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Ancient Times

An American in Europe never quite gets used to the mingling of centuries, where today's amenities live comfortably inside medieval buildings and modern cars squeeze onto roads built for walking.

But my discoveries today make a century seem like this morning's news.

Dale Bechtel and I left Chiasso by bike. A few kilometers out of town, I had to use my GPS in briar-infested woods to find the unmarked spot that is Switzerland's southernmost point. To me it's a significant place, but from the evidence at hand, I'm the only person who thinks so. I guess there are much more urgent things happening in Chiasso, Switzerland's southernmost customs point, including today's hot controversy in banking (Italians have stashed vast quantities of money in Chiasso and Lugano's banks, and Italy wants access to tax it). There is also a controversial detention center for immigrants trying to cross without the right papers. But these difficulties all seem to fade when you look back far enough into time.

On the 1,094-meter hill-mountain of Monte San Giorgio, we discovered true history, or rather, prehistory. First Nadia Fontana-Lupi took us to the "Lost Village" of Tremona-Castello, where archaeologists had excavated a village built for its commanding view. The walled village burned down at the end of the 13th century and has been abandoned ever since. It is now being slowly and carefully reconstructed and will one day be a popular exhibit.

But that's not the old part. Under the stones they found evidence of a Neolithic settlement some 5,000 or 6,000 years old. Wooden posts deep in the ground indicate what sort of buildings were once there, and arrowheads with stones from distant regions show that trading was common. This ongoing project is still unknown to tourists, but in the next years they hope to make it one of the few ancient places on more open display.

But that's still just yesterday compared to what really puts Monte San Giorgio on the map, specifically the Unesco World Heritage map. Here bituminous shale miners discovered fossils of unprecedented quality and scale back in the 19th century. More recent digs and a growing understanding of the layers place them at 240 to 230 million years old. The mineral composition here has allowed even the soft parts of fishes and reptiles to be preserved so that stomach contents can be analyzed.

But the most impressive of all is that the layers built up for about eight million years without interruption, allowing us to watch evolution take place as species transform into new species. It seems that few if any other places in the world have offered paleontologists such a continuum of years. Everywhere else provides a glimpse of one brief period in time or another, with major disruptions between, making it very hard to see evolution in action. Thus Monte San Giorgio has unprecedented value, and the town of Meride is building an impressive new museum to house all the fossils that currently reside in museums and universities in Zurich and Milan. It will be quite the place to see when it opens in 2012. I will be back!

When we reached Serpiano we were greeted by two things: a hotel with one of the most stunning hotel-views I've ever seen - extending across various bends in Lago di Lugano and almost touching Gandria, my stop three nights ago - and a press conference all set up to interview me. I had the chance to speak in French (since I can't speak Italian) for the Swiss-Italian television network, and also on local Ticinese television. Sitting on a couch with reflectors and cameras all around me with such a spectacular background was a surreal experience after so many solo nights in wet tents. But I'm not complaining. I even spent the night on the balcony instead of the bed, just to watch the lights of Lugano.