When Cat and I were in Lugano this spring, I wanted to go up to the top of one of the mountains surrounding the lovely lake for the stunning views. Sadly, we did not have time then (or, more importantly, not warm enough clothes). When chance brought me to the same area a couple of months later, I made that a priority. Up, up, up and away to a mountain top. And not just any mountain, but Monte San Giorgio.

Fossils! 240 million years old!

What is so special about Monte San Giorgio, you wonder? Why, it is a world heritage site, this mountain. For reasons millions of years old. An abundance of very well-preserved fossils from the Triassic Era have been found here. More than 10,000 varieties.

The fossils include flora and fauna: plants, insects and reptiles, some of them 6 metres long. And here is the particularly interesting bit: they are not just land fossils, but marine fossils, too!

Marine fossils on a mountain, 1,097 metres above sea level! Back in the day, i.e. 240 million years ago, this was a lagoon. Looking down on the panorama of Lake Lugano, way way down there, that will challenge the imagination: tropical climate and the sea, just outside a reef here, with all sorts of life. Fish, corals, crustaceans – they all lived here. And died here, left in peace for millions of years in muddy sediments at the bottom of the lagoon, until one day in 1863, when the director of the Natural History Museum in Milan simply stumbled upon fossils, and recognised them for that they were.

Museo dei fossili del Monte San Giorgio

So where can you see these long dead creatures? In a museum, that’s where. Cared for and looked after. Just as it should be.

On the slope of the mountain, in the little village Meride, is Monte San Giorgio Fossil Museum. I read a review saying that it is a tiny, one-room affair, free of charge and free of staff. Also, pretty much free of other visitors; it is the kind of place where you wander about on your own.

Well, I should have taken a closer look at the date of that review, because things have certainly changed. Expecting a charmingly quirky repository fo fossils, I instead find a very contemporary, professional set-up. No longer free of charge, but you will get your money’s worth in this well-presented museum, home of excellent specimens from long before even the dinosaurs roamed the earth.

You can walk across borders

Swiss and Italian scientists cooperate in their study of this unique plethora of fossils, and over in Italy, in the town of Besano, is another fossil museum. If you would like to compare the two, you can walk between the two villages, in gorgeous nature and past fossil discovery sites. And, you get to walk across an international border; that’s always fun.

I meant to do that. Instead, I got lost in Meride. Well, not lost lost, that’s probably not possible, it’s that small. But lost in the narrow streets and festivities. I simply spent the rest of the time I had set aside for Monte San Giorgio exploring this little village and chatting with folks.

Meride is normally a quiet sort of place, I hear. Some even say it’s a ghost town. Well, not on this lovely June day. There is a  festival on. Festival of weeds, no less. Sagra delle erbacce. My luck strikes again. I adore unexpected happenings.

The festival means the village is pleasantly noisy and full of life. Happy folks out and about, and a lively concert going on in the tiny square.

Main square Meride

Festival of Weed

No, not that kind of weed. This Festival of Weed – Sagra delle erbacce Meride – is about biodiversity, about humans interacting sustainably with the environment, about quality of life, respecting differences and supporting each other in the local community.

Welcome to Meride

Meride is ancient, first mentioned ca. 1,170 years ago. It is of course a haven for palaeontologists and geologists. About 350 people live in the village, and the majority speak Italian, as Meride is in Ticino, the only entirely Italian-speaking canton in Switzerland.

Other than the museum, Meride makes for a nice ramble. I’m reminded of the film Chocolat. Imagine Lansquenet-sous-Tannes set in the foothills of the Swiss Alps. That’s Meride. I can easily see Vianne on the square here or in the shop there, trying to convince Roux that this, just this piece of chocolate, is his favourite.

There are a few restaurants in town, all a bit on the pricey side – it is Switzerland, after all – but they get rave reviews. I didn’t try any of them, as the festival had its own offerings.

Mobile pasta

I drove into the village, just couldn’t help myself, but please don’t follow my lead. The very narrow roads were not made for modern cars, or any cars really. In fact, it would have been challenging on a quiet (even ghostly) day, but 10 times more with the festival on. I will admit to a few illegal turns to get out of the village. Needs must.

If you arrive by car, I suggest you use the car park at the entrance of town, and walk up the hill past the vineyards. (Yes, Switzerland is a wine-producing country.)

Bianco del San Giorgio

Meride practicals

  • Meride is a 1-hr drive from Milan – or a 30-minute drive from Lugano (all curves and turns and amazing views). There is also a bus between the two (about 1 hour), or if you are ambitious, you could even walk the distance; Lugano to Meride should take about 5 hours, most of it along the stunning lake.
  • Alternatively, you can use a combination of ferry, funicular and your feet: take one of the boats the ply Lake Lugano and get off at Brusino at the foot of Monte San Giorgio (about 45 minutes). From Brusino, a funicular will take you up to Serpiano in just a few minutes (runs only in summer season, and Wed – Sun only). From there you can walk to Meride, either along a main road through the forest (about 1h15min) – or if you’re up for it, there are several longer trails between the two, including the Monte San Giorgio loop.
  • If you come by car, there is a car park at the entrance to the village, just below the vineyards.
  • Do visit Museo dei fossili del Monte San Giorgio. Info on current prices and opening hours are here.
  • Times and price info for The Funivia Brusino/Serpiano (funicular/cable car) are here.
  • Accommodations in Meride include the hotel Locanda San Silvestro, La Crisalide B&B, and Monte San Giorgio Camping, where you can rent a cabin.

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Monte San Giorgio is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world.