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Alfa Romeo Swiss Grand Tour: Among the Secrets of Malcantone

In a region of empty roads winding through the forests, the pleasure of driving blends with the discovery of some charming and, at times, mysterious places. We stumbled upon them at the wheel of a 1969 Junior Zagato

Words Alessandro Giudice

Photography Alessandro Barteletti

Video Andrea Ruggeri

Swiss Grand Tour is a project to discover itineraries driving classic Alfa Romeo cars, in partnership with Astara, the distributor and importer of the Brand in Switzerland.




from Ponte Tresa to Figino


47 km

Travel time

1h 15min

Driving pleasure




This is the only one of the 26 Swiss cantons to have Italian as its only official language. This is why, imagining an itinerary through Ticino, we decided to start from its south-western border with Italy, following the river Tresa, an emissary of Lake Lugano in the municipality of Ponte Tresa which then flows into Lake Maggiore. Ponte Tresa is not only a major border crossing, it is also a lakeside town with beaches and tourist amenities that, in the warmer season, offer visitors a full range of bathing facilities and opportunities. A couple of miles from the town, heading towards Lugano, you reach the municipality of Caslano, a charming and colourful tourism and cultural outpost looking over the water with its characteristic peninsula. Here you can not only surf, swim and sail: there are also some interesting trekking routes on and around Mount Sassalto, a protected natural oasis with a variety of plant species, and then take a tasty break at the Museum & Chocolate Experience Alprose, or a cultural diversion at the Fishing Museum.

[click to watch the video]

Having explored the area, we start our itinerary from Ponte Tresa, taking Via Cantonale along the right bank of the river Tresa. In contrast to the rather impervious Italian bank, as soon as you leave the town the Ticino coast of the river opens into a large, sun-kissed plane criss-crossed by straight roads linking farms, small businesses and charming villages typical of the border areas, where the lasting presence of two close yet different cultures has created a curious mix of habits and traditions. With the support of Reto Sormani, Alfa Romeo collector and expert of the local area, we wanted the route through this part of Ticino to be marked by driving pleasure, on exhilarating yet possibly quiet roads. A pleasure that was crowned by the agility and power of the car Reto put at our disposal: a bright red 1969 Alfa Romeo Junior Zagato 1300, for the occasion assisted by a really special support car, the 520 HP Giulia Quadrifoglio.

The first leg of the tour runs through Sessa, recognisable even from a distance by the size of the bell tower of the San Martino Church, dating back to 1200 and built by the local feudal family Sessa, which took on its current Baroque style in the 15th century. This pretty town has a characteristic urban structure, which has maintained its appeal as an ancient hamlet. Here we also find the Palazzo del Tribunale (Court Building), because, we should remember, Sessa was to all extents and purposes the capital of Malcantone, the region connecting Milan to Lugano and then to Northern Europe. There are several theories behind the name. One states that the strategic and disputed border region was inhabited by both traders and travellers and bandits and criminals, who robbed the wayfarers. Another states that it comes from the rather bad-tempered character of its inhabitants, rough mountain folk: both are sufficient reasons for adding the prefix “mal” (“bad”) to the term “cantone”.

Departing from Sessa, the first part of the route runs through the chestnut woods covering the hills. The route runs uphill along wide, well-marked and enjoyable winding roads, where the GT Junior Zagato began to offer all the thrills it is capable of. By one of the bends you will see a minecart, telling of the mining tradition that made Malcantone one of the richest mining regions not only in Switzerland but in the whole of Europe.

The minecart is but a clue to the location of the gold mine (along with the local silver mine) which lies a few miles ahead in Costa di Sessa. Following the signs, you will reach the entrance of the mining tunnel, recovered in the last decade and offering interesting guided tours, as well as the first leg of the Mining Park Trail, along which trekking enthusiasts (frequent visitors to Malcantone) can reach other sites telling of the special and somewhat unexpected history and economy of the Confederacy.

Like the story of Domenico Trezzini, architect and town planner born in Astano, a village with 300 inhabitants lying three kilometres from Sessa, who studied in Rome and in 1703 was called by the Tzar Peter the Great to help design St Petersburg, the new capital of the Russian Empire. Trezzini, to whom an impressive statue was erected in the Russian city, designed the Summer Palace, the Peter and Paul Fortress and Cathedral, curiously the saints after whom the Baroque parish church in Astano, dating back to 1636, is also named. The route then continues on to Novaggio from where, running along the southern face of Mount Lema, reaches Miglieglia. In addition to the modern cable car that leads to the top of the mountain, here you can also visit the beautiful Romanic Church of Santo Stefano al Colle, inside decorated with brightly coloured late-Gothic frescoes: don’t miss this tiny gem.

From here on the road becomes quite spectacular, with its harmoniously winding bends and scenic views that appear out of the blue. In Breno, the main town in Upper Malcantone, the beautiful blue and white Casa Cantonale welcomes visitors. Wander round its narrow streets, stop for a tasty meal in one of its “trattorie” and then visit the monumental Church of San Lorenzo, built in the 13th century, renovated two centuries later, its neoclassical façade added in 1912.

And talking of religious buildings, the view from the Church of Santa Maria Juvenia, a beautiful complex dating back to the 9th century next to the Iseo cemetery, near Vernate, is quite spectacular. The church can be reached along a short diversion from the route, offering breathtaking view of Lake Lugano and beyond.

And here in Vernate we begin to approach the lake. Descending into the valley, on a right-hand bend, take the road to the left towards Bioggio, an alternative scenic route that runs half-way along the hillside. Driving through almost uninhabited ancient hamlets, you will enjoy the genuine simplicity of mountain life, while the architecture of the houses and commercial activities dotted along the road clearly indicate that you are approaching more sophisticated places.

Returning to the rhythms of nearby Lugano, marked by the bridge over the A2 motorway leading to the Gotthard Pass, you will drive through Breganzona, Muzzano and then Risciano, towards Agno as far as the left-hand turn towards Figino. This picturesque lakeside town is the point of arrival for this unusual yet appealing itinerary, through a Ticino in which Lugano is the main place of attraction and yet has some unexpectedly wild delights to be discovered amongst the chestnut-covered hills.



The "Junior Z"

I chose the Junior Z for its classic mechanics, with a four-cylinder, twin-cam engine, housed in a unique body. For me, who has always loved Alfa Romeo sedans, it was an extraordinary choice that added some zest to my collection, as well as an investment in a model produced in limited numbers. From a dynamic perspective, I appreciate its exceptional road-holding, thanks to a combination of lightness and power that make it agile and easily manageable. The 90 hp engine, which may not seem like much on paper, performs excellently on a weight that doesn't exceed 1000 kg. It's very responsive to the load, and it's clear that you feel the difference when you have a passenger. However, it's a very enjoyable car and surprisingly fast: on the track, I've reached 180 km/h effortlessly. Not bad for a fifty-year-old car of only 1.3 litres.

The Modern Alfas

As an ardent Alfista, it's enough for me to get behind the wheel of a modern Alfa to find many things that make it unique and recognizable. I recently spoke with someone from the Centro Stile, and I was struck by the fact that even today, those who work at Alfa Romeo put their heart and passion into it. I have a Giulia that I use every day and a Stelvio Quadrifoglio: then I get behind the wheel of a 2004 GT 3.2 with a manual gearbox, and my heart opens up. Perhaps I am made for slightly old-fashioned, rough Alfa Romeos.


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