Four countries in one


While traveling in Italy, I stayed in three towns with names beginning with the letter V—Varenna, Vernazza, and Volterra. I was constantly referring to one as the other.

Now, in Switzerland, I confuse the L cities—Luzern (pronounced loot SAIRN), Lugano (loo GAH no), and Lausanne (loh ZAHN). The Swiss often tried to correct me. When I said, “Lausanne,” they would say, “Oh, you mean Luzern.”

No, I meant Lausanne. It just sounded like Luzern.

Of course, the L cities could not be more different from each other. Luzern is in a German-speaking canton; Lugano, Italian, and Lausanne, French. (Cantons are like our states.) Switzerland also recognizes Romansch, a language left over from the Romans.

As I crossed from canton to canton every few days, I frequently mixed up my bonjours, buongiornos, and guten morgens. Cédric, a merchant I spoke with in Pontresina, shrugged, “Switzerland is a mini-Europe.”

Lugano Grape Festival
Lugano Grape Festival

Festival in Lugano

Whenever I see men in colorful tights throwing and catching flags, I know I’m with Italians. Or, in this case, Italian-Swiss. (Please see a previous post, “Cities of wind and stone.”)

As seems to happen when I travel, I stumbled into a festival, this one the Lugano Grape Festival.

Lugano is in Ticino, a canton almost completely surrounded by Italy. Ticino is the only canton south of the Alps, separating it both culturally and geographically from the rest of Switzerland.

Situated on Lake Lugano, the sprawling city has a population of one hundred and fifty thousand. All of them, it seemed, were at the festival.

Lugano Grape Festival
Lugano Grape Festival

The narrow streets were crowded. Temporary stalls in front of the storefronts sold sausage, cheese, baked goods, and wine. (The deposit on a glass was ten Swiss francs, about ten dollars.) Other stalls sold crafts, clothing, and toys.

Singers belted pop songs from three stages. A  folkloristic parade was in progress with costumed dancers and bands. Candidates for Miss Bacchica waved from farm tractors. Men in tights threw flags.

It was hard to remember I was still in Switzerland as everything was Italian—language, signage, menus, couples making out in the park. Somewhere during the day’s train journey the announcements switched from German to Italian. I soaked in the festival while trying to get the lay of the land for tomorrow’s sightseeing.

Luini mural, Lugano
Luini mural, Church of Saint Mary of the Angels

My hotel was on the hill just above the Old Town. My plan was to take the funicular into the city each day to explore. However, when I arrived, I found the funicular was being rebuilt.

Instead, the city ran a bus, the FuniBus, down the hill every ten minutes. In Italian the name is pronounced FOO nee boos. I wasn’t the only one who called it the Funny Bus.

Next morning, the piazze were sunny and quiet. Clean-up crews were hauling away festival stages and removing litter.

I visited the Church of Saint Mary of the Angels, home of a Renaissance-period fresco by Italian artist Bernardino Luini, a disciple of Da Vinci. The church was completed in 1500. The fresco is huge, covering the entire front wall with over one hundred and fifty biblical figures portrayed. It took Luini ten years to complete his masterpiece. On a side wall is his painting of the Last Supper.

Mount San Giorgio from Lugano City Park
Mount San Giorgio from Lugano City Park

Lugano is a hideaway for Europe’s rich and famous. Expensive homes line the terraces on the mountains. In the window of a real-estate office I priced some properties, all in the $1 to 15 million range.

I boarded a boat for a tour of tiny Gandria, a nearby village on Lake Lugano. The others on the tour were German. The Italian-speaking guide, Mark, shared information first in German, then in English for my benefit.

Gandria borders Italy and, until recently, was accessible only on foot or by boat. Upon arrival, we crawled through its narrow alleys and steep stairways, a jumble of buildings on a hillside. The village has two hundred or so residents, a few restaurants, and not much more.


We visited the Church of Saint Vigilio, completed in 1463. Behind the altar of the church is a large, violent painting portraying the stoning of the saint by pagan shepherds. Due to the difficulty of controlling the mountainous border between Switzerland and Italy, Gandria was infamous for smuggling. Duty-free cigarettes, meat, and alcohol were especially profitable.

At the Swiss Customs Museum across the lake is a confiscated submarine once used to smuggle salami.

Gandria was known for olive-oil production until a hard winter in 1709 killed most of its trees. Recently new trees have been planted. We headed back toward Lugano via the Olive Path. Across the lake, Mount San Giorgio rises like a volcano. It has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its fossils and geological treasures.


I asked Mark about the challenges in a country with four official languages. “To us, four languages is richness,” he said. “Four languages gives us the advantage of four ways of thinking.”

I asked why Ticino joined Switzerland instead of Italy.

Ticino joined the confederation in 1803, the same year Ohio became a state. At that time, Italy was not yet a country.

He repeated to me part of the Rütlischwur, the legendary oath of the Old Swiss Confederacy. “We want to be free, as our fathers were, and rather die than live in slavery . . .”

“We chose to be a canton of Switzerland because we thought it was the best way to maintain our way of life,” he said. “In Ticino we take the best from Italy and the best from Switzerland.”

He added, “And we enjoy life more than the rest of the Swiss do.”

Chapel Bridge and Water Tower, Luzern
Chapel Bridge and Water Tower, Luzern

Lion in Luzern

From Lake Lugano to Lake Luzern.

Within sight of mountains Pilatus and Rigi, the city of Luzern has long been a destination for tourists. Located in central, German-speaking Switzerland, it has a population of two hundred and fifty thousand.

A must-see in Luzern is the Rosengart Collection with its extensive exhibit of works by Picasso and Switzerland’s Paul Klee. The art was collected by the Rosengart family, longtime friends of both artists. Over thirty paintings by Picasso are presented along with some one hundred drawings, watercolors, and sculptures. Especially interesting is a collection of candid photos taken in Picasso’s home and studio by his friend, David Douglas Duncan. Picasso eating, Picasso bathing, Picasso playing with his children.

Croatian motorcycle club, Luzern
Awaiting the wedding party

The museum also displays an impressive collection of impressionists and abstractionists, including Braque, Cézanne, Chagall, Kandinsky, Léger, Matisse, Miró, Modigliani, Matisse, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Rouault, and Seurat. It was art-history class.

Outside, the sun emerged and the cafés filled. I ate Nürnberg-style bratwurst and sauerkraut at Rathaus Brauserei. Three kinds of mustard were served in large toothpaste tubes. Outside of city hall, a Croatian motorcycle club waited for a wedding party to emerge.

Next day, a farmers’ market and flea market filled the streets. I took a tour offered by the tourism bureau.

Chapel Bridge is the oldest wooden covered-bridge in Europe and the world’s oldest surviving truss bridge. It was built across the Reuss River in 1333 as part of Luzern’s fortifications, On the river, over one hundred descendants of the original pair of swans gifted to the city by Queen Victoria glide around regally.

The bridge connects to the Water Tower, built even earlier. Over the years, the tower has been used as a watch station, archive, treasury, prison, and torture chamber.

Rail station, Luzern
Rail station, Luzern

The Jesuit Church of Saint Francis Xavier was consecrated in 1677. Inside is a pink and gold organ Liberace would have been proud to play.

The Reuss River Weir System was built in 1861 to control the water leaving Lake Luzern. Needles (wooden paddles) are added or removed from the dam by hand to control the water level.

The Mill Bridge, another footbridge across the Reuss, was built in 1408. Inside are sixty-seven paintings from the 1600s, called collectively the “Dance of Death.” Each painting features images of skeletons to remind us that death is always near. For those who are scared straight, a small chapel awaits midway.

City Hall, Luzern
City Hall, Luzern

Luzern’s historical Old Town squares, Muhlenplatz, Weinmarkt, Kornmarkt, and Hirschenplatz, among others, are surrounded by colorful half-timbered, frescoed buildings.

Twin-towered Hofkirche was rebuilt in the 1600s with the towers from the previous church, erected in 1525. It is considered the most important Renaissance-era church in Switzerland.

However, most of my fellow tourists were more interested in shopping for Swiss watches. “Which is the best brand?” they asked.

The tour guide, Annamaria, said, ” A one-hundred-franc watch tells time as precisely as a one-thousand-franc watch. The only difference is the bling-bling.”

Lion Monument, Luzern

After the tour, I walked to the Lion Monument. The massive sculpture commemorates the Swiss Guards who were executed in 1792 for protecting the French king during the French Revolution. (Switzerland is now famously neutral. It has not been at war since 1815.) The sculpted lion is mortally wounded and in obvious pain. Mark Twain called it the “most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world.”

Harvest in Lausanne

Switzerland shares Lake Geneva with France. In the west is the Swiss city of Geneva, known worldwide for the Geneva Conventions and the Red Cross.

Nearby, on the north shore, is Lausanne, with a population of over four hundred thousand. It proudly calls itself the Olympic Capital, as it is home to the International Olympic Committee.

Olympic flag
First Olympic flag

On three floors, the Olympic Museum tells the history of both the ancient and modern games. The ancient Games of Olympia were one of four regional competitions, originally intended to unify Greece. The others were the games of Pythian, Isthmian, and Nemean. Truces were called between warring cities during the games, just as today’s Games call for international peace.

The founding of the Games is uncertain. Some give credit to the demigod Hercules. The ancient games celebrated warrior skills, as the concept of sport for the sake of sport was unknown. The power to grant victory was believed to belong to the gods. A winged female, named Nike (Greek for victory), delivered a reward from the gods to the winner.

Lady Justice, Lausanne
Lady Justice, Lausanne

The museum shares memorabilia from several famous athletes (Katarina Witt’s dress, Carl Lewis’s singlet, Mark Spitz’s swimsuit) and a complete collection of torches and medals. The first Olympic flag, flown in 1914, is on display.

Outside of the museum is a one-hundred meter track, where you can race against Usain Bolt’s fastest time.

Before I was even halfway, he was finished, but, in fairness to me, I was wearing street clothes.

In the city I visited the gothic Cathedral of Lausanne. Every night, a watchman climbs 153 stairs to the top of the tower. Every hour from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., he calls out in each of four directions, “C’est le guet; il a sonné l’heure.” (“This is the night watch. The hour has struck.”). This tradition has continued for over six hundred years.

Chateau de Chillon, Veytaux-Chillon
Chateau de Chillon

In nearby Veytaux-Chillon, I toured Chateau de Chillon. The castle sits on a rocky island, used as a defensive position since the Bronze Age. The Savoy family controlled the castle and the trade route in the 1100s. In 1536 the Bernese (Swiss) conquered the area and the castle and held it for two hundred and fifty years. When Switzerland became a confederation in 1803, the castle came under canton control.

The place is huge and well-restored, with four courtyards, four large halls, and numerous other rooms. Lord Byron wrote The Prisoner of Chillon in 1816 after touring its dungeon.

Vineyard near Lutry
Near Lausanne

Lausanne is a wine-growing region, mostly the Chasselas variety. The next day, I took a train to Grandvaux, a ten-minute ride. Then walked the vineyard trail through Arran to Lutry. A steep downhill walk, the trail jogged through the vineyards and estates.

Most of the grapes had been harvested. The blue netting intended to keep away the starlings had been removed, although occasionally a gun sounded and a cloud (murmuration?) of them took to the air. In places, there was a strong smell of vinegar, probably near presses.

Cathedral of Lausanne
Cathedral of Lausanne

When I pass other hikers, I’m never sure how to greet them. Sometimes I say, “Hello,” to let them know I speak English. Other times, because I’m in a French-speaking canton, I say, “Bonjour.” So its odd, when I get, “Morge” in response. Do the German-Swiss think I’m French-Swiss?

In Ouchy, the promenade along the lake passes several grand hotels, such as the Beau-Rivage Palace. Numerous celebrities have been guests, including Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, Diana Ross, and Elizabeth Taylor. Other admirers of Lausanne have included Mozart, Napoleon, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Gandhi, Mussolini, Coco Chanel, Josephine Baker, Gary Cooper, and Rita Hayworth. “I owe my happiest days to this town,” wrote Voltaire.

Grapes, Lutry

At dinner I attempted a cheerful “Bonjour.” The waitress sharply corrected me, “Soir.” (It’s evening, not morning, foolish tourist.)

Oh, well. Tomorrow I’ll be in a German-speaking canton.

1 thought on “Four countries in one

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.