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It may not be Italy, but romance fills the air in sunny, lake-side Lugano

SEEING Lugano for the first time hits you like a Matisse painting. The colors are so intense they take your breath away. Being familiar with the delicately shaded wildflowers that grace Alpine slopes, I wasn't prepared for the riot of roses, camellias, or the big-as-a-basketball magnolia grandiflora, all set against a backdrop of velvet-green mountains and the bright blue Lake Lugano. As our guide pointed out on a recent trip, ``Lugano has all the gaiety, creativity, and romance of Italy, encased in a Swiss precision watch.'' Not a bad description, but it doesn't do justice to this startling beauty, nor to the people's exceptional hospitality.

Walk along the lakefront promenade of this steeply terraced, crescent-shaped city among stately palm trees. More than a dozen pieces of pleasing modern sculpture, topped by climbing children, dot the grassy park area. Surprisingly, there's also a Roman temple looking a bit out of place on the promenade, with a bust of ``Giorgio'' Washington inside.

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Italian it most certainly is, in language, cuisine, and decidedly in temperament. Amazing how temperature and temperament are interrelated; Lugano, like Italy, is on the sunny, lee side of the Alps, where people and climate are both tourist-friendly.

Although Lugano appears laid back, especially at lunchtime and after work, when the whole town takes to sidewalk-caf'e sitting, it is actually a bustling cultural and financial center. Lugano is Switzerland's third-largest banking center; it's just that banks here have little wrought-iron balconies with pots of flowers on them.

Art lovers will feel they've really found paradise when they visit the Villa Favorita, about 15 minutes by bus from downtown Lugano. This magnificent estate, owned by steel tycoon Hans Thyssen-Bornemizsa, is said to contain the second most valuable private art collection in the world (after Queen Elizabeth's). The baron's father built a museum on the grounds of his 17th-century villa to house his premier works of Old Masters. The present baron has expanded the collections to include modern painting, furniture, jewelry, and ceramics.

Lugano, a Roman Catholic stronghold, has many magnificent churches (and a wonderful old synagogue, too). If you only see one, make it the Church of Santa Maria degli Angioli, with its remarkably preserved frescoes of Bernardino Luini, a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci. One of the most renowned frescoes in Europe is his vibrant ``Crucifixion,'' which covers an entire wall.

This church is just steps away from the promenade and at the edge of the pedestrian area of the ``old town.'' A good thing no cars are allowed in this charming network of piazzas and arcades - it's meant for strolling and savoring. Lugano's shopping area is full of dazzling jewelry stores, designer boutiques, and pastry and chocolate shops that defy you to walk on by.

Entering the first of a series of piazzas, you'll find two-foot-long salamis winging overhead and table upon table of just-picked produce. The piazzas, along with the lake promenade, are the soul of the city.

We were fortunate enough to arrive during a traditional jazz marathon and, to our utter frustration, found that six different groups were performing simultaneously in various piazzas - all for free!

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Lugano has to be experienced on many levels, literally. There are two spectacular mountain peaks from which to view the city and its lovely lake. Ascend Mt. San Salvatore by funicular to see the charming villages that dot the shores of Lake Lugano. You'll also get a glimpse of Lake Maggiore. At the other end of the crescent is Monte Bre, a favorite starting point for walks along mountain trails.

One can also view Lugano from the water. Small rental boats are available, but ferries are a wonderful way to check in at many of the not-to-be-missed sites along the water. Among them is Campione, a picturesque town belonging to Italy, but virtually surrounded by Switzerland. This paradoxical arrangement has to do with the fact that Campione has a full-fledged casino (gambling is very limited in Switzerland). We realized what a jet-set mecca we had found when we saw that Frank Sinatra was to be the next casino entertainer.

The fishing village of Gandria is truly a cliffhanger. Fortunately, the ferry will take you there, because cars cannot navigate those tiny, vertical streets. Morcote is another delightful destination, noted for its arcades, under which the whole town seems to be selling the well-loved native pottery. Morcote is also famous for the Madonna del Sasso Church, with its magnificent 16th-century frescoes.

In the village of Melide, less than half an hour from Lugano by bus or train, and just a bit longer by ferry, you can stroll through all of Switzerland - laid out in minute detail at Swissminiatur, a wonderful amusement park. You'll see toy cows grazing in mountain meadows, storied castles, and such other famous Swiss sights as the stately capital buildings of Bern, all on a scale of 1:25. Much of this unique world is automated, including tiny cable cars and cogwheel trains traversing Alpine peaks. When the lights come on at dusk it's truly magical.

A bit farther away, but easily visited in a day, are the sophisticated resorts of Locarno and Ascona on Lake Maggiore. We learned that visitors are so intent on seeing and being seen in the sidewalk caf'es of Ascona that management will provide fur lap robes to match your mink if winter days are nippy.

Then back to your spanking clean (after all, they are Swiss) hotel or pensione; choice and price vary widely, and the Lugano Tourist Office is guaranteed to steer you right - and in English.

Dining is a very serious matter in Lugano, whether in the elegant restaurants along the lake or in ``grottoes,'' where you'll find the city's adult population, often dining on Lasagna Verdi and other northern Italian specialties. The teens of the town have adopted Burger King, and what a jarring note to see that on a historic piazza. That's the only fault we found with Lugano!

Would I hurry back to Lugano, with so much of the world still to see? Absolutely - I'm in love with this town!

If you go

Lugano is easily reached by any means of transport you choose. Switzerland's internal airline, Crossair, connects with international Swissair flights in Zurich or Geneva. Since Lugano is close to the Italian border, many visitors prefer to fly into Milan and then take a train or coach for an hour's drive. For further information, contact the Swiss National Tourist Office at 608 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10020; (212) 757-5944.

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