Lugano: First Impressions

Cathedral of Saint Lorenzo

Cathedral of Saint Lorenzo

Yesterday morning we all crowded onto the train in Riva San Vitale to visit  Lugano, and upon stepping off just 20 minutes later we found ourselves facing yet another incredible view of Lake Lugano overshadowed by the majestic Swiss Alps. Soon after leaving the train station we found ourselves in front of the Cathedral of Saint Lorenzo – the first evidence of the rich history of the city.

After taking a group picture with the backdrop of the city and the lake, we descended into a small, open square where Dr. Knox gave us a brief description of our surroundings. He then sent us off, and my group of four headed through the markets toward the water. The first thing I noticed was the number of small markets and corner shops. In the United States, almost any city is busting at the seams with Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts on every corner. Here that was not the case. Later I would find a McDonald’s and a Burger King, but the authenticity and originality of this part of the city seemed preserved.

Although Lugano has a big tourism industry, our group was more interested in watching the city come alive than spending our time wandering around museums or historical buildings. We wanted to observe and interact with our surroundings in a less touristy way, and to get a better feeling for the culture and atmosphere of the city. After strolling around for around an hour, my group found a small bakery/café near the Università della Svizzera italiana (University of Italian-speaking Switzerland) with a good view of the street and decided to get in from the cold.

Craig in the café

Craig in the café

We sat in the café for a while, and began chatting with a couple of the ladies who worked there. While none of us were fluent with each other’s languages, we knew enough to communicate (mostly thanks to the ladies’ English.) One of them described to us her dream of traveling the United States coast-to-coast, and we described our interest in seeing as much as Europe as possible. Everyone there was very pleasant, and it soon became busier as the city woke up and became livelier.

Eventually we continued our walk toward the center of the city, and we found ourselves in a more business-focused district of the city. The views of older, more classical apartments morphed into landscapes dominated by modern, glass-walled office or educational buildings and the occasional patio or lawn. Lugano’s own tourism website cites Lugano as the third largest financial center in Switzerland, so the seeing this side of the city was no surprise. I appreciated, however, that there were no skyscrapers blotting out the gorgeous skyline. Affluence was shown through the design and architecture of the structures, rather than sheer size as is found in the United States.

Old vs. New in Lugano

Old vs. New in Lugano

A recurring theme in Dr. Knox’s talks was that of “palimpsest.” That is, the idea of the new overwriting the old, but with the old still visible. As I walked through Lugano and observed modern banks and businesses coexisting with villas and old churches, I could think of no better parallel. This contrast between the old and new stuck out to me, and I realized how difficult it must be to balance progression with preservation of history. However, Lugano manages to do just that: it remains genuine and culturally true to its roots while progressing into the 21st century and becoming a crucial part of Switzerland’s banking industry. Its population has grown significantly in the past ten years, but has not sacrificed the aspects of the city that draw tourists year after year.

Another thing that stuck out to me was the interface between civilization and the geography. Lugano is one of many settlements built right into the Alps, but the vertical spread of buildings over comparatively small amount of land was still impressive. Lugano has a projected 2012 population of 60,000 and a sprawl of under 13 square miles, and its growth shows no signs of slowing.

Craig and our glasses of Prosecco

Craig and our glasses of Prosecco

Sitting in the square overlooked by the town hall sipping Prosecco and relaxing on a lakeside bench were the highlights of my day, where I was able to take in the movement of the city and the breathtaking scenery. I hope to make a return trip soon, and now that I have some idea what the city itself is like I would love to delve deeper into its history by visiting some of the museums and cathedrals.  Exploring the city without an agenda was certainly a different experience than rushing from landmark to landmark (as I have done in some cities), and I look forward to approaching other cities in a similar manner.

It just wouldn’t be fitting to write about the breathtaking views without including one, so the following is a panorama of two photos I took when I first stepped off the train into the bristling cold air of Lugano.

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8 Comments

  1. PLK

     /  January 21, 2012

    Thoughtful blog. Keep it up!

    Reply
  2. They definitely pay great attention to design, to buildings, clothes, and their details. I don’t know if you had the same experience, but when I came back to the Villa to write about the five hour trip I couldn’t remember all the details. For example, what was behind the train station on the opposite side of the city that we explored; was it mountain, was there any buildings?
    Nice blog.

    Reply
  3. Kim Carlson

     /  January 22, 2012

    I like the collage of old versus new buildings and the reference to Dr. Knox lectures. You found a real world example of the theories that we’ve been discussing all week.

    Reply
    • Thanks! Palimpsest really is an interesting idea, but it was useful to see such a real-world example of it. It helped the concept come alive, and it made me wonder what other examples of it the city shows.

      Reply
  4. I got here via LinkedIn and I’m glad you’re enjoying your stay in my country! If you have questions about getting around Switzerland and places to see / food to eat / wine to taste, I’ll do my best to help out; make your way to Lucerne and we might just be able to meet up for a coffee and a chat.
    All the best, Michael!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Stephan! I added you on LinkedIn, and as I try to plan out my weekends I will probably take you up on that. I do want to visit Lucerne at some point, so if/when I do I’ll be sure to drop you a line.

      Also, have you ever visited Gimmelwald and/or Mürren? My cousin suggested I visit Gimmelwald, and it seems like that would be a great place to see the Swiss countryside.

      Reply

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