Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2009/4 posted by hidden europe on

Campione is an extraordinary spot - a geopolitical oddity of the first order. The village is an exclave of Italy within the Ticino region of southern Switzerland. The conundrum that is Campione'd Italia is nicely captured in a set of old Campione d'Italia postage stamps that we purchased from a philatelic dealer in nearby Lugano.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

Life in the village of Campione d'Italia, a small place on the east side of Lake Lugano, is very quiet this time of year. It will be a few weeks yet until the boat services across the lake start regularly running again. So meanwhile the two thousand inhabitants of sleepy Campione make do with an hourly bus service to Lugano instead of the boat.

Campione is an extraordinary spot - a geopolitical oddity of the first order. The village is an exclave of Italy within the Ticino region of southern Switzerland. It is four years since we were last in Campione, but no doubt life ticks over there today much as we encountered it. It is a place where folk get up late and take things slowly. The community uses the snail as a recurrent symbol of its identity. It features on the municipal coat of arms and appears as an inlaid motif in the design of pavements around the village.

But a chatty barman in a local café was quick to remind us that the snail is misleading, and no reflection at all on Campione's laid-back approach to world affairs. Evidently, it recalls that this was once a village of shepherds who split their lives between their lakeside homes and the high mountain pastures to the east, regular carrying all their belongings on their backs as they followed their animals on the rough Alpine trails.

Gambling has long since eclipsed livestock management as Campione's principal industry. The casino was opened over seventy years ago, and has through time become the mainstay of Campione life. Gaming starts mid-afternoon every day and runs through to the early hours of the following morning.

Like many exclave communities, Campione defies our normal assumptions about nationhood and identity. The local police look just like regular Italian carabinieri, but curiously the community's police cars all have Swiss registration plates. The little pension where we stayed used a Swiss prefix for its telephone number and displayed prices in Swiss francs rather than the euro used elsewhere in Italy.

Over several days we travelled in and out of Campione by bus, boat and on foot. Never once were we asked to show our passports or any other means of identification. Switzerland is of course just in the process of joining Schengen and document checks on the Swiss-Italian border have all but disappeared. But even in the pre-Schengen times when we visited Campione, the community's residents and visitors just crossed the border at will.

The conundrum that is Campione'd Italia is nicely captured in a set of old Campione d'Italia postage stamps that we purchased from a philatelic dealer in nearby Lugano. Although bearing the emblem Poste Italiane, the stamps were denominated in Swiss francs. There are many exclaves like Campione around Europe - little fragments of land that are curiously disconnected from their mother country. Islands of foreign sovereignty within another country. Four years ago we published an article in hidden europe on these oddball places. You can read the full text online on our website or download the article as a pdf file. The latter includes an image of one of those Campione d'Italia stamps. Just follow this link.

Have a good week.

Nicky and Susanne
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.