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John Waelti: Over Switzerland's Gotthard Pass and on to Ticino
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Along the rooftop of Europe we had spent several hours visiting the underground Swiss defense installations at Switzerland's Gotthard Pass. Machine gun and artillery emplacements zeroed in on possible approaches, underground barracks, medical facilities, and miles of tunnels, all meticulously prepared to ward off attacks by Axis powers. Even if the Nazis during WWII could have taken the fortress, key bridges and tunnels leading through the mountains would have been destroyed, denying efficient passage between Italy and northern Europe.

It was a fascinating half day, but time to head south to Canton Ticino, where Italian is the major spoken language. Ticino is bordered by Canton Graubunden on the northeast, Canton Uri on the north, a small border with Canton Valais on the northwest, and the rest surrounded by Italy.

Canton Ticino was annexed by Swiss forces from Italian cities in the 15th century - the last transalpine campaign of the old Swiss Confederacy - 12 cantons at that time. Between 1798 and 1803, the districts of Bellinzona and Lugano were separate cantons. In 1803 the two cantons were unified to form Canton Ticino that joined the Swiss Confederation as a full member. The canton minted its own currency, the Ticinese Franco, between 1813 and 1850, when it adopted the Swiss franc.

The main language of Ticino is Italian. Despite being very similar to standard Italian, Swiss Italian has some differences because of the presence in Switzerland of French and German from which it assimilates words. Fluency in German is a prerequisite for many jobs, especially in shops and restaurants catering to German-speaking tourists, as well as in the insurance and banking business.

As our tour bus headed south, down from the Alpine ridge, we could see firsthand that the alpine climate is indeed warmer and sunnier than north of the pass. Ticino enjoys an annual average of 2,300 sunshine hours, compared to 1,700 hours for Zurich.

As we reach the city of Locarno, we take a short bus ride back north for a few miles through the valley of the Maggio River. The architecture is different from north of the Alps, the structures mainly of stone. Hillsides are covered with trees, and we don't see cattle grazing on the hillsides as we do north of the Alps.

We stay overnight in the city of Locarno, and the next day head to one of Switzerland's southernmost cities, Lugano. Some of us visit an interesting park in the village of Melide, featuring miniature models of Swiss buildings and various topographical features of the nation.

Lugano is Switzerland's third largest financial center after Zurich and Geneva. Because of Ticino's shared language and culture, its financial industry has close ties to Italy. Its banking industry has 8,400 employees and generates about 17 percent of Ticino's gross cantonal product.

Not surprisingly for Ticino, Italy is an important export market, along with Germany. Many Italian companies relocate to Ticino for various reasons, including a more efficient bureaucracy than that of Italy. Three of the world's largest gold refineries are based in Ticino, including the leading manufacturer of gold bars.

Swiss people from the German-speaking cantons occasionally observe that Ticino shares some Italian idiosyncrasies, such as a reputation for terrible traffic and careless driving. However, as the saying goes "everything is relative." Ticino is still Switzerland, and, speaking for myself anyway, the traffic seemed very orderly.

Our tour group scatters in all directions in Lugano. Some of us enjoy lunch in the soft, warm early afternoon sunshine. While under sunny skies, eating pizza from that Italian-Swiss-Italian restaurant, it occurs to me that the ancient Romans never had tomato sauce on that traditional Italian dish. Tomatoes come from the South American rain forests, and were unknown to the ancient Romans. This bit of trivia illustrates how times change even for traditional dishes.

The sunshine is quite a switch from the cloudy, misty days we had encountered north of the Alpine range. But it doesn't seem to matter whether it's cloudy, foggy, misty, or sunny - it's unbelievable how Switzerland's scenery is inevitably post-card quality.

In the afternoon, we visit a chocolate factory - a trip to Switzerland is incomplete without visiting a chocolate factory - and return to Locarno.

Our hotel facilities are very comfortable. However, Randy and Joey Schneeberger end up with a super-luxury suite. Ron Spielman surmises, not really believing it, that perhaps Randy and Joey somehow have an inside track. It turns out that that they do - a hotel employee had the name of "Schneeberger." In the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland? It doesn't seem to matter. Two years ago we ran into Schneebergers in the French speaking part of Switzerland. And a few days later we would see that same name on the awning of a women's' clothing store in Bern. It doesn't seem to matter whether it's in the French, Italian, German speaking sections, that name is ubiquitous in Switzerland.

In fact, our tour group was taking notes on familiar Green County names that we would encounter in Switzerland. As would be expected since so many ancestors of our local residents came from Switzerland, we recorded many familiar names, the subject of a later column.

After two sunny days in Italian Switzerland, it was time to leave and head back across the Alps.

Next week: To Brienz and the Lauterbrunnen Valley.

- John Waelti of Monroe can be reached at His column appears Fridays in The Monroe Times.