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San Salvatore: Lugano's Sugarloaf Mountain

Monte San Salvatore looms proudly over Lake Lugano

(Keystone)

Lugano, the biggest town in Italian Switzerland, lies beside the lake. At either end of the bay of Lake Lugano two high peaks stand sentinel: Monte Bre to the north, and Monte San Salvatore to the south.

Sunbathers take note: Monte Bre has the enviable reputation of being the Swiss mountain with the most sunshine per annum. But Monte San Salvatore has an even more tropical claim to fame.

Its slightly rounded configuration bears a resemblance to Rio de Janeiro's Pão d'Açucar. While there is no statue of Jesus standing vigil from its peak, the 360- degree view Monte San Salvatore offers of the lakes of southern Ticino and northern Italy is astounding.

It may not be Brazil, but it's worth a trip. A 15-minute cable car ride up the mountain's sheer city-facing side is the easiest way to reach the summit, though there's a minor hitch.

Halfway into the three-metres-a-second ride, passengers are obliged to step out onto a platform and clamber into a second cable car. The two-track system hails from the 19th century, when a single track could not be built to cope with the drastic change of gradient.

Stepping out from the top station, the first thing that hits you is the drop in temperature. Not unpleasantly cold, but far cooler than at lake-level. Dominating the plateau is a restaurant whose large terrace looks out on Lugano and beyond. The view is noteworthy, but the best is yet to come.

From the restaurant, a set of steps leads to another terrace and then to a small museum. This has two sections: one with rocks and fossils discovered in the surrounding region, the other with reliquaries and manuscripts from the 17th century.

The latter belong to the splendidly named Arch confraternity of the Good Death, whose main purpose was to give spiritual and material assistance to condemned persons in the hours preceding their execution.

Some more steps up from the museum and you are on the summit of Monte San Salvatore at 912 metres. There's an old church here where every year there are special liturgical celebrations on Ascension Day.

For visitors with a sight seeing rather than a rites seeking agenda, it's the roof of the church that uplifts the soul. Walk up the stairs built on the outside of the church (vertigo sufferers might not be too keen, as the drop beyond the wrought iron railing will make you swallow hard) and feast your eyes.

The bonus on a clear day is a view that is hard to match: lying far below and to the east are Lake Lugano's several branches (the locals colourfully compare the lake to an octopus). To the north you can see the snow-peaked Alps, to the west in the distance, Lake Maggiore, and to the south Italy. On a good day, the Madonna atop the spire of Milan's Duomo shimmers on the horizon.

For those so inclined, there are also two nature paths starting from the top of the mountain, with tags identifying different types of trees and flowers. Notable among these is the Daphne Odorosa flower, a rarity found almost exclusively on the slopes of San Salvatore.

Thanks to the mild climate of southern Ticino, both the cable car and the restaurant operate beyond the official summer season: from mid-March until mid-November.

by Juliet Linley


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