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Ticino: Land of long summers

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21 Mar 2019
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Ticino is the only Swiss canton south of the Alps. It mostly borders Italy and shares with it the lakes of Lugano and Maggiore, as well as a language and a sense of la dolce vita.

It makes Ticino quite unique – the only canton in which Italian is both the official language and all but the official food.

For centuries one of the staples here was chestnuts, grown on the native trees that swathe the countryside and incorporated into everything from ice cream to accompaniments for the bountiful game that stars on Ticino’s menus during the late summer months.

So good is the venison, it’s noted, that even the locals make pilgrimages to the restaurants to eat during hunting season.

Ticino, though, is far more than just its food. Thanks to its southerly position it enjoys one of the longest, most clement outdoor seasons in all of Switzerland, with snowsports the ubiquitous preserve of winter.

But with the lifts, cable cars and funiculars re-opening every year on 1st April and running until the end of October to service those keen to traverse this beguiling landscape.

Measuring little more than 100km from north to south, Ticino can easily be crossed by bike in a single day, but to even scratch the surface of its spoils would take weeks.

After all, where else in Switzerland can you sip authentic espressos under tropical fronds in the morning, ride gravel paths through ancient woodland at lunchtime and descend by road bike from 2,000m high lakes in the afternoon?

It’s this spectacularly juxtaposed, spectacularly mixed landscape and culture that gives Ticino its unique flavour.

Ticino tick list

• 'Summer’ season runs from March to early November
• Home to Lake Maggiore and Lake Lugano
• Famous for its chestnut delicacies
• Switzerland’s most southerly canton
• Basks in Mediterranean-like climate
• One of the only areas in the world that makes white merlot wine

 

Ride 1: The wood and the trees

This gravel ride takes you on a blissfully tranquil tour of the region

Today you’re going to escape the people, the traffic, the hubbub of conurbations, setting out from the boardwalk of Ponte Tresa on the shores of Lake Lugano into the picturesque Malcantone woodland.

Due north of Ponte Tresa is Pura, and the avenue on which you pedal those opening kilometres is overhung by trees that occasionally break to show driveways up to terracotta-topped houses or reveal the even thicker forest of the Malcantone woodland.

It looks like a dead end, but as what little traffic there is eases out of the village via the main road, yours is a quick left turn down the inconspicuous Via Morella before diving into the woodlands along a suddenly rough strada, which could well live in the Tuscan hillside were it not for the distant hazy mountains on the horizon.

This far south it feels entirely Mediterranean; even in early spring the temperature is comfortably high-teens, the wind but a whisper.

For centuries the only main staple here was chestnuts, and today chestnut groves clump steadfast to earth, occasionally revealing clues to the long-forgotten mines and mills that worked the iron ore once extracted from these ancient hills.

The trail is a mixture of loose scree and technical singletrack, which winds with gratifying speed towards Miglieglia, a picturesque village worthy of a cafe stop – or indeed more, as from here a cable car can be taken up Monte Lema, bikes included.

Onwards to Astano, another ancient village that echoes signs of simpler times, and should the temperature and the clock permit, a nearby swimming pond of the same name is worth a dip into.

From here, a detour up Monte Mondini is rewarded with spectacular views of neighbouring Italy, or you could head back to Ponte Tresa for a stroll around Caslano on the lake side, or a visit to the Chocolate Alprose factory and museum.

Into the hills

To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/ticino1. From Ponte Tresa take the main road out of town to Pura, signed Via Mistorni.

Briefly join the Strada Cantonale before taking a sharp left then right at the junction of Ai Romani/Via Morella, which segues into the woodland.

From here countless trails open up so it’s more a question of hitting marks. First head north towards Curio, then go through Novaggio and on to Miglieglia, then loop west to Astano, back towards Novaggio, then south back to Ponte Tresa.

For further information about this route, visit ticino.ch and search ‘Malcantone Bike’.

Distance: 33km
Total ascent: 1,100m

Ride 2: Palms to peaks

Take the quiet road and some tough climbs to Lake Naret

Living is easy in Ascona. The sun bounces off the waters of Lake Maggiore to the clink of espresso cups and the tinkle of halyards from the boats bobbing in the harbour.

At this early hour Piazza Giuseppe Motta is idyllic, but so too are the roads that lead up through the valley, roads that beg to be enjoyed by bike from the tranquillity of a cyclist’s own traffic-free path, which wends out of town along the banks of the Maggia River.

The Maggia’s swift current gives the clue: the road is only going to tip upwards from here. But as kilometres trickle by and palm-dotted lake shores are exchanged for rugged river banks, there is little to do but soak up the landscape and enjoy how the towns you pass through – from Ponte Brolla to Avegno and on to Cevio – become progressively less Mediterranean and more Alpine in look and feel as you go.

By Bignasco, though, it’s obvious what’s coming. Grey peaks have risen to form the cleft of this valley, the forest is now denser, and the rolling hillsides are scattered with huts of the same stone as the mountains.

Breaking the silence is the heavy sound of breath, for a ride that began gently is now a climbing exercise to double digits in gradient and quadruple in vertical metres.

What relief there is comes from the views, as Lake Sambuco’s mighty dam hoves into sight above the road’s rocky escarpment.

Your target destination is just over 10km away, but Ticino’s brutal landscape offers no respite, presenting the toughest part of the day when the road bears west for Lake Naret and hits gradients easily north of 12%.

The view of Naret – unspoilt, untamed and encircled by snow-capped peaks – makes all that effort pale into insignificance.

And then there’s the thought of the return journey: 60 glorious kilometres downhill and back to those rustling palms and a well-earned beer.

Valley low, mountain high

To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/ticino2. This ride takes place in a valley, so is an out and back. From the Piazza Giuseppe Motta, head out of Ascona, following the Maggia River and picking up the red signs for SwitzerlandMobility cycle route 31.

Follow route 31 north all the way to Bignasco. At the town centre, take Via Lavizzara and follow the natural path of the road towards Lavizzara, then onto Via Cantonale.

Follow signs for Fusio to Lake Sambuco and pick up the Val Sambuco road all the way to Lake Naret. For more details on this route, visit ticino.ch and search ‘Lago del Naret’.

Distance: 130km
Total ascent: 3,370m

 


Don’t miss...

Some other highlights to enjoy while you’re in Ticino

Monte Lema

At 1,624m with views stretching across Ticino to Lombardy and Milan, an excursion up Monte Lema is a must – either by bike, hike or a 10-minute cable car ride from the village of Miglieglia.

The cable car will take you down too, although so will the local hang-gliders. Back at the bottom, check out the Birrificio Monte Lema brewery, which produces the area’s local beer.

Find out more at birrificiomontelema.ch.

 

Maggia River

Given this river starts high in the mountains, it’s no surprise that the waters are pretty cold year round.

But after a long day in the saddle riding the Ascona-Lake Naret road bike route, a dip in the crystal clear Maggia will be revitalising. 

 

Church of Mogno

On the way to Lake Naret, just outside Fusio, is the renowned Church of San Giovanni Battista (interior pictured above).

Designed by Ticino-born Swiss architect Mario Botta, and built on the ruins of the original 15th century church, it is famous for its quirkily cylindrical shape and glinting glass roof.

LongLake Festival

Running from 28th June to 4th August, LongLake is a free festival that sees artists take to the streets, restaurants, bars and promenades around Lake Lugano to put on concerts and performances ranging from street busking to urban art to rock to classical to jazz. More information at longlake.ch.

 

BMC Switzerland

Founded in 1994 and headquartered in Grenchen, Switzerland, BMC has established itself as the premium Swiss bike brand.

BMC’s bikes meet the highest standards in quality, design and manufacturing, and the company invests heavily in research and development to continue to improve its designs and technologies.

BMC has written its way into history by supplying bikes to many of the world’s top athletes, bikes that have been ridden to victory in races such as the Tour de France, the Team Time-Trial and Road World Championships, the MTB XCO World Championships and numerous Ironman Championships.

For more information, see bmc-switzerland.com.


 

The essentials

Travel

Ticino is very well connected by public transport, meaning a train ride all the way over from the UK is perfectly feasible, and it’s not necessary to hire a car when here.

Even better, local transport is free with the Ticino Ticket, which comes as standard if you stay at any accredited (and nearly all of them are) hotel, youth hostel or campsite. See ticino.ch/ticket for more details.

Accommodation

The choice is vast, but for well-appointed hotels for either cycling route you can’t go wrong with the Albergo Casa Santo Stefano in Miglieglia, which is on the Malcantone gravel loop (casa-santo-stefano.ch) and the Hotel Belvedere Locarno, near the start of the Ascona-Lake Naret road ride (belvedere-locarno.com).

Food

The go-to restaurants in Ticino are grottos – unassuming stone-built inns serving an array of local cuisine.

Along the Malcantone ride, La Selvatica (laselvatica.ch) is certainly worth a visit for its locally sourced ingredients, including game in the hunting season.

Or try the Grotto Pozzasc en route to Lake Naret, nestled on the banks of the Maggia River and lauded for its wood-fired polenta and fine selection of cheeses (see pozzasc.ch).

Contacts

For more information about the Ticino canton, visit ticino.ch, and for more general information about Switzerland, MySwitzerland.com/cycling is an invaluable resource.