Emmie Collinge explores Switzerland’s lesser known province of Ticino and discovers mountaintop WWI fortifications, Italian espressos, warm blue lakes, high mountains and charming Swiss villages.
At some point in the next few months, the first snowflakes of winter will float down onto the mountaintops of Switzerland. There is one corner of the country though that will still be clinging onto summer. Southern Switzerland’s canton of Ticino is almost as un-Switzerland as you can get. Often overlooked by many, it remains shielded from the fondue, the guttural Swiss German, and the snowy winters for which the rest of the country is famed.
Separated by a spine of mountains, Ticino is only accessible via the Gotthard Pass, and is a well-oiled slither of an even slicker country. Ticino is where Italian is the official language, gelatos are eaten and the sun shines for a lot of the year, with many dubbing it the Cote d’Azur of Switzerland, making it perfect for mountain biking.
We’re out riding with local hotelier Dalila, who, together with her boyfriend Roberto, runs the region’s most dedicated Bike Hotel. Recognising the need for cyclists to refuel and making the most of their hotel’s rather isolated location, on the side of the UNESCO-crowned Monte San Giorgio, Dalila has built a pretty extreme bike park and created a biker’s BBQ area. As we ride along the flowing single track, they tell us their favourite trails on this protected peak, through hand-drawn maps and (typically Italian) animated descriptions of where to go.
We are in the southern part of the region - our favourite part of Ticino, where the Italian/Swiss border is at its most obscure - Delila and Roberto are pushing hard to spread the word about this secret riding spot.
Who would not be inspired when tracing the high open ridges close to their hotel only to be confronted by abandoned border posts, century-old border markings and dilapidated wire fences that scar the landscape? Ticino has an intense network of trails, meaning cyclists rarely have to hit the tarmac, and with the distinctive lakes and mountains providing sufficient wow-moments and doubling as navigational tools, there’s no need for a map – other than those that share the secret trails.
It is not a route for beginners. We are frequently confronted by steep gradients and hidden rocks which litter the trail. But with Hotel Serpiano as our base we’re spoilt for choice: technical descents to the lake; routes that clinch at the rocky slopes of Monte San Giorgio (1097m); or the flatter woodland trails that pass by vineyard after regimental vineyard.
To the west, there’s a fairly rideable ascent to Monte Pravello (1015m), or for the less adventurous, a tarmacked road from the Italian side weaves its way up from Viggiù to Pravello’s close neighbour Monte Orsa (997m) - a summit worth reaching for its breath-taking views and history - Orsa was the stage for Italy’s fruitless defense efforts during WWI and the fortifications remain virtually intact. With its eerie series of tunnels and trenches, it added an extra frisson of excitement to a ride, throwing us from nature’s heart into a concrete tunnel of mechanical warfare. Stumbling across this historic and unnerving relic of the war is something we will never forget.
From Orsa, we face a 20-minute plus descent towards Serpiano, with terrain which ranges from rough to smooth, with expansive rock sections, pointy rocks, tree roots and some amazing flowing single track. These are the locals’ trails; the ones they head to on their own after a day at work, keeping them well looked after, but not too crowded.
On the other side of San Giorgio, back in Switzerland, there are trails leading down towards Riva San Vitale. These are Dalila’s favourite tracks - “the flowing single track, the views that you get at the end of the descent as you hit the lake, the wooden steps." Once down, it’s just a few kilometres to get across the Mendrisio valley to the imposing Monte Generoso (1704m), which cyclists will notice is never out of eyesight. Unfortunately for those who don’t enjoy climbing, the funicular train services have been suspended during 2014/2015, which means cyclists face an uphill challenge, but with some of the best single-track sections and wooded descents, taking around 40 minutes in total to descend, it’s well worth the effort. It just means those Italian pizzas will be well-earned.
Ticino does perhaps lack the high altitude awe that some believe can only be enjoyed above 2,000m, but with multiple summits over 1,000m, the excitement of riding in two countries and Italy’s cheap pizza on the horizon, I know where I’ll be returning next winter. Switzerland’s Cote d’Azur may not remain overlooked for much longer.
Head further into the canton and the country, away from the lure of Italy’s gelaterias and pasticcerias, and you can choose between Monte Tamaro, Monte Lema and the headland just below Lugano, where some of the most rideable tracks are, tracing routes between picture-perfect villages (Carona, Morcote, Melide) with the lake on three sides. It offers equally stellar scenery, well-marked routes and brilliant tourist board maps, so you can almost overlook the typically Swiss steep prices when you stop for a drink.
Alternatively, head back over the border and explore Italy, as some amazing routes start from Cuasso al Monte that lead up Monte Piambello (1,125m) with kilometres of natural single track, no overly steep gradients and cheaper Aperol spritz at the end of the day.
Ticino begins about 45 minutes north of Milan-Malpensa airport and Hotel Serpiano is just 5 kilometres from the Italian border.
Where to stay Run by the excitable enduro couple, Hotel Serpiano is your best option but looking at guesthouses over the border in the local Italian villages might be cheaper.
When to visit There’s definitely something special about visiting in autumn, when the tourists have left, the floor of the large forests are strewn with rich orange leaves, with just a few hardy Swiss German hikers around who aren’t deterred by the mating season of the wild boars and the deer. Spring and summer are, of course, the ideal time to visit and with swimmable lakes and the Mediterranean climate it definitely warrants a trip.
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