Though, as close as the night before, this day trip just about didn’t happen (see TripBits, below), we ended up having a lovely time and were so glad we had persevered.
As we poured over the map and checked out the towns along the way, trying to decide how far to take the train, we came across a Rick Steeves posting with the headline Lugano: The Sunny Side of Switzerland.
Weather checks suggested that the next few days would be cold, and snowy or rainy everywhere nearby but, for Lugano, the prediction was for sun and temperatures several degrees warmer. Sold!
Lugano is a town on a little peninsula of land that juts into Italy. It is the capital of Ticino, a canton of Switzerland, and the only one where Italian is the sole official language. With a two-hour train ride through the Alps, we moved from hearing the greeting Grüezi to Buongiorno, from German signage to Italian. If we didn’t know better, we would have questioned which country we were in.
Right from the train station, the views are lovely.
Our only plan was to take the funicular down the cliff into the village and walk around. We found the funicular (go down the steps at the train station and under the road) and tried to pay the posted 1.30 CHF, but the cashier waved us off with an Italian explanation (that we did not understand). Not sure why, but the ride was free.
At the bottom of the tracks (a very short distance, and easily walkable), we found ourselves in narrow cobblestone streets and pedestrianized areas. Within a few blocks we were lakeside.
Wandering along the lakeshore, we came across the Lugano arts and culture center, jutting out to the lake. It was obviously part of the holiday festivities as tables were set with fondue pots and people were just beginning to settle down with their bread, cheese, and wine.
The Lugano Cathedral caught our eye as we walked back up the hill to the train station.
There are a few shops at the station, including a chocolate shop displaying the typical stacks of barks.
Though it was too dark (the well-lit inside created obstructive reflections) and too fast to catch any shots of the scenery zipping by us on our way home, I had to try for at least one.
We had to overcome a couple of challenges in order to take this trip.
- Selecting a destination and a route
We looked at several of the routes that are considered scenic. You don’t need to take the full route, so we looked for a section we could complete in a day, including the return trip. We wanted to get to Ticino, the Italian canton of Switzerland, and the Gotthard Panorama Express route does that. We couldn’t find anything about this route when trying to book tickets. It seems that these touristy routes aren’t just train trips. They are combination boat, train, even gondola excursions, packaged together. So, instead of searching train schedules for the full route, we searched for different start and end points along the one that interested us until we found a direct route to Lugano that didn’t go through the 57km Gotthard-Basistunnel (30 minutes underground to save about the same amount of time). Our starting point was Erstfeld, a 30-minute drive away, where we found 5 CHF/day parking.
- Buying tickets online
Once we had made the route selection, we discovered that, if we used our half-fare card and booked specific train times, we could reduce the fare by half again on some routes with the Supersaver program. We had our selection made and carefully reviewed, and then submitted credit card details, only to have the payment rejected. We tried again with a different credit card and, again, rejected. We searched support and the community forum and found others with the same problem, but the answers from the company were to call the office during office hours, Monday to Friday. We were trying to book on a Saturday for a Sunday excursion. We walked to the train station for help. Though kind and apologetic, and after calling for assistance, the clerk was unable to help. We had successfully used a credit card at the station to purchase our half-fare cards, but Supersaver tickets are only available online. We were told that the problem was likely with our foreign credit card contracts, which didn’t allow online ticket purchases. (We had previously purchased transportation tickets online with the same cards in many countries.)Back home, I tried a third card (rejected) and a fourth. Finally, success with a card that used further security. Crazy, but be warned!