The warm porcini mushrooms tasted like they had been picked from the surrounding forest minutes before being served. The accompanying bed of mixed salad greens was lightly tossed in a delicious truffle oil dressing. Next was an entrée of conchiglie (conch-shaped pasta), stuffed with fresh ricotta, with a drizzling of a classic tomato-basil sauce.
Hardly the kind of meal you expect in the middle of a hiking and mountain biking trip in the mountains of Ticino province in southern Switzerland. Simple, flavourful and filling, and since we’d been sweating it out for more than 2 hours, we consumed it with gusto and zero guilt. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere was the restaurant Alpe Vicania, a gorgeous stone house in a clearing in the forest.
Three hours earlier, my four companions, two guides and I had begun our journey from Lugano, a balmy city radically different from any image of Switzerland I had had—with palm trees and the mercury at 28 degrees Celsius. We’d decided to see Switzerland not from the usual cable car but from a different perspective: Take advantage of the lovely autumn weather to check out the great outdoor recreation options; enjoy the outstanding food and then burn up all the extra calories.
Geared bicycles are a great way to explore the towns and villages that dot the Swiss-Italian border. Switzerland Tourism
From Lugano, you can climb (2 hours) to the top of Mt San Salvatore or, like us, take the lazy way out and ride the funicular up in 10 minutes. A further 10-minute climb brought us to the roof (terrazza panoramico) of a 17th century stone church with a fabulous 360-degree view of the region: the vast Lake Lugano, the neighbouring Lake Maggiore, the Monte Rosa massif, the Malcantone valleys and mountains, Italy’s Lombardy region and even Milan in the distance.
Our hike began from the summit towards Ciona, a picturesque village. Along the mountain trails are little flags painted on trees—blue-and-white flags indicating the tougher routes, red-and-white flags the easy ones. As we hiked through the thick pine, oak and chestnut woods, wild flowers and silence, one of my companions spotted some porcini mushrooms and tried to head off the path to gather them.
It was just ahead of peak mushroom-picking time, our guide Luciano told us, and in a few weeks, hordes of Italians from across the border would come mushroom-hunting. “The Italians know the best places. They don’t tell anyone their secret. So, they can come back year after year, especially after a spell of rain,” he said.
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An hour later, we arrived at the colourful, Italian-looking village of Ciona, where our mountain bikes awaited us. Used though I am to city bikes, riding on uneven gravelled paths on an eight-gear mountain bike was a whole new challenge. It was the first time I was riding a mountain bike and I had to get down and cross some stretches on foot. Sander, the other guide who brought up the rear, waited patiently. “Very easy downhill,” Luciano had promised; but uphill or down, it all seemed equally difficult to me. While riding uphill, you go slow; but zipping downhill, I was nervous I’d lose control and fly into the forests below. I was grateful for the many breaks at viewpoints studded all along the paths, overlooking lovely vistas.
Balls of prickly green fruit littered the path; inside them were chestnuts. It was chestnut season, and I remembered seeing them being roasted in downtown Lugano the previous day. It was a beautiful trip through picturesque woods; if only I could have mastered the gear-shifting technique, the ride would have been pure bliss.
Post-lunch, another hour of biking ended our journey in the charming lakeside town of Morcote. Much to our joy we found we still had the energy to wander about its quaint alleyways and climb the hundreds of steps to the church of Santa Maria del Sasso, with 16th century frescoes, a carved old organ and a pretty cemetery cut into the terraced hillside.
From Morcote, we took a boat back to Lugano, taking in the sights around the massive lake: terraces of palm and fruit trees; million-dollar villas; and beautiful country houses, some converted into exclusive restaurants, only reachable by boat.
Ticino doesn’t have the high mountains that the rest of Switzerland is famous for, but it’s still very beautiful. Its lakes are clean enough to drink from, its language and food is Italian, and even in mid-autumn, every house had window boxes overflowing with flowers. Almost everything else is Swiss; except perhaps a little relaxation in the Swiss obsession with punctuality.
Holy hike:The church at Morcote rewards climbers with stunning 400-year-old frescoes. Niloufer Venkatraman.
Exhausted though we were, dinner was another elaborate affair, in Bellinzona (Ticino’s capital), 1 hour away. Bellinzona is home to three medieval castles, and we dined at the rather fancy Osteria Sasso Corbaro inside one atop a hill. An appetizer of foie gras was followed by the main platter of venison filets (it was hunting season), roasted chestnuts (from the adjacent forests), roasted peach and pear (locally grown), red cabbage and a local German-Swiss favourite, spaetzle. All served with vast quantities of Merlot, the fruity local wine, which I tasted and liked, though I’m not much of a wine drinker. Dessert was an assortment of locally procured berries and chestnut mousse.
A Ticinese guide told me that good restaurants here don’t use refrigerators except to store ice cream. Hard to believe, but possibly true. The meals we ate in Ticino were fresh, multicourse indulgences, so we were glad to have a few hours of active pursuits during the day to justify the gastronomic excesses.
As we wandered out of the castle and took in views of Bellinzona, we learnt that if it’s early enough, and you have the inclination, you can hire an e-bike (an eco-friendly, electric bike that’s easy to pedal) to ride the distance back to Lugano. Not for us, though; we’d burnt our calories for the day, and hopped on a bus.
Niloufer Venkatraman was a guest of Switzerland Tourism and Swiss International Air Lines.
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