The Switzerland Diaries: Day Five (Lucerne, Lugano, Lake Como)
The next day, after breakfast at the hotel, we walked up a hill where there was a pool shaded by trees, the surface completely still. A few feet above the water, in the natural rock face, was the Lion Monument, depicted by a wounded lion, resting on his front paws, a thorn in his back. It was built in dedication to the Swiss soldiers who fought to protect the French during the revolution.
Mark Twain, by some weird coincidence, did the same tour as Alistair and I, and made most of the same stops. Twain's quote about the monument is completely true. Even without the statue it'd be a pretty romantic spot, and in the morning the light falls upon it peacefully.
Just up the hill is the Glacier Garden (another stop Twain took, and also wrote about in a much better fashion). As Alistair explained, Lucerne was one covered with ice and glaciers, and the deep caves in the Glacier Garden were the holes those glaciers left behind. The whole thing is viewed from up above. By following a path you can stop along and look down into the dark holes. As part of the exhibit, after seeing the Glacier's we were led to a Alhambra House-of-Mirrors, a maze.
"We shouldn't do this," Alistair said, minding the time that we had left to go to the Transport Museum and catch a boat. We could be lost for hours, I kept bumping into the glass thinking it was a way out.
"My mother would kill me if she knew I was in a mirror maze!" I shouted to him from afar.
Eventually we resurfaced in another garden, with a lookout point over Lucerne.
Of all the attractions on our trip, Alistair talked about the Transit Museum the most. He went once on a school trip and was eager to return as an adult. We kept meeting Swiss people who raved about it.
The Swiss take pride in their very punctual, very well-made boats, trains and airplanes. The museum was divided up into three buildings, one for each mode of transportation. We visited the trains first, they had a car from every time period and even a track that ran through the building. In the airplane exhibit we toured a 1970s Swiss Air plane (back when there was a smoking section!) and did a helicopter simulation. We used wind to direct real live sails in the boat exhibit. I saw my first real satellite.
There was so much to do but, we had a 1 pm boat to catch for a ride through Lake Lucerne. We gathered our luggage and rolled through a waterside park. People were having picnics and sunbathing. We stood on a pier and watched our massive white steamboat approach.
Alistair bought us First Class tickets and reserved us a table at the restaurant on the upper deck. They gave us one with the best view: mountains on one side, Lucerne on the other. The weather was perfect. I ordered a Swiss soda and a sausage made of pork and beef and served with potatoes and gravy. Alistair had salmon. For desert: pear and chocolate mousse.
With a boat so big the ride was steady and peaceful. The little towns outside of Lucerne became more spread out and rural the further we rode. There were houses high in the mountains on very steep hills; I marveled to Alistair "how can anyone live there without falling down the hill everyday?" I was happy to read that when Twain did this exact same boat ride, he wondered the same thing. After lunch we moved to the benches on the deck, the sun bore down on us, but the wind off the water kept us cool. The boat turned and we arrived at the very location where Switzerland was founded, the Rütli, marked by a very old and beautiful Swiss crest.
At our stop we arrived in a tiny town and climbed a hill to the train station. We had one more transfer before arriving in Lugano. There was a man on our train who kept loudly making comments every time Alistair spoke in English. He got off at the same stop as us during a transfer, and said something cutting in Swiss-German to Alistair while he was talking on the phone. He was dressed very normally but seemed a bit...off. Being that I know no Swiss German I worried about having an altercation with him. We went to another platform and waited for him to leave. Then we got our last train to Lugano. We specifically picked a regional train, not the express, so we could see the Alps up close. We were the only people in the first class car the entire ride so we snuggled up close and kept our eyes to the mountaintops. The Alps were impressive. At one point the train horn went off and we could hear it echoing back at us.
Slowly we noticed the buildings lose their Swiss efficiency and become more colorful, Italian-like, with yellow and pink paint. We were inching towards Italian-speaking Switzerland. We arrived in Lugano around 6 pm, and Alistair's friend met us at the train station.
Lugano, as everyone kept telling me, is a little like Rio, a big city with palm trees around a big lake. Architecturally it was a little like Italy in the 80s, but in a cool, retro way. Alistair's friend drove us to his place where he promised us a big dinner. He liked cooking for guests.
On his patio we had a bottle of champagne and snacks and for dinner he made for us a pesto pasta and branzino, calamari, and shrimp from Lake Lugano that he roasted in the oven with tomatoes and onions. Despite being in Switzerland it felt like we were in L.A. Palm trees hung over the table. It wasn't incredibly hot but slightly humid. A storm rolled through, but as Alistair's friend explained, his home sat in a microclimate around Lake Lugano, the rain would never fall there. A few drops hit us, and he was right. The storm swept past, up the mountains.
Alistair's friend moved to Lugano from Geneva and told us the local gossip -- my favorite thing to learn when I travel. The juiciest: Most people in Lugano hate people from the Swiss-German speaking part of Switzerland -- "They come here on the weekends like it is Miami then they go home during the week, they clog up the roads," they say. According to local gossip, everyone from Valais is a bad driver.
Around midnight we shared ice cream from a local shop, and were in bed by 1 am.
The next morning we said goodbye to our host took a cab to the airport in Lugano to pick up our rental car. The cab dropped us off in a tiny parking lot and pointed to a building that looked like a beach club.
"This is the airport?" I asked when we walked past an outdoor bar covered in a canopy. It was a small terminal, only two flights leave a day, and a collection of rental car buildings, coffee shops and outdoor restaurants. It was almost like we were the only people there.
There was a rental car desk there was a telephone and instructions. Alistair lifted up the phone and told them that we were there to pick up a car.
"You were late, so the guy...he left," said the woman on the line with an Italian accent. "I will tell him to come back."
Ten minutes later he returned.
“Parla inglese” Alistair asked him.
“No,” the man said. “Italiano?”
“No, Francais?” Alistair asked back. The man shrugged. They had to speak in a mishmash of both. Alistair asked him, “So the car is a Polo, right?” we wanted the tiniest car available for the Italian roads to Lake Como.
“Si, a Polo,” he said and walked us to the lot. He pointed at a gray Jeep. “Here it is.”
A massive SUV was the only thing left. I could feel it in my stomach already, I was nervous.
"I don't want it to be like that episode of 'Master of None!'" I said to Alistair, in reference to the episode where the main character's car gets stuck on a narrow road in Tuscany.
To get to Bellagio we had to drive around Lake Como and back up to the center of the lake. What started out as a highway suddenly changed to a two-laned road, and eventually we were driving parallel to Lake Como on a two-way road only fit for one tiny car, hitting curves blindly and almost crashing into cars on the other side. A few times we had to squeeze by cars on the opposite side, which required pulling in the side-view mirrors, craning our necks out of the window, "Do I have room?" working with the other drivers, usually Italian, usually annoyed at the Americans in their big cars taking up all the room. I had my hand gripping the door, my knuckles turning white. We stopped at a viewing point and took photos.
Google Maps led us to Bellagio, and then instructed us to drive down the narrow, cobblestone streets filled with tourists just to get to a parking lot.
“I don’t think we’re meant to be driving through the center of town like this!” Alistair said.
We parked right near the water and took a deep breath.
"I need a drink."
It was my first time in Italy. Bellagio exceeded our expectations. We checked into our hotel room (we had a view of the lake) then went downstairs to one of the outdoor restaurants for lunch. We went for a walk through the town, which required climbing up the stairs of small stone streets lined with shops and buildings in pink, blue and yellow. Bellagio is the main tourist hub of Lake Como, the streets were crowded but small enough that you kept seeing the same people twice over.
Back at the room we dressed for dinner and planned to take the ferry to Varenna. I'll never forget the voice on the loudspeaker announcing the destination in Italian, the walk on the boat and up to our seats, the feeling of being somewhere that I have only dreamed about.
Varenna was far more beautiful than Bellagio because it's streets were empty and quiet. It felt more authentic in that way. I told Alistair I wanted to see the Villa Monastero gardens, so we walked in that direction.
Our mouths hung open, there was so much to see. A path along the water led us past a beach, and through the quiet city streets. Varenna was extremely beautiful. I struggle, even now, to convey it properly.
Villa Monastero is a house and garden on the water built in the 12th Century. We walked the gardens stopping to read about the a variety of trees and flowers all marked with their names on little plaques. It offered a view of the lake and of Varenna, there were several spots with little balconies where one could feel like they stepped out of life into a paradise.
We wanted to have dinner but the restaurant rated number one in Varenna, Il Cavatappi, but it was packed. The host, a soft spoken Italian man in his 60s told us we could hang around, so we went to the next door bar for an Aperol Spritz and cheese. About forty minutes later, the man waved to us from the restaurant and we sat down at a table on the street. The food was delicious.
When I think about Italy, I think about very relaxed meals, wine, and all-around sense of leisure. Alistair and I held hands on our walk back to the ferry. Fireworks were blowing over Bellagio and everyone had their cameras up. When we reached our port we saw the city still vibrant even as it was growing late. At the waterside restaurants bands played, people danced, everyone strolled with gelato. We got on the elevator at the hotel with another American couple we saw at drinks and dinner.
"Did you enjoy Varenna?" I asked. They smiled and said that they did.
We went to bed late. The next morning we would drive back to Switzerland to Zermatt.