We were in the canton of Ticino in Switzerland for three days and with the city of Lugano as our base station, we explored parts of this beautiful and unique region, bordering Italy. In this post, I shall describe our visit to the summit of Monte Brè overlooking Lake Lugano.
The bulk of the Italian speaking people of Switzerland live in the canton of Ticino and Italian is the sole official language here. A few Italian speaking communities however may also be found in the southern parts of Graubünden, for example in Viccosoprano and Soglio, both of which I have covered in my earlier posts. Ticino however is the region where the linguistic, architectural, cultural and culinary influence of Italy is most pronounced; moreover, the climate is mild and sunny, quite akin to that of the Mediterranean, unlike rest of Switzerland.
From Lugano, there are quite a few options to get to Monte Brè. We took the bus (towards Castagnola) from the stop at Lugano Railway station and were at Cassarate- Monte Brè bus stop in less than 15 minutes. From Cassarate- Monte Brè bus stop, we walked back along Via (road in Italian) Castagnola and took the road to our right called Via Funicolare and reached Via Pico. We turned left on Via Pico and found the base station of the Funicular (Funicolare in Italian) that was to take us to the top of Monte Brè. The total walk was about 15 minutes, but there is a short cut through the residential blocks.
The street was deserted and there was not a single person to be found at the station – a rather innocuous small building. We saw the small bright red carriage of the funicular up at the rank and wondered where we should get our tickets from, because there was no ticket counter at the station. I looked around for instructions / tourist information and of course everything was in Italian and only Italian. We saw that the Funicular did not have a driver/conductor either.
And then a bell sounded and we looked around, not knowing what was happening. After a few minutes, we suddenly heard noise of movement and found the empty red carriage of the Funicular climbing upward along the slope, all by itself, without a driver. It felt definitively spooky.
Not knowing what to do, we hung around for some more time, once again looking around for some information in English. And then another tourist (a German gentleman in a red check shirt) joined us and explained that the Funicular for Monte Brè ran at regular and fixed intervals in two segments. The first segment was automatic (unmanned and free) and it took you up to the village of Suvigliana which was the base of the second segment. At Suvigliana, you had to buy your ticket for the summit of Monte Brè, further up.
We thanked the kind gentleman. Feeling rather foolish and with nothing else to do, we waited. I explained to my 11 year old daughter, Minnie, about the Funicular – which was basically a tram/carriage that moved on a rail track, along a steep incline, pulled by cables. The ascending and descending trams counter balanced each other, I explained.
Sure enough, in about 20-25 minutes we found the red coach descending from above, towards the base station. The bell sounded once again and a green light lit up above the turnstiles gate. We went through the turnstiles and hopped into the steeply slanting carriage of funicular. We waited inside the coach for some time until its doors closed and it started crawling up the mountain, making a steep ascend. The funicular ran every half and hour.
In less than five minutes from the base, we got off the coach at Suvigliana, walked across the road for our connecting section to Monte Brè, where we bought our tickets. At a fare of CHF15/23 – one way/return for adults, with 50% discount for children, (we got a discount, I forget how much, because of our Swiss Pass), I wondered which was steeper – the slopes of Monte Brè or the fare. We loved the steep and rather scary ride up – the red coach slowly scaling along a narrow track, hauled up along the inclined with the help of steel cables. It made a creaking sound from time to time. Built in 2012, this funicular is considered among the steepest in the world and also a historic one.
Above Suvigliana, we passed by the beautiful villages of Albonago, Aldesago and Brè and in about 15 minutes, we were at the summit of Monte Brè, at a height of 933m. There are a couple of restaurants at Monte Brè with terraces offering magnificent views of the lake and the Mountains. There is a small church Capella Maria, further uphill from the Funicular station. Despite our interest in art and architecture, we decided to skip this in the interest of time.
The summit of Monte Brè is considered the sunniest spot in Switzerland and tt was a sparkling clear day, ideal for our trip. We took a circular path around the top and from different points we got wonderful views of the sweeping vistas in front of us. From bright sunlight terraces overlooking Lake Lugano, we saw the bay and city of Lugano below and the imposing peaks of San Salvatore ahead. At a distance, we could also see the majestic Monte Rosa (80kms away), the Pennine (also called the Valais) and the Bernese Alps and the magnificent mountainscape, far beyond into distant Italy. We walked down to the Ristorante Vetta and wandered into their private terrace for more views. No one seemed to mind our intrusion – in any case, there were very few tourists during the shoulder season.
Monte Brè is an ideal place for various excursions and there are numerous well marked hiking (and biking) trails, which if you are up to it, are a wonderful way to experience the natural beauty of this region.
Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), the famous German born Swiss poet, novelist, thinker, painter and Nobel Prize winner for literature (1946) is greatly admired even today for his exploration of themes that address an individual’s search for authenticity, self-knowledge and spirituality. Since he suffered from chronic depression, it is said that he sought solitude and peace in the lap of nature. And I read that he spent the best times in his life and creative career living in Montagnola – a small village, very near Monte Brè.
It is said that the salubrious southern climate and the beauty of this place mesmerized this great mind and here, amidst the splendor of nature, he found the solace and tranquility for deep contemplation. It is also said that Montagnola and the area surrounding Monte Brè not only inspired Hermann Hesse’s most famous works (such as Siddhartha, Narcissus and Goldmund, and The Glass Bead Game) but also led him to passionately take up painting in his later years.
The views from Monte Brè were phenomenal. The landscape was breathtaking, as much as it was expansive and tranquil. There were nice little picnic spots all long, where we paused to soak up the glorious sunshine and the magnificent vistas, breathe in fresh air and let our spirits soar. And I knew exactly why Hermann Hesse was so drawn to this place …
We then decided to take a leisurely walk downhill along a panoramic trail punctuated with flights of stairs, that would lead us to the village of Brè, perched at an altitude of 785m.
After about 15-20 minutes we reached a small terrace – a narrow triangular ledge that provided a bird’s eye view of the village (or paese in Italian) of Brè below, overlooking Lake Lugano. We stopped at this little terrace and sat on the circular bench under a small tree to take in the views. We also refilled our water bottles from the little fountain. And then, a short downhill walk from there over a long and sweeping flight of stone steps, we descended into the village of Brè, at 785 meters above sea level.Now, in Switzerland, there is no dearth of Mountains, Mountain tops and panoramic views – each equally spectacular and at the same time, surpassing the other in one aspect or other. Monte Brè was no exception. For us, however, the real surprise – something that we had not experienced earlier awaited further down the slope at the end of a panoramic trail, in the heart of the village of Brè (Paese Brè, as known in Italian).
1. Getting there: You can take bus number 2, towards Castagnola/Capolinea, from pretty much anywhere from Lugano. You need to get off at the bus stop called Casssarate / Monte Brè. There is an electronic board inside the bus which displays the name of the forthcoming bus stop. Get off the bus, walk ahead and take the left turn towards Piazza Stefano Franscini, following the brown funicolare signs uphill. You will reach the base station of the Funicular on Via Pico in less than 10 minutes. We had taken a longer way though.
At the base station, you will find turnstile gate with a light on the top. When the light turns green, you can get in, walk up and hop into the waiting red color Funicular coach. Please note that the turnstile suddenly locks in a little before the funicular departs or when the maximum number of passengers has passed through. So it is a good idea to let kids in first.
You can also take a short boat ride (free if you are on a Swiss Pass) from Lugano to Cassarate and then follow the signs to the funicular station.
And finally, you can drive from Lugano to the top of Monte Bré, though I am told the road is very steep and narrow and at places goes in zigzags. You would do this only if you were a seasoned and confident driver in the mountains.
2. There is a cheaper option to the Funicular. You can take a local bus (which has regular services from Cassarate) which goes up the mountain, up to Brè Paese, from where you need to walk up hill for 20-40 minutes to reach the top of Monte Brè. You have to be fairly fit for this. Walking up by the main road may take longer, but it would be easier than taking the flights of stairs that are available at different points.
3. Carry a bottle of water which you can refill at one of the various drinking water fountains that dispense fresh spring water. Also apply sunscreen and wear good walking / hiking shoes and ideally hiking sticks as well. They come light and collapsible.
4. There are a couple of restaurants with amazing views at the summit, which I am told are expensive, and quite understandably so. Moreover, the restaurants are often closed during low season, or even in the shoulder season. If you have the time, enjoy a relaxing meal, taking in the views from the terrace of these restaurants. If not, carry a small picnic hamper, which is much cheaper. There are many amazing spots for picnics.
5. From Monte Brè: Monte Brè is a very good starting point from which you can embark on various hikes and walks through some magnificent nature trails. Depending on your level of fitness and interest, there are a variety of options with different types of layouts, difficulties and lengths, offering a variety of views and experiences. All routes are well marked and check out the maps before you go. You can also take guided hikes and walks with the Monte Brè Cable Car Company. Various trails lead to Monte Boglia (altitude 1516 meters), the Bolla Alp (altitude 1129) and Cureggia (altitude 655 meters) – but those are only for the die-hard hiker.
6. Cycling enthusiasts can also rent a Mountain bike at the summit and ride along one of the many well marked cycling trails. This region is very popular with mountain cyclists.
7. Monte Brè, is also home to the old art village of Brè (covered in another post), which is a must for anyone interested in art and architecture. And from the village of Brè there is a nature and archeological trail that goes further down to Gandria (covered in another post), at an altitude of 340 meters. Gandria is an exceedingly charming and romantic, erstwhile fishing village on the shores of Lake Lugano. And if you are not tired, you can take the Olive Trail (covered in another post) from Gandria to Castagnola, and from there by bus, back to Lugano.
The above sounds complicated and long, but it really isn’t. If you are reasonably fit and are willing to take a long downhill walk, with ample rests thrown in, and I have a magical itinerary for you (subject to perfect day long weather conditions of course):
7.1 Get up early and head to Monte Brè by 8.30 in the morning. Spend 1 hour at the summit taking in the views and recharging yourself with some tea/coffee. Then descend to Brè Paese or the village of Brè. Spend about 2.5 hours in Brè Paese, walking in the village, having lunch and short post lunch rest. Plan to leave Brè Paese by 1 pm or 1.30 pm latest. Head down towards Gandria with is a particularly pleasant, shaded and tranquil section. You will reach Gandria, latest by 3.30 pm.
7.2 Spend about two hours, exploring this picture postcard village (check my post on Gandria) and having your afternoon coffee / tea in one of the numerous romantic restaurants overlooking Lake Lugano.
7.3 Head for the Olive Trail (check my post on this) by 6.00 pm latest, walking along which you will be in Castagnola in one hours time maximum. On the way, you can have an early dinner or a drink at one of the many beautiful restaurants.
7.4 The entire trail from Monte Brè to Castagnola is downhill and less than 5 miles. Without any halts, it should take you maximum 5 hours of leisurely walking. With the halts in Monte Brè, Brè Paese and Gandria, it should take you about 11 hours maximum, i.e. is a full day. This will be a relaxed itinerary with sufficient halts at three places. If you don’t have time, this can also be done comfortably in 10 or even 9 hours, with shorter halts.
7.5 With one mountain summit, two heritage villages and exquisite nature trails (all downhill) thrown in, this has all the promises of a lifetime experience. For details of this trail, check: http://www.histman.co.uk/hesse_walks/text_files/Walk_six.PDF
8. There are amazing options for overnight say in Monte Brè, Brè Paese and in Gandria Paese. So if you have two full days for this, halt for a night in Brè Paese. That way you can check out the village by the night as well. At these places you can enjoy total peace and tranquility.
9. Eating out in Switzerland is always expensive and it is also time consuming. So a very good alternative is to carry a picnic lunch and some snacks for the day. There are amazing spots all over the place where you can rest and have a bite.
10. Like all other mountains and mountain tops in Switzerland, check out the weather before you go, a day before and in the morning. Make sure the weather is perfectly clear, or else you will be wasting the money at the Funicular and your day as well.
11. Foods to try: You can have good Italian food in any of the restaurants (also called Grottos, as in Caverns) anywhere along the way. In Brè Paese, you might want to try a traditional Swiss dish called ‘Raclette’ – a chunk of cheese melted over a fire and then scraped onto bread, with pickled gherkins and tiny boiled potatoes on the side. Both the wine and chocolate in this region is also good.