PIZZA and pasta are the meals of choice. The signs and language are Italian. Everything about it makes it seem like we're still in Italy.
Yet I'm feeling somewhat like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz when she exclaimed, "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore."
We're actually in the Swiss canton of Ticino. My wife and I were looking for something a little different when we discovered Ticino (pronounced Ti-chee-no), while almost entirely Italian-speaking, is not only a Swiss territory but occupies an important place in the nation's fabric.
Even as the taxi ferried us to our hotel in Lugano, Ticino's largest city, we could see we were in for a special treat. With mountain peaks as a backdrop, Lake Lugano, on which the city is situated, looked like a postcard that should be mailed to everyone who ever sought meditative tranquility and a special place to contemplate the universe.
After a train ride of several hours, the waterfront beckoned us. We were ready for a stroll, and it seemed like half the population had the same idea. On wide sidewalks created for activity and mingling, people walked their dogs, jogged with casual abandonment or sat on numerous benches to breathe in the scenery or admire the sculptures that dotted the pathway.
Wandering along Via Vassa, past the shops and outdoor restaurants, we could be forgiven for thinking we'd been transported back to the Via Condotti in Rome.
With sophisticated design and merchandising, shops featuring everything from high-end Swiss watches and jewelry to fashions from around the world enticed visitors to come inside.
Shopping in Ticino is an international experience unto itself. Accents from around the world trade questions with retail clerks who cheerfully explain the mechanics of a watch or the background of a dress designer.
Hemmed in by Italy on its southern tip, Ticino might appear as though it could easily be overwhelmed by the southern nation and its tourist offerings. But Lugano and the surrounding region need not take a back seat to anyone. This is an area rich in panoramic beauty, historical significance and its own cultural identity.
How it carved its own personality amidst its Italian brethren may be found in the words that Robert Frost made famous, "Good fences make good neighbours." In international terms, these are borders formed by rivers, lakes, and mountains. Fences such as those are well delineated in this region, so while friendly, this family of two nations is decidedly distinct.
As we dined in the old fishing village of Gandria, with an inexpensive pair of binoculars, we could have easily spied on the Italian homes just a couple of kilometres across the bay. But we were too busy feasting on the fresh perch taken from Lake Lugano, cooked with a delicate blend of herbs, mixed vegetables and potatoes, to have any interest in being nosy neighbours.
With a dozen or so culinary experiences under our belts, we were never disappointed with the food or the service.
Highly recommended to us by our guide, Julie Guidotti, our dining experience included an experiment eating horse-meat steak at Restaurante la Tinera, just off Via Vassa. It was surprisingly tasty and tender, and not fare you find on menus in North America.
I love European history. Tales of conflict and castles from bygone days fascinate me, and Ticino offers a number of historical bonanzas.
Guidotti explains the historical significance of the three UNESCO World Heritage castles that rise above the hillsides in and around the town of Bellinzona.
"In the 14th and 15th centuries, Bellinzona was a thriving and wealthy market city. Under the control of the dukes of Milan, it was the main commercial passage for products going from Germany to Italy, and the dukes made tons of tax money from traders."
The Swiss Germans wanted control of this cash cow, and dramatic battles ensued that would shape the futures of both Italy and Switzerland.
Visiting these few castles can easily whet one's appetite for travel through the rest of Switzerland to unearth the links that connect the Swiss past to present-day Europe.
While time does not allow us to do that on this trip, we find another way to visit most of Switzerland in just a few short hours. It is called Swiss Miniature, a family business that was started in 1959 by the grandfather of current assistant manager Joel Renier.
"At Swiss Miniature you will see scale models of the majority of important castles in Switzerland, in addition to other landmarks and symbols of Swiss history and development," Renier explains proudly, adding all models are scaled to 1:25.
"It started with 12 models back then, and now we have over 120 that are seen by visitors from all over the world, including increasing numbers of tourists from China and India."
While the mountain peaks that hem Lugano in may be accessible only to the fittest climbers, a funicular transports us close to the peak of Mount San Salvatore.
A somewhat arduous but not insurmountable pathway leads up to the Christo Salvatore Church of Lugano. From the roof, a spectacular 360 degree view of the entire region unfolds, making the climb entirely worthwhile.
Each direction captures a unique perspective of the region, from mountain to lake to urban sprawl.
We began this journey with a question. Would there be a distinctive difference between our past Italian experiences and this Swiss canton, the capital of Italian-speaking Switzerland?
The answer was a clear "yes!"
This region may be emblematic of the unique character of Switzerland, with four distinct official languages in relatively defined areas, each seemingly different from the other, yet bound by a cohesiveness that makes the country immensely successful.
It is a place where most residents appear to speak at least three of the four official languages. And even with their Italian background, they convey a strong sense of pride in their own definition of Swiss identity, an integration of Swiss attention to detail and Italian flare.
Ticino is not only a major international tourist attraction but it is the area other Swiss nationals often choose as their holiday destination. This has helped shape Ticino's unique personality, permeated with the characteristics of German and French cantons from throughout the Swiss nation.
Perhaps our guide, Guidotti, summed it up best: "As the southernmost canton of Switzerland, bordering on Italy, Ticino was influenced by Italian language, fashion and architecture for centuries. But today that is all blended in with the kind of Swiss efficiency that is known around the world."
Travel should be about different horizons and broadening experiences. It was with this goal in mind that we decided to open what was for us a new frontier.
The journey did turn out to bring memorable unexpected discoveries and is well worth another exploration.
IF YOU GO
By air you will have to connect via Milan, Zurich or some other European gateway. But the rail system in Switzerland is one of the best in the world, and the Italian rail links to Lugano are very convenient.
Where to stay:
We stayed at the Hotel International au Lac, which was perfect for easy access to both the dining and shopping districts, plus had an excellent view of Lake Lugano.
The Grand Hotel Eden is also on the lake and has had a consistently good reputation for years.
Like so many of the accommodations in Europe, breakfast is most often included.
What to do:
Whether by car or tour boat, be sure to experience the views and restaurants along the roads that follow the lake outside Lugano.
A day in Bellinzona should be an absolute priority. A visit to Swiss Miniature will make you feel like you have seen a nation in a few hours.