Ticino/Venice sampler

This item appears on page 59 of the February 2009 issue.

My wife, Margaret, and I spent a week in the Ticino region of Switzerland and another week in Venice, both stays organized by Untours (Media, PA; 888/868-6871). Untours provides apartment accommodations, transfers and on-site hosts who give advice and an orientation.

Vaporetti and water taxis on Venice’s Grand Canal. Photo: Dear

Our Untours trip, in September ’07, cost $2,445 each. Business-class air from Houston to Zürich and return via Venice cost $2,855 each. In Switzerland, a Swiss Rail pass was included in the price of our Untour. This was valid for trains, buses and lake boats (except Lake Maggiore, which is mostly in Italy).

Our Swiss “landlords,” Urs and Barbara Schmid, met us at the Locarno station. They were wonderful, providing train timetables, assistance and hints for what to see — far more helpful to us than the local Untours hosts, who, after a somewhat disorienting orientation, left us on our own (although they were nominally available to help with directions).

A sight not to be missed is Mt. Generoso, just south of Lugano. It is reached by a cog railway, and the views on a good day, as we had, are spectacular. At the top, one literally can walk into Italy without any border formalities. The border is marked with large stones with an “I” on one side and “CH” on the other. I doubt many people do cross there, however, since the journey down into Italy appeared quite precipitous.

Another adventure was a visit to Robei, a winter ski area where interesting walks could be taken during other seasons. Unfortunately, we weren’t aware that to get there we had to change buses in Bignasco, so our first attempt was aborted when we missed the connecting bus and found they only ran every four hours.

Two days later we were successful in getting to the top of the mountain in Robei, but the weather had changed and we arrived in the middle of a sleet storm. We had lunch at the Albergo Robei with a bottle of merlot before heading back down. Incidentally, in Ticino they produce not only the familiar red merlot wine but a white merlot, a very nice wine I have not seen anywhere else.

On another day we took the train to Domodossola, Italy (our Swiss Pass was good for this destination), a narrow-gauge railroad trip with spectacular views all the way. We continued on to Stresa, where we had lunch before returning via lake boat to Locarno.

Included in our Untours package were first-class tickets on the Cisalpino Express from Domodossola to Venice.

In Venice, our local host, Denny, took us to our apartment, on the second floor of a building that overlooked the Frari Church, where there are paintings by Titian, Tintoretto, Bellini and others. Just around the corner from our apartment, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco (entry fee, €6) had more than 50 Tintorettos, including his gigantic “Crucifixion,” painted in 1565.

Denny’s orientation to Venice was very well thought out and informative. We were given a week’s pass on the vaporetto system, which we used to the maximum. Every day we shopped in the markets, including the famous Rialto markets, and learned that customers are not supposed to handle the fruit and vegetables; only the stall keeper may touch them. We also found a place to refill our wine bottles with good pino grigio for only €2 per liter!

We did the usual tourist things. At 9 a.m., the line to get into St. Mark’s Basilica, which opened at 9:45, was already long.

Denny had strongly advised us to attempt to visit the Itinerari Segreti del Palazzo Ducale (Secret Rooms of the Doges’ Palace). There were three guided tours in English each day; advance booking is essential. We tried to book in person on a Thursday for a tour Friday and were told everything was sold out and to try to phone. Following Denny’s advice, we persisted and finally were directed to another counter, where we got on the first tour for the following Tuesday (€16). Denny had warned us that phone calls were subject to long hold times.

The tour takes you away from the lavishly decorated rooms of the palace to where the daily business of the doge was conducted and also where charges of treason were investigated by means of “persuasion.” Jail cells were located near the interrogation rooms, with the idea that the screams of the victims would persuade others to confess more quickly. The most notorious prisoner held there, Casanova, actually escaped in 1775 after two years’ imprisonment and was never recaptured.

Using our vaporetto passes, we visited the islands of Murano and Burano. Glassmaking is still an art on Murano, but low-cost imitations from China are slowly strangling the industry.

We also managed a visit to the Lido, which was disappointing. It is simply another resort of high-priced hotels.

Untours provided us with a very useful guidebook, “The Rough Guide to Venice and the Veneto” (2007, Rough Guides. ISBN 978-1843538080 — 464 pp., $18).

And before our trip, we read a lighthearted book by Judith Martin (aka Miss Manners), “No Vulgar Hotel — the Desire and Pursuit of Venice” (2007, W.W. Norton. ISBN 978393330601 — 336 pp., $15.95).

I thoroughly recommend Untours.

The Woodlands, TX