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  • Day1224

    Campione d'Italia, Gandria and Lugano

    November 2, 2019 in Italy ⋅ ☁️ 11 °C

    We are in Italy. Well, sort of... Campione d'Italia is an Italian exclave on the shore of Lago di Lugano. This 2.68 square kilometre area of land and water officially belongs to Italy, despite being surrounded completely by the Swiss Canton of Ticino. We were intrigued and felt compelled to visit.

    However, first on the day's itinerary was the pretty village of Gandria, perched on the terraced slope of Lago di Lugano's northern shore, overlooking the lake and mountains opposite. The settlement is the last on a minor road before the Italian border, just a few kilometres further on. Vicky had read good things about it in the guide book and Will had looked ahead and found a car park from where we planned to get out and explore. The closer we got to Italy, the more narrow the roads became and the faster the cars drove. By edging along the steep hillside, often with sheer rock just inches from Martha's wing mirror, we reached the car park only to find our entrance blocked by height barriers. We weren't able to see the village between us and the water because the gradient was so sharp and there were no alternative parking options for a vehicle of Martha's size. Oh well, change of plan. Carrying on, the sat nav was unable to find anywhere to turn and suggested we drive into Italy and 50km around the entire lake to get back to Lugano, just 5km in the opposite direction.

    Spotting a private layby, Will executed as rapid a 5 point turn as one can in a 7m van with limited space for manoeuvre and we were heading back towards Lugano, where we hoped to stay the night and explore. Like with Gandria, Vicky had read enticing words about Lugano and was hoping to wander through a tangle of cobblestone streets leading down to a flowery waterfront promenade. This wasn't to be either. The cramped, car lined roads seemed hectic compared with the rest of Switzerland and 'parking privato' signs were plastered here there and everywhere. The high rises, although colourful, were tainted by air pollution and weren't shown off to their best on this grey day. Having driven through, we realised the city was far larger than we'd expected, but we still wanted to explore, so continued towards the paid camperstop Will had programmed into the sat nav.

    Arriving at the entrance to an unsurfaced single track road there was a laminated A4 sign saying 'no camper'. We've previously come accross disgruntled locals posting deterrents, so decided to risk it and turn into the road in search of the camperstop. 400m and two right angle bends later, we were faced with a locked metal gate and nowhere to turn. Our gamble hadn't paid off. Will managed to reverse up the tree lined corridor and do a 7 point turn by backing into some forgiving shrubs. It was around this point we decided to abandon the plan to visit Lugano, but to try one more town on this lake.

    Crossing over and travelling along the eastern shore, our entry to the Campione d'Italia exclave was signalled by a large, grey and cream striped stone arch, around which the road forked. We initially stopped at a playpark parking area with ticket machines (accepting both francs and euros), but looking on Park4Night, Will found a large waterfront car park that had stopped charging. The view was better, we had more space and it was free, so it was the obvious choice.

    After wolfing a late lunch and calming down from a morning of difficult driving and changed plans, we set out to explore. We got the feeling right away that something wasn't right. Our large, almost empty car park belonged to a towering sandstone casino. Tied onto its wall was a bedsheet with a spray-painted message. There were more hanging from the lakeside railings, with warnings stating 'Campoine is dead' 'SOS'. 50m away the mainstreet overlooking the water was lined with cafés, bars and restaurants, some open with boards advertising meals far cheaper than in Switzerland, others closed. A few people sat at the pavement tables in groups of two or three eaking out their espressos, but the atmosphere was muted. Wandering up past a modern church through deserted streets we were hailed by a guy from the balcony of his high rise apartment. He was fascinated with Will's kilt and wanted to show his daughter. In broken English he tentatively questioned 'tourist?'

    Returning to Martha, Vicky wanted to find out what was going on. The infrastructure here was designed to accommodate many more people than we'd seen, even at this time of year. Good old Wikipedia solved the mystery. Taking advantage of the exclave's exemption from EU VAT and the fact that gambling laws are less strict here than in either Italy or Switzerland, the Italian government opened the Casinò di Campoine more than 100 years ago in 1917. It was the largest in Europe and operated by the village's administration. Income was sufficient to run the entire economy of Campione without the need for taxes.

    Just over a year ago, on 27th July 2018 the casino declared bankruptcy and closed, owing money to local business owners. The whole settlement revolved around this gambling institution; accomodation, eateries, bars, shops, taxis... Wikipedia said residents were worried about it becoming a ghost town and this is exactly what we saw.

    Our feelings on the situation were conflicted. On one hand, neither of us gamble and have issues with the morality of the industry on whose income the whole exclave relied. On the other hand, we felt desperately sad for those whose livelihoods had collapsed and salaries evaporated. The futures of people who had been born, raised and started families of their own in this community, who had been educated, trained and built businesses here, were now looking bleak and uncertain.
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