Just put your feet up on the edge of the glass balcony, lean back and enjoy the breathtaking view: straight ahead is San Salvatore – the signature mountain of Lugano, Switzerland (also known as the Rio De Janeiro of Europe) – rising out of Lake Lugano. A sunny day will see the vast body of water dotted and streaked with lazy boats, speed boats, water skiers, and the occasional swimmer who ventures far away from the shores to swim long distance. A sunny, windy day will see the lake bloom like a field of wildflowers with sails unfurled. If you look straight down from the balcony, you’ll see six stories of uninterrupted view and a private swimming pool shimmering Caribbean blue in the garden below – all yours whenever you feel the urge. Sitting there gently beckons you to breathe deep, slow down, forget time, and be as lazy as you want. Being is the thing here, not doing, unless that doing brings pleasure.
Overhead, hawks circle, coming so close to the balcony that you can watch them turn their heads to look you in the eye. I’ve been fortunate enough to see them swoop at the lake and come up with fish, but more commonly you’ll simply see the results dangling from their talons as they fly nestward. Birds of all shapes and sizes are there for the viewing: Ducks that fly past squawking as they flap furiously determined to reach their destination, always in a hurry; swans that pass each morning toward the town, and each evening toward their roost; silver-backed crows that fight for the highest treetop, chasing each other from tree to fence to roof to tree to lamppost to tree; sparrows that have learned the advantages of sharing their domain with humans; seagulls that pester hawks for their fish, pester each other for their prizes, and pester simply because they enjoy pestering.
To the right in the distance is the eponymous town, the shoreline rimmed by a walkway, boating and ferry docks, a giant fountain spraying five stories straight up – when the wind doesn’t use it to spray onlookers – and swans, coots and ducks competing with sparrows, pigeons and silver-backed crows for the breadcrumbs of passersby. Every little corner café and ristorante has a place in the sun, with tables and chairs moved out onto the sidewalk, the giant umbrellas providing welcomed shade. Gelaterie dot the shoreline, offering relief from the summer heat with generous portions of creamy Italian ice cream.
This first evening, let’s head down to Gandria: A small, steep town tucked around the lakeshore hidden from Lugano, it’s accessible only to those who can walk. There is one parking lot high above the town, but I prefer the walk high above the lakeshore. For the first few minutes, we walk past luxury mansions, usually veiled in the silence of loneliness as the occupants are rarely in residence. We pass a parking area and enter a narrow stone pathway that takes us past the back door of a few stucco homes, eventually giving way to steep cliffs to our left and a steep drop to the lake below on our right. The forest grows thick here despite the rocky cliff, but if we take this walk early enough in the evening, we’ll see countless lizards sunning themselves along the stone path or cliff face; we may even glimpse a sunning snake, though they are usually quick to disappear into the underbrush. We come at last to the village of Gandria, a labyrinth of stone houses and arched passageways, where swallows can be found nesting, and a postcard in the making at every turn with a picture perfect atmosphere. The restaurant we choose engulfs the stone path, with the building on one side and the covered terrace on the edge of the lake (or out over the lake) on the other. We order our meal (Italian, of course), complete with a bottle of local wine, and watch the shadows of the mountain grow steeper, swallowing the glittering lake as it climbs the forested Italian mountains across the invisible, watery border between the two countries.
Happily satisfied with a good meal and a good year, we begin the walk home. By now, the dense forest is darker still, and conceals a deep ravine in the rising cliffs; at dusk, out of that ravine dart tiny bats by the hundreds. Contrasted against the sky, we watch them deftly echolocate their meal of insects that have thrived on the lakeshore all day and have risen to soak up the last rays of the setting sun. If you hear well, you’ll be able to hear their small shrieks as they swoop past – unaware that humans are there except as obstacles to be avoided in their flight path.
At last, we return home. The view from the glass balcony has now changed: The lake is a blanket of darkness surrounded by the glittering lights of the towns splashed along the winding coast. Sometimes a bright light suddenly flashes across the lake, where a car has turned directly toward us briefly on the winding roads and streets, but it is only the size of a firefly at this distance. The peace that settles over the lake calms any thoughts of home, responsibilities, appointments, work and schedule. Sitting in the dark and watching the stars come out as dusk fades to a black curtain, we whisper as our tangled thoughts unravel, our minds drawn to the deeper things of life than mere living.
Another place I’d take you is to the top of our mountain, Monte Brè, to the village of Brè Paese. It seems to be a magnet for artistic abdicators of the outside world, with every corner, door, window frame, stair, archway, path, woodpile and every other possible canvas artistically arranged, painted, sculptured, framed and ready to grace a postcard. My favourite and eponymous restaurant has a garden that reflects the philosophy of the town, being a dessert for the eyes and soul. There is a large chess board in the garden with potted plants as the pieces; a wooden bench made of barked branches winds its way around one of the large shade trees, and a swinging bench ready to receive visitors at a moment’s notice sways in the warm breeze beneath another tree. Our table is shaded by a kiwi fruit vine laden with fruit, winding its way up the trellis and taking its sweet time to reach a nearby balcony. Sparrows flit between the terrace tables in search of morsels and are friendly and bold enough to even land on our table occasionally.
As night falls in Lugano, the city sparkles to rival the stars. On a clear moonless night, the mountains surrounding the lake are etched black against the sky, contrasted by the city lights reflecting along the shore. Some of the brighter stars even cast their reflections onto the water below. A swan drifts past, asleep with its beak nuzzled under a wing, not caring where the gentle currents carry it by morning.