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  • Writer's picturethe_maestro

#tbt: A day in Lugano, Switzerland

I have been spending a lot of time longing for the days when we could freely travel and see wonderful new places, and was reminded of my time almost exact one year ago in Lugano, Switzerland, as an intermediary stop after my Italy tour with the U of Texas choirs last summer––seems I forgot to blog about the experience I had exploring the city, and the stellar meal I enjoyed on the lakefront. So, in the spirit of remembering more adventurous times, and looking forward to when we can again travel, here's a little long-time-coming Throwback Thursday post.

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How I ended up in Lugano

It became obvious that I wouldn't be able to comfortably travel with the group to/from Italy, because let's face it––the Maestro is a big boy. At 6'1 and 240 lbs (on a good day), coach on an U.S. carrier for a trans-Atlantic flight is just not feasible. This isn't because I am spoiled or a snob (even though both are probably true), it is just a reality of being a tall, semi-wide dude in a world where airline seats are getting tighter and tighter and my metabolism is getting less favorable.

I was resigned to my fate until I started doing a little creative searching, and remembered that Dubai-based Emirates operates a fifth-freedom route from Milan to New York, with Milan as an intermediary stop between Dubai and JFK. I happened to have a healthy chunk of Emirates miles expiring within a few weeks, and found a very cheap one-way economy fare from MXP to JFK, upgrading it to biz with my miles, meaning I actually paid less to fly biz than I would have flying coach with the group.

The only challenge was getting to Milan from Venice after the tour was over! Trains were available, but not as cheap as I expected, and it would have been difficult to get to and from each train station in Venice and Milan. A flight required a stop in Rome or somewhere even further afield, and for a generally ridiculous price. I was pretty stumped.

Emirates offers a complimentary chauffeur service with their biz class fares (though no longer on miles-upgraded flights). While you're limited to a range of 80km from the origin airport, their website explicitly noted that they'd make an exception for Milan-departing flights with passengers needing to be picked up in Lugano, in an Italian-speaking region of southern Switzerland called Ticino, about 100km away from MXP. Lugano is a name I'd only heard because an Italian restaurant of the same name in Salt Lake City was a tremendous player in my evolution to foodiedom back in high school and college. The restaurant is gone now, but something about it's memory led my gut to believe that perhaps the best course would be to spend some time in Lugano, a beautiful pre-alpine city on a picturesque lake in Italian-speaking southern Switzerland.

This was during my little affair with United, and I had racked up enough miles to book a one-way from Venice to Lugano via Zürich on United's partner SWISS. My procrastination got the better of me, however, and the sole mileage ticket leaving the same day (and even time) as the group disappeared when I went to book it a few days after I found it. This left me with the option of leaving on the evening before the group departed, spending the night in Zürich, and connecting to Lugano in the morning. For 10,000 United miles, it was still a no-brainer, and during our day in Venice, I split from the group early, bidding "arrivederci!" to all of my new friends, and boarded the vaporetto ferry to the Venice airport.

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Getting to Lugano

I was actually really excited for this flight, since it would be my first on the new C-Series aircraft that SWISS was operating from Venice to Zürich. Even more exciting was that we got to board and deplane the aircraft from the tarmac, which often happens at European airports. I got some really awesome photos of the sparkling new plane, and slid my way into a rather tight economy seat on the 2-side, still marveling at how wide the seat felt despite the scrunched legroom.

The flight was a quick hour, first with a view out of the left side over the island of Venice, and then over the Alps, and I got some stunning pictures of the Alpine peaks poking through the clouds at sunset. Absolutely spectacular. The emerald evening landing into Zürich was also beautiful.

As a United Platinum member, I had access to the SWISS lounges in Zürich, but despite my expectations, that access unfortunately did not extend to an arrivals lounge once I landed, so I was S.O.L. on dinner, since the rest of the airport (the prettiest airport I've ever seen, incidentally) had shut down for the night. Since it would have been fruitless to go into town that late having to return to the airport so early, I took advantage of ZRH's little airside "hotel" of sorts, which is really just a big dark room with beds in little pods separated by 3/4 walls. I gladly paid the $50 it cost to reserve a bed for the night, visiting the vending machine for a snack before settling in.

SWISS operates several stunning lounges at ZRH, and the next morning I made my way to the Senator lounge in the Schengen zone of the airport for breakfast before my early flight to Lugano. The lounge was busy, but beautiful, and the on-demand omelet bar made my morning. A few bites and coffees later and I was on my way to the extremities of the airport for my connection.

The other cool thing about this itinerary is this would be the first time I'd fly a turboprop aircraft commercially since U.S. Airways operated DH-8s between LaGuardia and Maine. Our SAAB 2000 was one of a few dozen that SWISS's subsidiary Adria leased from Etihad, and flies a couple of times daily over the Alps to Lugano. It was a rainy morning, and the nearly-empty turboprop vroom-vroomed its way out of Zürich, only to descend out of the clouds and over the emerald hills of the pre-Alpine foothills south of the mountains just thirty minutes later.

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The day in Lugano

It's a bit awkward getting from the airport into town on the train (not a big commercial airport), but I made my way to the train station, where the train to town took me to the top of a hill overlooking the lake and town streets below. The day was perfect––temperature ideal, air pristine, and lake sparkling in the sun. A short stroll down the hill and toward the lakefront and I was at my hotel to store my bags and begin exploring.

Nestled between the pre-Alps, the lake and town is a glorious, calm destination brimming with culture, history, and incredible Ticinese cuisine. My first stop for the day was, of course, lunch, and I found my way to a famous salumeria, Gabbani, for a fantastic Italian sandwich and some mouthwatering pasta, which I enjoyed on a bench during my stroll of a lakeside park.

One of the most spectacular sites in Lugano is a small, inconspicuous church along the waterfront, inside which you can witness the oldest Renaissance frescoes in Switzerland, dating to the 16th century. I spent nearly an hour by myself in the church observing the spectacular art. Rick Steves writes of the frescoes: "Milanese Bernardino Luini, who painted it in 1529, is sometimes called the 'Raphael of the North' for the gentle expressions and calm beauty of his art. Follow the action as the scenes from Christ’s passion are played out, from Jesus being crowned with thorns (left) to the doubting apostle Thomas touching Jesus’ wound after his Resurrection (right). The central dominating theme is the Crucifixion."

The church was next door to the hotel, so I decided to check to see if my room was ready, and to my delight it was, so I took a much-needed nap and prepared myself for my next little voyage into the city that afternoon and evening.

One of the best things you can do in Lugano is ride the ferry that circumnavigates the lake. If you catch the right one, you get nearly an hour onboard, stopping at a handful of picturesque fishing villages that dot the shore. I climbed aboard and ordered an Aperol spritz, enjoying the fresh breeze and breathtaking scenery around the lake.

The most famous of these little fishing villages is a hillside, pedestrian-only settlement called Gandria. Here you can either disembark, or continue the ride back to the waterfront dock in Lugano. I was aboard the last ferry of the day, so I decided to take the walk back to the city from Gandria on a trail that follows olive tree plantings on the hillside. The views were absolutely remarkable, and I found myself imagining what life might be like in such a peaceful, isolated place. And who would have thought you'd find palm trees in Switzerland?

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Lakeside dinner at Arté al Lago

Things were timing out perfectly for me to conclude my stroll back to the city just in time to arrive at my dinner venue, conveniently located nearby the trail's exit in the city. Arté al Lago is Lugano's only Michelin-starred establishment, located lakeside at a building owned by the swanky Villa Castagnola hotel. This is a restaurant as well as an art gallery, with priceless works of contemporary art from regional artists dotting the dining room. While I very much wished for a table by the window, I was seated just across the room, with a beautiful view overlooking the lake.

I was greeted with a selection of fabulous bread and even-better butter, as well as a sampling of three types of crudo as well as a fritter an amuse bouche course. Delicious.

I asked the som to select a wine to pair with my appetizer and entrée courses, and was delighted to see him bring a wine from Ticino for the first pairing. A blend of sauv blanc and chardonnay, this Vinattieri was bursting with ripe tropical and stone fruit, and worked perfectly with the appetizer dish.

Risotto is a very Ticinese dish, and I couldn't resist morel mushrooms, so I was thrilled to order a risotto dish with lime and morels, finished with a robiola cheese from northern Italy. The addition of edible flowers made the dish visually exciting, and the flavors were out-of-this world. The tiny morels were bursting with flavor, and the citrus tang was a mouthwatering bridge to the wine.

Continuing my love affair with Italian reds, I asked the som to select his favorite wine to pair with the next dish. The Rafael vineyard in Valpolicella produces some delicious corvina, a grape I had several chances to try in Italy, and the primary culprit in Amarone. This was loaded with ripe and dark cherry, with a spicy, herbal, almost savory complexity. The price was right, and it was perfect with the next course.

Bison tenderloin would soon grace my table, paired with little plump foie gras ravioli and served with a sauce made of reduced Ticinese wine. The bison was beautifully tender, despite the lean nature of the protein, but the little succulent little nuggets of foie ravioli were my favorite.

I was pretty full, so decided to drink my dessert, and ordered a glass of dessert wine from the Umbria region of Italy, which I had visited just a week earlier, made of a blend of white grapes affected by noble rot, a classic way of producing sweet wine. I got a few little mignardises as sweet bites to go with the wine, which together formed the perfect amount of dessert.

Night had fallen, and I strolled back to the hotel along the quiet, dark waterfront, wishing I'd given myself a shade more time in this beautiful place!

* * *

Off to Milan

I was taken to the airport by a wonderful Italian driver, with whom I shared some great conversation en route, and quickly found my way through the pretty dreadful Milan airport to the Emirates lounge. It was quiet and comfortable, and I was glad to sip some champagne and chow down on some Middle Eastern specialties before boarding my fourth A380 directly from the lounge.

Just nine short hours later, we were on approach to JFK, where I'd spend the night at the brand new TWA Hotel.

I was missing my new friends very much that day, and feeling rather rudderless, and can't help but compare that feeling of emptiness to how things feel now.

It is helpful for me to reminisce on times when I felt less lonesome and adrift, and I hope those who chose to read this also found themselves remembering better times and companionship. We will be together again soon, I can only hope!

Stay healthy and safe, my friends.

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