Crossing a mountain border

I walked across the bridge over the River Tresa. There was a cafe right there, on the corner. It looked perfect.


I walked across the bridge over the River Tresa. There was a cafe right there, on the corner. It looked perfect.


“Un cappuccino, per favore,” I said. She nodded and bustled away.


“Un cappuccino, per favore,” I said. He nodded and bustled away.


Immediately, I trusted her.


Immediately, I mistrusted him.


A Top 40 radio station was chittering. I looked around the tall, echoing space, at the plate-glass windows on two sides, half-concealed by a greyish net curtain hooked over a pole at chin-height. Small circular tables in wood dotted the tiled floor, each with three round-backed wooden chairs pulled up sociably around it. On the curving bar stood a rack of Chupa Chups lollipops. Above, a wooden shelf with bottles of spirits.

One of the middle-aged couples on the yellow plastic chairs that formed a terrace around the cafe’s exterior, under a small arcade, were drinking what looked like Campari Soda, with ice, a swizzle stick and a slice of lemon, even though it was well before noon.

While I watched, a young guy with ripped jeans and a black hoodie lost €10 in one of the six video gambling machines in the corner. As he dug into his pocket for more, a rounder man in baggy plaid shorts, the collar of his red polo shirt turned up, fed €20 into the change machine by the bar and collected the tide of coins that emerged.

The busy morning with all its people swirled onwards. My cappuccino tasted like friendship, smooth and nourishing.


I dodged between troughs of foliage demarcating the little terrace, under a low awning. Bovine heads lifted as I hip-swung around tables to reach the café door. Inside there were only two other customers, a young man and his slick-haired father, or grandfather, sitting opposite each other at a table of four, heads bent over their food.

It was a dingy interior, the rectangular tables lined up classroom-style, parallel with the bar, each surfaced in dark imitation-wood Formica. An 80s radio station chimed quietly with pensioners’ pop songs. I noticed that the low ceiling was panelled. There was dark wood veneer on the walls, and a cigarette machine in the corner. It felt Alpine, like a Polaroid.

He brought my cappuccino in an espresso cup, under a Matterhorn peak of soapy foam that was caked in an alien dark-brown powder, and vanished. When I took a sip, the powder was bitter cocoa.

Nobody spoke. I felt the pulse beat in my neck. Shifting my chair slightly to find a patch of light from an overhead bulb, I picked up the local newspaper and read about a jazz festival in a nearby town. 


At the bar the young woman gave me a receipt that said €1.40. I asked her if she spoke English. Ethnically East Asian, she rattled off a clatter of Italian that, I think, said no she didn’t and there wasn’t much call for it anyway because most visitors here, if they didn’t speak Italian, spoke German anyway. I shrugged and told her I was from England. She laughed. We grinned at each other.


The café owner Carlo Bustelli – his name and address had been overprinted sideways in blue on the front page of the newspaper; it felt like a secret piece of knowledge I could use against him – sidled behind the bar like your sinister uncle. He charged me 3 francs (almost €2.50) and gave no receipt, and his eyes slid around the empty air either side of my shoulders as he raised a palm in silence.


* * *


Ponte Tresa is in northern Italy. It’s also in southern Switzerland. A simple little town, straddling the bridge (ponte in Italian) that spans the unremarkable River Tresa, it’s long held my attention for its border. The same border a few miles east divides Lugano, the largest city in Switzerland’s Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, from its near-neighbour, the Italian city of Como. Just a formality, perhaps. A bureaucratic nicety.

Far from it. This has been an international frontier for 500 years. It represents a profound cleft of culture and history.

Although linguistically and temperamentally Italian, Ticino has been Swiss since the early 1500s, when Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden – three cantons of German-speaking Central Switzerland – moved to secure the southern approaches of the Gotthard Pass, a vital Alpine trade route, against the dukes of Milan.

For 300 years the Ticinesi remained under the thumb of the tyrannical northerners, until Napoleon arrived in 1798 to reorganize the area under his new Cisalpine Republic. But faced with a mere exchange of overlords, the Ticinesi held out for independence, and under the banner Liberi e Svizzeri! (“Free and Swiss!”), the Republic of Ticino joined Switzerland in 1803.

Since then, the Ticinesi remain resolutely Swiss, and have little truck with foreigners calling them Italian, although it’s almost impossible for anyone – outsider or not – to tell the locals apart from the almost 60,000 Italian frontalieri who cross into Ticino every day to work for salaries well below the Swiss average. Even today, with Switzerland choosing to remain outside the European Union, Ponte Tresa’s frontier has pan-continental political and economic significance.

A cruel irony of life here is that Ticino – whose population barely touches 350,000 – suffers Switzerland’s highest unemployment rates even while its service industries thrive, staffed by Italians and paid for by thousands of German and Swiss-German tourists and second-home owners. As an ethnic and linguistic minority of eight percent in their own country, and nothing more than a quaint irrelevance to the urban hotshots of Milan next door, the Ticinesi constantly have to struggle to get their voices heard.

“We are Italian for fun, but Swiss for work,” Marie-Lise told me in Lugano. “My daddy came here from Italy to build houses, and so I became Swiss as a little girl.”

She looks in her early sixties.

“Everything has changed in the last five years, since the economic crash. Ticino is seeking stability. We’re hoping the next five years, things will settle. The frontalieri are welcome – but it’s just too much. Every morning the roads are full, the streets, the trains, everywhere. But the young people here have no jobs.”

Switzerland struggles constantly with immigration. The big cities on the borders – Geneva, Basel, Zurich – are more diverse than you might expect, though not as harmonious as they look. Right-wing opinion, much of it originating from deeply conservative rural communities of inner Switzerland, tends to lead national debate. Anti-immigrant initiatives and minaret bans are the result, with social tensions in the cities often inflamed by demagoguery and prejudice.

But nowhere are Switzerland’s divisions less obvious than in Ticino – economically depressed, so hosting many fewer migrants from outside, and culturally virtually indistinguishable from the places across the border.

But not completely indistinguishable. Ponte Tresa is a small town, where you can – in my case, literally – taste the differences, but it’s harder to identify what’s going on in the cities. Something makes Como unequivocally Italian, and Lugano unequivocally Swiss. I’ve spent years, on and off, crossing and recrossing this border trying to work out what. It goes deep.

The city of Lugano is wealthier, certainly, but it also lacks the remnants of Fascist and post-Fascist urban design you see in Como. One way to tell which side of the border you’re on is by the extent and type of new building, and by the upkeep of older buildings: Italy – not just Como – crumbles under the weight of history and poor urban planning, while Ticino has a reputation for world-class contemporary architecture.

Como is marked by modernism. In Lugano modernism is hardly discernible at all.

The food on Lake Como is classic Lombard stuff – missoltini (dried fish), polenta, pizzoccheri (buckwheat tagliatelle). Lugano’s cooking is all rich dressings, cured meats and Alpine cheeses: the influence of the mountains.

In art and architecture, the impact of the Italian Renaissance did seep northwards: Florentine designers were building castles in Ticino as early as 1479, and Bernardino Luini, a protégé of Leonardo da Vinci, left exquisite frescoes – but from then until the turn of the 20th century, and particularly with the rise of tourism, Lake Como gained fame among Europe’s nobility as a countryside hideaway (as it had been under the Romans millennia before). Baroque and Neoclassical villas went up by the dozen.

Two thousand years ago Lake Como was Julius Caesar and Pliny. Today it’s George Clooney and Ronaldinho.

By contrast, Lugano was always tangential, under continuous occupation by a trans-Alpine German-speaking army. Even after liberation, it merely became an appendage to a poor, perpetually unstable, minor mountain republic. For the rich and powerful of 19th-century Europe, Switzerland was significant only as somewhere to pass through. And even in the 20th century, with the attraction of secret banking, they came quietly, living isolated lives, fearing attention.

Lugano’s history is revolutionary. Como’s is authoritarian.

Every time I go, I play these kinds of games in my mind.

* * *

Visible across the lake from Lugano’s waterfront, dwarfed by the towering heights of Monte Sighignola, Campione d’Italia is one of those places travel writers love. The village – for that’s all it is, even though it’s now extremely rich, thanks in part to a giant casino on the waterfront – opted out of Ticino’s independence campaign in 1798 and so remained Italian when all around it became Swiss. To this day it forms an enclave of Italian territory inside Switzerland.

Campione is administered as part of the Provincia di Como, but uses Swiss francs rather than euros (and it’s a good place for a meal, since restaurant prices are much lower than in Lugano). The police are Italian, but they drive around in cars with Swiss plates. Switzerland runs the phones but Italy handles the mail.

There is no passport control. Cut off on two sides by almost sheer mountain cliffs, Campione has only two ways in: by a minor road along the lake, or by boat from open water. Plans, a generation ago, to build a cable car linking the village to the summit of Sighignola, a thousand metres almost directly overhead in Italian territory, came to nothing. Up on the mountain-top, in front of a stupendous view across the lake-threaded foothills of the Alps, you can slap the hulks of concrete pylons for the cable car line, planted in the bedrock before the money or the enthusiasm ran out.

Lugano’s cafes, ringing the Piazza della Riforma (such a giveaway), are Swiss. Why? I’m not quite sure.

Down in Campione on Piazza Roma (ha!), the lakefront cafes are definitely Italian. Why? I can’t quite say.

Cappuccino time.