In association with Switzerland Tourism
Filippo Rossi loves a challenge. When he’s not reporting from warzones, he unwinds by running ultra-marathons in inhospitable places such as the Gobi desert. Rather him than me. ‘You discover yourself,’ he tells me, over coffee in a chic café in Lugano. ‘You meet special people — people with stories.’ He’s one of those special people, someone with lots of tales to tell.
Filippo comes from Lugano and he loves his hometown with a passion. When he’s not running or reporting, he comes here to recuperate. He also comes here to train. With its balmy climate, it’s a great place to rest up, or work out. Only a few miles from the Italian border, it’s in Ticino — the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, a canton like no other. On the Lago di Lugano, ringed by wooded hills, it feels quite separate from the rest of Switzerland. I can understand why Filippo is so patriotic about his enigmatic homeland.
Lugano is a curious mélange of Romantic and Teutonic, rather like Trieste. Strolling along its august boulevards, you wouldn’t believe you were still in Switzerland. Palm trees line the promenade. The food, the language, the pace of life — everything feels Italian. Yet there’s an underlying precision about the place that’s emphatically Swiss. For locals and visitors alike, it feels like the best of both worlds – an Italianate city where everything works.
Lugano has always attracted artistic incomers, seduced by the strange charm of this enclave between two worlds. One of its most famous émigrés was the mystic German writer Hermann Hesse, who spent the last 40 years of his long life in the hilltop village of Montagnola, a short drive out of town. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature while he was living here.
For the first decade of his Swiss exile, Hesse lived in Casa Camuzzi in Montagnola, where he wrote several of his greatest novels, including Siddhartha and Steppenwolf. Today the tower of this ornate villa is preserved as a museum. The curator, Regina Bucher — a German émigré, like Hesse — takes some time out to show me round. The permanent exhibition features letters, photos, ephemera and a sublime collection of his landscape paintings. Most writers who paint are merely hobbyists. If Hesse hadn’t been a writer, he’d be remembered as a painter in his own right.
Looking out towards the lake, you can see why Hesse liked it here. ‘Here the sun shines more intensely, the mountains are rosier, grapes, figs, almonds and chestnuts grow and the people are good, civilised and friendly,’ he observed. He was right about the weather. On account of the year-round sunshine it enjoys, this hill is called Collina d’Ora— the Hill of Gold.
Back in the city centre, at the Ristorante Grande Café Al Porto, I meet up with Emily Burggraf, who teaches yoga in Lugano. ‘You don’t need to leave the city to find tranquility,’ she tells me, over cake and coffee. ‘You have the lake, you have the mountains — everything is in the heart of town.’
Over dinner at a restaurant on the waterfront, I talk to Yari Copt, a DJ, musician and entrepreneur. In 2001, he opened a skate park in Lugano. He ran it for 15 years. Now he runs his own clothing brand. He has outlets all over Switzerland, abroad and overseas, but he has no intention of relocating. ‘I love it here — I wouldn’t change it for anything,’ he says. ‘We have the good side of the Swiss people, and the fun side of the Italians too.’
With him is Sean Blake, who recently moved here from America. He runs his own business here, making bagels. His wife works for Vans in Switzerland. Free time is a treat for them. ‘We go up into the mountains to go skiing, then come down to the lake and go swimming,’ he says.
It’s late. It’s time to go. As I walk back to my hotel, I recall a line from Hermann Hesse’s novel, Demian, written shortly before he came to Lugano. ‘Where paths that have an affinity for each other intersect, the whole world looks like home, for a time.’ Now I know what he means.