“This is the longest railway tunnel in the world.”

That’s what the sign above the passenger car door finally revealed, halfway though the long dark of the Gotthard Base Tunnel. It had cycled through German, Italian, and French before getting to English. At 57.09 km (35.5 mi), the tunnel takes around 20 minutes to pass through on trains going over 120mph. Its maximum depth is comparable to some of the deepest mines in the world and without ventilation the temperature inside would average 115° F.

On the northern side of the tunnel is the Switzerland you probably expect. Quaint wood-framed houses, German-looking cities, and all the lakes, mountain peaks and other things you envisioned when reading Heidi. South, however, lies Switzerland’s Ticino region which borders northern Italy and looks, feels and is deeply Italian.

My destination was the city of Lugano, where my friend Maya lives and studies. Waiting for her at the train station, I looked over the city, and if it weren’t for the mountains in the distance I easily could’ve sworn I was on the Mediterranean. Palms clung to the steep slopes between the buildings, descending along winding streets towards the glittering lake below. Flowers still bloomed and the deciduous trees only hinted at fall, even as the surrounding peaks were covered in snow and ice.

Maya showed me around her university, which is scattered across a hill above the city, and while she was busy with classes for the day, I explored.

Lugano felt vibrant. Like every European city during the holidays, it was alight with Christmas markets, yet a pervasive sense of day-to-day life impressed me. Maybe its just the climate of southern Europe, but even in December Lugano was full of produce-selling stalls sprawling into the street, as well as delis and bakeries open to the air. People walked along the promenade by the lakeside and though the adjoining park. They basked in the sun, (as did I, for I hadn’t seen it in weeks) and enjoyed each other’s company.

Maya and I had dinner in the university dining hall that night, and I got to meet some of her friends. Her university has very few Europeans and many Americans, as well as other international students from all across the globe.

The next day I again went into town while Maya took her finals. I visited Lugano’s art and culture center, enjoying the exhibits and trying to pick out something about the region’s culture from what turned out to mostly be art.

After she finished school for the day, we walked a bit ourselves and then sat down for fondue. I had never had it before, and it was as excellent as you’d imagine savory things dipped in cheese would be. We followed it with gelato. The most Swiss-Italian evening I can imagine.

My last day in the area, Maya and I went to the nearby town of Bellinzona. Famous for its castles, we toured the largest and only one that was open during the winter season. The tower afforded an excellent view of the old medieval city and the countryside around, and from the keep you can walk along (and inside) now grass-covered fortifications.

I thoroughly enjoyed Lugano and hope I get the chance to visit when the weather is even nicer than it was when I was there. I know it will probably be a lot more touristy and that sense of local day-to-day life will be gone, but it was such a gorgeous place. I need to see it at its best.


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