Setting the scene
Gandria is the last Swiss village on the road to Porlezza and Menaggio (Lake Como). The border with Italy runs across the lake just beyond the Swiss Customs Museum (orange building on the opposite bank). The peaks of the mountains opposite Gandria are already Italian territory, but the small buildings at the base are still Swiss – known as the Cantine di Gandria (cellars of Gandria). Wine, cheese and meat were stored there because of the year-round cool temperatures. This was the origin of the grotti (rustic restaurants), which can still be found along the path to Caprino.
Early history: Celts and Romans
The first lasting human traces on the immediate area around Gandria come from an iron-age people known as the Celts (as of 800 B.C.). A large stone (Sasso della Predescia) carved with mysterious signs, probably used for Celtic religious purposes, is located within hiking distance. Local names may also be lasting reminders. Gandria sits at the base of Mt. Brè, which means “mountain” in Celtic. The name of the Lake of Lugano in Italian, Ceresio, could be derived from the Celtic word keresios, a reference to a god of fertility with the antlers of a deer – the lake’s resemblance to the prongs of an antler can be more easily imagined when viewed from above. Rome conquered this region in 196 B.C. Tombs and artifacts from the neighboring villages of Castagnola and Brè are testimonials to the Roman presence. Present-day Gandria, however, was not yet inhabited...
First settlement and a new beginning
“Gandrio” is first mentioned in archives from the bishop of Como in 1237. At the time, the village was located halfway up Mt. Brè – ruins are still visible today along the trail to the Sasso della Predescia. In the 1300s, a new settlement was established along the lake in the present-day site. Eventually the upper part of the village was abandoned, perhaps due to fire, perhaps due to the advantages of living near the lake. Because Gandria was only accessible by boat and steep trails, locals had to be self-sufficient. In addition to gardening and raising livestock, they benefitted from the lake’s abundant fish.
Olives, silk and smuggling
Until the unusually hard winter of 1709 killed most of the olive trees, Gandria was known for its olive oil. In recent years, olive trees have been replanted and information panels posted along a scenic lakeside trail to Lugano (Sentiero dell’olivo). In 1856, silk production began in Gandria, using leaves from local mulberry trees to feed the silkworms. The former silk factory (Filanda), a long, yellow building, can best be seen by boat. Because of the difficult-to-control border, the area around Gandria became infamous for smuggling. Cigarettes, meat and alcohol were especially profitable due to high Swiss customs duties. (A notable item at the Swiss Customs Museum is a confiscated “submarine” used to smuggle salami). A new era for Gandria began in the year 1935, when tunnels and a new road connected the village to Lugano and Italy.
Church of San Vigilio
The church was built in the late medieval period and became a parish with canonical rights in 1463. The oldest part is the gray, unfinished wall facing the lake, adorned with memorials from well-known local families. The baroque facades were completed around 1877. Behind the altar of the church is a large oil painting by Giovanni and Giuseppe Torricelli that shows the martyrdom of Saint Vigilio, a bishop of Trento (Italy), who was stoned to death by pagan shepherds. The connection with Gandria comes from local artisans who worked on the construction of the cathedral in Trento. The Torricelli brothers also painted scenes in the house of local architects and artists Vigilio and Pietro Rabaglio, who achieved fame by designing the Bourbon royal palace in Segovia, Spain. In October, there is a traditional procession in Gandria with the statue of the Virgin Mary. The area around the church is decorated with flowers, pennants fly from the bell tower and a band plays festive music. Male members of the congregation carry the (heavy) statue through the village – no easy task with the many steps.
Casa Comunale The yellow building across the parking lot from the church is the town hall (Casa Comunale), which features Gandria’s coat of arms. The bull (“Tor” in local dialect) on the upper right represents the inhabitants’ reputation for strength and determination. Villagers had to haul drinking water in buckets from the lake for themselves and their animals. In 1600, records show that Gandria had more than 50 cows, many of which were loaded onto boats and rowed to grazing grounds on the other side of the lake. Below the coat of arms is an original stone from a local olive press. Until 1979, the children of Gandria attended school in this building – and until 1959, one teacher taught all age groups.
An international village
Today, Gandria is a mix of tradition and modernity. Many of the 200 inhabitants who live here year round are from families that go back for many generations. Others have arrived from various cantons of Switzerland as well as countries as diverse as Colombia, Germany, Haiti, Italy, Nicaragua, Palestine and the United States. Most people work in the nearby financial center of Lugano, although there is a tradition of architects, musicians, painters, ceramic makers and other artists in the village. Long an independent municipality, Gandria became a part of greater Lugano in 2004. Local hospitality Gandria has long been known for its hospitality. Twice a year there are open-air village festivals, the “Festa di Gnocc” (gnocchi) in August and Carnival in February (“Carnevaa di Tor”), open to everyone. Local mandolin players, who have a long tradition in Gandria, also perform several times a year. Restaurants in Gandria offer regional dishes, such as coniglio (rabbit) and capretto (goat) with polenta (creamy cornmeal), which goes well with red and white merlot wines from the canton of Ticino.