center of town
* Rooms: 10 singles, 70 doubles
* Proprietor: Rezzonico family
* Prices: Singles 170-190 Sfr. ($136-$152), doubles 220-260 Sfr. ($176-$208)
* Meals: All available
* Facilities: Hairdresser
* Credit Cards: All
* Disabled Access: Good
* Closed: Never
* Parking: Private garage
* Rating: Above Average 14/20

Romantik Hotel Ticino

A small, luxurious and rather pricey hotel in the heart of the pedestrian district of Lugano, close to the funicular. Average-sized guestrooms in the renovated 500-year-old building have been very attractively restored and are luxuriously decorated with print wallpaper, gold mirrors and French provincial styled furniture. The restaurant includes an outdoor courtyard which is especially inviting for dining during spring and summer months.

• Address: Romantik Hotel Ticino, Piazza Cioccaro 1, CH-6901 Lugano
* Phone: 091/227772
* Fax: 091/236278
* Location: In the center of town, near the funicular
* Rooms: 4 singles, 16 doubles
* Proprietor: C & S Buchmann
* Prices: Singles 200-260 Sfr. ($160-$208), doubles 320-380 Sfr. ($256-$304)
* Meals: All available
* Facilities: Outdoor terrace
* Credit Cards: All
* Disabled Access: Good
* Closed: Never
* Parking: Private garage for 20 Sfr. per night
* Rating: Above Average 13/20

City Garni

This small, moderately-priced hotel is in an old, but nicely remodeled building, in Lugano's center. The average-sized guestrooms, entered via a covered inner courtyard, look out to a narrow, quiet pedestrian street and are decorated in neutral colors. They are equipped with radios and telephones but no TV. The small bathrooms have distinctively Swiss "sitz" baths (small tub-shower combinations in which one may bathe in a sitting position with legs and lower body immersed). There is also a tiny lobby and a pleasant breakfast room.

• Address: Hotel City Garni, Crocicchio Cortogne 7 CH-6901 Lugano
* Phone: 091/236244
* Fax: 091/235789
* Location: Center of town three minutes walk from funicular connecting to the railway station
* Rooms: 12 singles, 18 doubles
* Proprietor: S. Müller
* Prices: Singles 80 Sfr. ($64), doubles 130-140 Sfr. ($104-$112)
* Meals: Breakfast only
* Facilities: Television room
* Credit Cards: All
* Disabled Access: Good
* Closed: Never
* Parking: Public garage five minutes walk from hotel
* Rating: Average 11/20

Nassa Garni

The Nassa is in Lugano's central zone, near the lake. Average-sized doubles, cheerfully decorated in white with brown print drapes are equipped with radio and telephone. Some rooms have a private balcony or terrace with a lake view.

• Address: Albergo Garni Nassa Via Nassa 60/62, CH-6900 Lugano
* Phone: 091/232833-34
* Fax: 091/232835
* Location: In the central area, five minutes walk from the funicular
* Rooms: 7 singles, 37 doubles
* Proprietor: T. Forni
* Prices: Singles 100-160 Sfr. ($80-$128), doubles 156-196 Sfr. ($125-$157)
* Meals: Breakfast only
* Facilities: Breakfast room and television lounge.
* Credit Cards: All
* Closed: Never
* Parking: Private garage
* Rating: Average 11/20

San Carlo

Another moderately-priced hotel, centrally located in the pedestrian zone, two blocks from the lake. Small to average-sized guestrooms, decorated in tones of green and brown, face the street which is used only by shoppers and delivery vehicles. All contain a small desk, television, radio and telephone. The least expensive rooms have private showers but share toilets down the hall. There is a breakfast room but no restaurant.

• Address: Hotel San Carlo Garni Via Nassa 28, CH-6901 Lugano
* Phone: 091/221707
* Fax: 091/228022
* Location: Center of town three minutes walk from funicular connecting to railway station
* Rooms: 8 singles, 18 doubles
* Proprietor: Castro family
* Prices: Singles 70-90 Sfr. ($56-$72), doubles 120-140 Sfr. ($96-$112)
* Meals: Breakfast only
* Facilities: Breakfast room
* Credit Cards: All
* Disabled Access: Good
* Closed: Never
* Parking: Public garage five minutes walk from hotel
* Rating: Average 10/20

Lugano Restaurants

Restaurant Parco La Ciano

(Editor's Choice)

This elegantly modern, white concrete and glass building looks out to a dining terrace among trees and flowering plants on the edge of Park Ciano. We have found restaurants in the Mövenpick chain to be reliably good throughout Switzerland and Germany. La Ciano is not an exception.

Characteristically, there was a wide selection of food, much of it displayed under glass: salad bar, smoked salmon, fresh fish, steaks, ice cream, pastries and all imaginable varieties of wine and liquor. A three-course meal was 45 Sfr. ($36). Some of the items available from the ala carte menu include house pate, large portion 14.50 Sfr. ($12), small portion 9.50 Sfr. ($7.50); main course of risotto with merlot wine, large portion 16.50 Sfr. ($13), small portion for 11.50 Sfr. ($9). The special of the day was Tuscan-style chicken with risole potatoes and green salad for 14 Sfr. ($11). A specialty of the season was various dishes featuring fresh, wild chanterelle mushrooms.

From the extensive salad bar we composed a first course of several kinds of lettuce, mushrooms, olives, corn and carrots in a light vinegar and oil dressing. Our main dish was a brochette that combined veal steak, liver sausage and bacon, along with crisp French fries and a mixture of sliced, fresh vegetables sautéed in butter. With half a liter of beer this satisfying and tasty meal came to 26.50 Sfr. ($21).

Parco Ciani Mövenpick, Palazzo del Congressi, CH-6901 Lugano, phone 091/238656. Moderate.

Scala

Conveniently located on the pedestrian street near the center of town. Formal inside, with an informal outside terrace, Scala is pleasant for coffee and pastries during the day. Although the dinner menu may be a bit complex and costly for some tastes, the selection of a la carte items makes it a good choice for an alfresco late hours meal. In the mood for something light after having returned at 9:30 p.m. from a boat trip to Morcote (see below), we dined on green fettuccine in a robust brown mushroom sauce (18 Sfr./$14.50).

Restaurant Scala, Via Nassa 29, CH-6900 Lugano, phone 091/220958. Moderate.

Vetta Restaurant

This delightful restaurant is reached by taking two successive funiculars from a spot near downtown Lugano. In a white and yellow Victorian building perched on the top of Mount Salvatore, it has an unpretentious atmosphere with breezy, open dining rooms and terraces that offer sweeping views of the peaceful lake and city. Rather surprisingly, since it is the only restaurant in this rather remote spot (the only competition was a fast food stand), prices are reasonable by Swiss standards. Service was friendly and the featured lake fish fresh and delicately flavored.

Sitting at an outdoor table enjoying the sun and silence of this lofty spot, we were entranced by the panorama of the peaceful scene below. We ordered and were promptly brought a plate of lightly fried lake trout with a delicious butter and scallion sauce and boiled potatoes, creamed peas and sweet red peppers (19 Sfr./$15). Other selections included veal scallopini and schnitzel (both 17 Sfr. /$14). A half-liter of light Fendant was 14 Sfr. ($11). A featured red, Merlot del Ticino, was 26 Sfr. ($21) for a three-quarter liter bottle.

Restaurant Vetta Paradiso stop (Mt. Salvatore funicular), Lugano, phone 091/543701. Moderate.

Cruising and Dining Lake Lugano

One of the great pleasures of this part of Switzerland is riding a lake steamer and enjoying a meal either on the boat itself or at one of village stops around the lake. Few travel experiences are more relaxing and conducive to the enjoyment of food and drink and the "good life" in general. Sliding over the glassy water, lulled by the motion, gives one an illusion of well-being, of an ordered, happy world.

On a misty morning, the lake lending a somber and murky presence, we caught the 10 a.m. ship for Morcote. The craft, one of a fleet of similar boats plying the lake waters, was 140 feet long, 32 feet wide, fitted with a 270 HP diesel engine, and capable of carrying 600 passengers. Amazingly, it was operated by a crew of two: a captain who expertly docked the huge and clumsy craft without mishap, and a mate who lassoed the pilings at each stop alongside the narrow pier landings. We plowed through the calm waters at slightly more than 16 miles per hour, making graceful waves.

Swiss Lake steamers are a revelation for someone used to American ferry boats with large crews and often poor food service. These are immaculately clean. Passenger accommodations are spacious, with outdoor seating, front and rear, an upper deck lounge and eating area and central cabin with entry, kitchen and restrooms. In both indoor or outdoor eating spaces one can choose from a menu which typically includes, along with tea and coffee, a wide choice of beers and wines and liquors as well as a list of food items, lake fish, meat, vegetables, salads and desserts.

At each stop we slid alongside, the gangplank was put in place, and a few passengers ascended and descended. One stop was at the "Swiss Miniature Village" (all Switzerland in miniature). At the next town, Campioni, an Italian enclave with a couple of churches and a large gambling casino, we rocked gently in our own wake as we waited while a group of school children excitedly boarded with their teachers. Lakeside villas lined the water, each with its individual dock and boathouse. The tiny towns cling perilously to the steep slopes, some without access by land. Each has its own unique appearance, though all have terraced restaurants overlooking the lake, and private residences with "two-boat" garages.

The presence of the lake is dominant, affecting the climate, attracting the eye and bonding the little towns together.

Roccabella Restaurant

Gandria

Leaving from the Paradiso boat landing, we boarded an evening ship for dinner at Gandria, sipping coffee along the way. Our leisurely journey took slightly more than an hour including calls at other lake towns on the way.

Gandria hugs its rock cliffs, a highway passing further up and behind the town. Access to the town is via narrow stone walks and many steps. Roccabella was chosen from three other restaurants along the waterfront because it looked informal and had an attractive wooden terrace cantilevered over the lake. It also had the advantage of being close to the boat landing, from where one could watch the interesting water traffic.

We were alone on the terrace. The summer evening was still brightly lit by warm sunshine glittering off the water. It was a modest restaurant in a stunning setting and blissfully quiet. Over a beer, we sat enraptured. But our dreamy state was soon interrupted by a scene reminiscent of Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

A 1930 vintage Crisscraft speedboat, its varnished top gleaming and immaculate, rippled the calm surface of the water as it glided in to shore. After tying up, a fashionably dressed threesome, perhaps a couple with their daughter, either Italian jet-setters or affluent locals, disembarked and ascended the steps, their artfully restored classic awaiting their return.

The setting was so magnificent that it simply didn't matter when we discovered that very little was available from the two-page menu. A plate of tomatoes and mozzarella cheese drizzled with olive oil (32 Sfr./$26 for one including beer) was all we needed in this captivating spot

After this abbreviated and rather expensive meal we were informed that our boat was kaput, its engine inoperable. We willingly remained, perched on a bench by the lake. After an hour or so a replacement arrived to return us to Lugano.

Roccabella Restaurant, Gandria Boat Landing (reached by hourly boat from Lugano), phone 091/512722. Moderate to expensive.

Grotto del Parco

Morcote

Morcote, a lakeside fishing village, has a narrow road and stone buildings crowded along its waterfront. An arcaded walk, paralleling the lake, is lined with shops and restaurants displaying varieties of lake fish in glass cases. A big map of the town near the boat landing was of little use since it didn't show the street listed for the restaurant. A shopkeeper, however, directed us to our destination which is along the Strada Canale (turn left leaving the boat landing) about 500 meters. Grotto del Parco, in the Parco Scherrer, is up a flight of stone steps overlooking road and lake, a rustic and rocky premises. its linen-covered tables are in an enclosed but roofless terrace behind windows that face the lake.

A very good mixed salad of fresh vegetables, a generous portion of fresh, flavorful trout fillets with tartar sauce and boiled potatoes, plus a half liter of Fendant, was 52 Sfr. ($42) for one, including wine.

After lunch we had the option of continuing to the end of the lake and returning by train to Lugano but chose instead to wait for the "steamer."

Finding all shops closed on arrival in Lugano (church holiday), we checked the hotel library which had only one book in English Westward Ho, then returned via funicular to the train station to purchase a mystery novel.

Grotto del Parco, Parco Scherrer, Morcote, phone 091/692297. Moderate to Expensive.

Lugano

Population: 29,000

Elevation 937 feet

Lugano Tourist Office

* Riva Albertolli 5, CH-6901 Lugano
* Phone: 091/214664. Fax: 091/227653

Automatic Hotel Reservation System: Riva Albertolli 5 / Via Stauffacher (Lugano Tourist Office)

Rail Information

* SFR Railway Station, Lugano
* 157/3333 1.40 Sfr. per minute

Other Transport Information

* Obtainable from Lugano Tourist Office.
* Passengers should insert the correct fare into the machine at each bus stop before entering the bus. Passengers without a valid ticket must pay a surcharge.

Melide

The resort town is the site of Swissminiature - a scale model of the most picturesque features of Switzerland: towns, villages, monuments, and transportation. Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Entrance 10 Sfr. ($8).

• Monte Bre (altitude 3,053 feet)

Accessible by automobile or funicular from Cassarate. View from the summit of the bay of Lugano, its surroundings and to the Bernese and Valais Alps.

• Monte San Salvatore (altitude 2,995 feet)

By 15-minute funicular from Paradiso (see description of Restaurant Vetta San Salvatore). View of the Lake, the Matterhorn, and across the Plain of Lombardy to the Appenines. Scenic walks.

• Gandria

Accessible by automobile, foot or by boat from Lugano. Picturesque lakeside village at the foot of Monte Bre. Narrow streets, fish restaurants (see description of Roccabella Restaurant).

• Morcote

Lovely town with old houses, shops and souvenirs, 7 miles from Lugano. The village park, Parco Scherrer, has typical vegetation and architectural objects (see story on Restaurant Scherrer).

• Campione

An Italian enclave within Switzerland. No customs formalities. Swiss currency and telephone service. Casino.

• Monte Generoso

The highest mountain around Lugano. Reached by cogwheeled railway from Capolago. A panoramic view over the Alps, the lakes Lugano, Como and Maggiore. Interesting hiking trails.

October 1994