Yes, I’m blaming Italy for making the Swiss late.
My Swiss post bus from Tirano to Lugano left right on time and the driver timed each of our pit stops with a pocket watch, but outside of Italy’s Lake Como we hit a line of traffic that was so aggressive, I thought the Italians were putting on a show for me–a thousand idle cars in a row on the Swiss-Italian border, a caricature sketch of Italian chaos.
From inside the bus, I could not hear the curses and oaths that were thrown our way as we jostled past the disorder, but I could see their angry hands shaking in the air, the flicked gestures of anger and disbelief, the open mouths and signs of protest. All of these cars had Italian license plates and they were furious that a Swiss bus was making its way past them in a line that stretched some ten kilometers long.
Of all the borders in all the world, a few stand out as especially extreme and stark. The USA-Mexico border is among them, especially Tijuana or the McAllen-Reynosa crossings. The same goes for the Morocco-Melilla border where you technically cross overland from Africa into Europe. I have now added the Italian-Swiss border to my list of drastic border crossings, because after only a few hours in Italy, I was shocked to enter Switzerland again.
Unlike the barely-there French-Swiss border, there was an actual painted white line on the road and a cement signpost labeling the two halves: “Italia” and “Svizzera”.
As if someone had wiped the scene with a magic wand, everything changed. The road became flatter and smoother and cleaner. Much cleaner. All the trash disappeared and with it, any sense of dilapidation. The houses seemed to stand up a little straighter and in the road stood uniformed policemen directing traffic with ease and complete order. Nobody honked their car horn, nobody was leaning out their window and punching the air with their arm.
In one minute, I’d left the charming chaos of Italy behind me and had entered il bello Ticino, the Deep South of Switzerland.
“The Italian-speaking part of Switzerland” is far-too clinical a phrase to describe the country’s southernmost canton where people speak Italian, yes, but also live in a world so unique that Swiss-Germans from two hours away vacation here as if they’ve traveled to another planet.
As I learn and relearn across this country of 26 cantons, it’s never safe to assume anything about Switzerland. Just when you think you’ve cracked the code to one valley or village or dialect, you travel an hour more and end up somewhere even more exotic and splendid and mysterious, like Ticino.
Two days’ travel in Ticino totally tortured me. The whole month prior I felt as I’d been reading a wonderful book about Switzerland and then Ticino came along like that one really surprising chapter where the plot takes a severe twist and you never want to put the book down.
In Ticino, I ate the best pizza I’ve had this year, along with piles of grainy polenta, creamy bufala mozzarella and a shameful amount of gelato. I stepped into silent white churches lit with candles and decorated with frescoes of the Madonna. I was greeted me with a cheerful Bongiorno and answered back the same. I hiked through the extraordinary Val Bavona, a hidden, mist-filled valley that with rock walls so steep, most of the rivers fall vertically–vocal white water that shoots straight off the cliff’s edge. The houses and steeples in stone, the remarkable flower gardens, the little cafes shaded with grape vines and the villages perched high up on the mountainsides . . . . everything about Ticino was picturesque to the point of perfection, so that when it began pouring rain I was happy because it meant the place was in fact real.
Still, I feel as if Ticino is the Italian fairy-tale I’d never read. I traveled there briefly, yes. I tasted the air and the food and met the most non-Swiss of the Swiss. When I left (too soon), I hollowed out a little place in my heart and labeled it Ticino, but this is just a start. This little blog post is merely a book marker for a place that I must re-open and re-read.
. . . and then one of these days, torno in Ticino.