Monte San Giorgio and the Fossil museum – A sea of memories

If you think fossils are just stones, then I’m afraid you have made a huge mistake. Fossils are books which tell us what happened millions of years ago. I guess through nothing else could people know what happened such  long time ago. Thanks to all the geologists and paleontologist who bring the past to the present. Without them, there wouldn’t even be memories.

My this trip was intended to discover and explore Monte San Giorgio and the fossils it was famous for. I have never studied paleontology or geology and probably like the most of you, I regarded fossils as stones with the dead body of ancient animals. As part of my exploration of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Switzerland, I learnt that fossils are also story-tellers, but unfortunately they speak a specific language which only the paleontologists could understand. In Monte San Giorgio and the Fossil museum in Meride, these paleontologists kindly interpret what they’ve learnt from the “books” to us, the non-experts.

My trip this time was divided into two parts, hiking in Monte San Giorgio and visiting the Fossil museum in Meride.  Of course, if you are confident you can take the Geo-paleonological path in Monte San Giorgio. It is a round trip starting and ending in Meride and it takes 4 hours 15 mins in total. I have to say the trip might not be as smooth as you expect and I would say the hiking difficulty level is medium. I wanted to save some energy for the museum so I chose another route which included only 1.5 hours of hiking. Of course, I could not see as much as taking the whole Geo-paleonological but for this time, the museum is my focus.

The route that I took this time was Lugano (by bus or boat) -> Brusino Arsizio, Funivia (cable car) -> Serpiano FBS (hiking) -> Meride (bus+train) -> Lugano. You only need the Arcobaleno day ticket for zones 100, 110, 140 and 141. Next I’ll focus on the 3 main parts, namely, funicular cable car from Brusino Arsizio to Serpiano, the hiking on Monte San Giorgio and the fossil museum in Meride.

1. Cable Car from Brusino Arsizio to Serpiano

Monte San Giorgio is a pyramid-shaped wooded mountain, with its peak rising 1100 meters in southern Tichino. This mountain is surrounded by two branches of the lake of Lugano and includes the towns of Meride, Tremona, Arzo, Besazio, Riva San Vitale and Brusino Arsizio in Switzerland and the towns of Porto Ceresio, Saltrio and Viaggù in Italy.

From Brusino Arsizio, within several minutes (around 4 mins), you can reach Serpiano station by cable car and from there, you can start your excursion in the mountain San Giorgio. The cable car was built in 1958 and renovated in 1997 with new cabins. The distance betwenn the two stations is 934m and the difference in height is 367m. Do keep in mind that the cable car is only open in summer season from Wednesday to Sunday (05.04-29.10.2017) and it operates basically every half an hour (except the first ascent at 9:15 and last at 17:45, otherwise it goes up at 9:30, 10:00, 10:30 etc.) 

The price for one adult one way is 8 CHF (6 CHF with GA or half-price card) and for round way is 14 CHF (10 CHF with GA or half-price card). I wanted to hike down to the town where the fossil museum is located so I only bought a one way ticket.

Once you arrived at the top funicular station you can see a restaurant, and if you wanna charge yourself with enough energy before your adventure starts, the terrace is an ideal place to go with a wonderful view over lake Lugano and the towns.

2. Hiking on Monte San Giorgio

Monte San Giorgio is located in the southern Alps, in canton Tichino and regions of Monte Pravello and Monte Orsa in the province of Varese (Italy). it reaches a maximum elevation of 1097m on Swiss territory.

Once I arrived at the top station and upon seeing the yellow signpost, I knew my adventure was gonna start. From several panorama viewpoints, one can see unforgettable landscape of the region. An excursion, shaded by the thick forest, provides a perfect opportunity to admire the lakes, mountains, cities, villages, Swiss and Italian. However, I have to emphasize that these viewpoints are not yet the highlight of Monte San Giorgio.

According to the legend, the island of Atlantis sank into the sea, while Monte San Giorgio is right the opposite. This green pyramid rose from the waters of the lagoon that formed the Tethys Sea. A place telling us stories throughout the fossils uncovered by the Swiss and Italian paleontologists. Monte San Giorgio is called the living legend of a historical masterpiece with fossils and regarded as one of the most important fossil deposits in the world, thus inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003 for the Swiss side and in 2010 for the Italian side.

The most popular, interesting and educational route is of course the Geo-Paleontological path, which is 12.6 km long and it usually takes 4 hours 15 mins to finish this round tour. This path is a round way path so you can start anywhere and finish at the same place after more than 4 hours. The highlight of the path is that it’s rich in illustration panels (12 panels in total). For example, panel No.9 is located in front of a mining cave, where at the beginning of 1900s, Bituminous schist was extracted and transported to Meride to obtain oil and ointment used for therapeutic purposes. Bernhard Peyer and his assistants were the first ones to discover that Monte San Giorgio is also rich in fossils. What a coincidence!

Since then, paleontologists have been bringing full animal skeletons of such great importance to light and Monte San Giorgio has become the “Monte dei sauri” (Dinosaur mountain). If you walk a little bit further you will see another important research site, where Peyer discovered a large reptile. As I’ve shown before, panel No. 7 is about “the mountain as a reservoir”, panel No. 8 is about “a mine of Barite and Fluorite”, panel No. 11 is about “the Saurolo factory” and panel No. 12 is about “a small valley with big treasures”.

Unfortunately I didn’t take a full path so I didn’t see all the information panels. However, I have to remind you that if you’re not fit or not prepared for hiking, taking this path for more than 4 hours could be rather difficult. Some sections of the path are not really even or smooth and you need to be able to climb a bit. Some sections are stone roads and some are a bit damp. There are also quite some insects considering it’s the forest after all, so if you are sensitive to insects, I suggest you apply some bug cream in advance.

It is very important to follow the signposts in the forest, as I show below.

As you can see, there are two routes you can choose to go to Meride, because it’s a round path. If you wanna go to the summit of Monte San Giorgio, you’ll have a take a longer route to reach Meride. If you don’t mind skipping hiking to the summit, I suggest that going to Serpiano view point is also a good choice. You can also save at least an hour to visit the museum. Anyway, I made the choice to go to Serpiano panorama view point and then went directly to Meride. If you feel tires you can have some drink or meal at the Serpiano hotel, in which a panorama terrace is located.

I would say the signs are rather clear and accurate so if you follow the arrows you won’t easily get lost. As you can see below, always follow the hiking trail and the Geo-Paleontology purple and you will arrive at Meride successfully. (You need to follow the arrows quite accurately because sometime there might be more than one path and for example, I went to the mountain biking path by accident. Fortunately I returned to the hiking trail shortly…)

Once you’re approaching Meride, you will notice in distance the old factory chimney where the bituminous schist was transported and transformed into medical oil and ointment. The factory started its production in 1910 and closed in 1950.

Rich in fossils, Monte San Giorgio is regarded as the best fossil record of marine life from the triassic period. Hiking in this mountains and learning about its history, stories and treasures is really something worth experiencing at least once in one’s lifetime. Once you enter this village, the fossil museum won’t be difficult to find.

3. Museum of fossils from Monte San Giorgio, Meride

Designed by Tichino architect Mario Botta, Museum of fossils from Monte San Giorgio, Meride, is undoubtedly the highlight and most educational part of my visit to Tichino this time. Though I had taken a stroll in the forest of the mountain, I wasn’t lucky enough to discover any fossils on my way. Recently renovated, some of the vital archaeological findings are exhibited in this museum. What I have to mention is that the inside of the museum has a totally different style as of the village. The village still seems ancient but the museum is well equipped with multimedia audio guides, touch screens with animations about evolution of reptiles, fish and how this area changed from sea to mountain. I can promise you entering the museum will make you feel you are entering from the past to the present.

Opening hours:

09:00-17:00 (except Mondays, 25th December and 1st January)

Ticket price:

Adult: 12 CHF.

Children up to 6 years old: Free. From 6-16 years old: 6 CHF.

Students, AHV/IV-card: 8 CHF.

Audio guide:

3 CHF. (Or you can borrow a book at the reception desk about the fossils at exhibition.)

Program of conferences and guided tours upon request. You can even go and visit with a trained guide not only inside the museum but also outside the museum to the sites.

What I like about this museum is that it is meant for the general public. Multimedia technologies allow non-experts to enter the complex world of triassic. With the audio guide or the the book, you will see animal and plant fossils with description and explanation based on current knowledge. On the second floor, through 3-D models and graphic reconstitution you can also experience the local marine environment 24 million years ago, a lagoon populated by plants and animals now extinct as well as how the animals became fossils.

Around 24 million years ago, this region wasn’t like today, with mountains and lakes, but a shallow ocean floor, small islands, sand banks, forming a lagoon. Till today, 20000 fossils have been extracted, including 25 species of reptiles, 50 species of fish and over 100 invertebrates. Due to this reason, paleontological heritage of this region is emphasized by the UNESCO. This region is especially renowned for the variety (diverse marine life such as reptiles, fish, bivalves, ammonites, echinoderms and crustaceans. Because the lagoon was near land, the fossils also include land-based reptiles, insects and plants) and its exceptional state of preservation (completeness and detailed preservation). You are welcome to explore a lost world of over 200 million years ago. 

Another vital feature which makes Monte San Giorgio so important is that it contains organisms from the 5 main levels of fossils of the triassic period. Other deposits usually present a solo level attributed to a specific moment in geological history. However, Monte San Giorgio uncovered at least 5 different levels of fossils. It has great value for the paleontologists to research the determined group of organisms in the same environment and its evolution over millions of years.

The museum is made up of 3 floors. The first floor exhibits the fossils from the Besano Formation, thus the most ancient fossils in the museum. The second floor exhibits fossils from the Meride Formation  and the third floor exhibits fossils and rocks from the jurassic period from the neighboring marble cave of Arzo, 50-60million years before the fossils exhibited on the first two floors. On the third floor there’s a room where you can choose to watch various documentaries or video chips of different themes. One of them shows the beginning of the excavations in the middle of the 19th century.

As the UNESCO comments:

The long history of study of the property and the disciplined management of the resource have created a well documented and catalogued body of specimens of exceptional quality, and are the basis for a rich associated geological literature. As a result, Monte San Giorgio provides the principal point of reference, relevant to future discoveries of marine Triassic remains throughout the world.

and I believe the Museum of fossils from Monte San Giorgio, Meride has achieved

An active ongoing programme of communication and interpretation for visitors to the property is required to ensure the fullest appreciation of the Outstanding Universal Value of Monte San Giorgio.

required by the UNESCO.

Now, I’ll show you some fossils that interested me in the museum.

I have to say the woman at the reception desk was really warm-hearted and helpful. First, she took out the oil shale and used another shale to chafe it and let me smell it. Afterwards she took out the ointment which contains the valuable pharmaceutical product “Saurolo” and let me smell it again. By doing this experiment she explained to me that mining excavations of oil shale resulted in the discovery of fossils. She also explained clearly what’s on each floor and what might be of special interest or what is new such as the video clips, documentaries and the 3-D animation. In my opinion, the museum is not huge so spending 1.5-2 hours here seems reasonable, and you can either start from the 1st to the 3rd floor or the other way around. The museum is quite well-orginised so as long as you follow the floor plan you don’t need to worry about missing something or getting lost.

Below is the section through an ammonite from the Broccatello of Arzo with a diameter of 10 cm. The chambers of the shell are cemented by calcite crystals.

The picture and products below tell the connection between mining the bituminous mudstones and the discovery of the fossils.

The formation of fossils are exemplified by an ammonoid of the Besano Formation.

Being a representative of the ammonoids, Ticinites is an extinct distant relative of modern squids and Nautilus. After death the carcass in its calcareous shell sank to the sea floor and was embedded in fine mud, where the bacteria decomposed the soft parts. Typically only the front part of the convoluted calcareous shell, the living chamber, was subsequently filled with mud. The chambered part of the shell, originally filled with liquid and gas, remained empty. After lithification of the mud into dolomite rock, the partially filled calcareous shell was dissolved. Thus the living chamber of the ammonoid is commonly preserved as an internal cast, but the chambered phragmocone as a mould.

This only 5 cm long skeleton of a Neusticosaurus payer is the second find of an embryo from the Cava superior beds of Acqua del Ghiffo, 1999.

A 20 cm long twig of Elatociadus casssinae, a coniferous species from the Cassina beds, described for the first time in 2010.

Neck and head of a young Tanystropheus longobardicus from the Cassina beds that was probably bitten off.

An almost complete skeleton of Macrocnemus bassanii of about 80 cm in length from the middle Besano Formation of the Tre Fontane mine, 1938.

Tanystropheus longobardicus is characterized by a neck that’s longer than the rest of its body and is one of the most interesting fossils of Monte San Giorgio. Fossil stomach connects show that they haunted fish and squid. This peculiar reptile was first found in Germany, then in Switzerland and in South China, confirming that it was indeed a widespread animal.

This is a unique, approximately 90 cm long skeleton of Clarazia schinzi from the middle Besano Formation at the Val Porina mine. The relatively short jaws with strong, conical to hemispherical teeth are used to crack shells, crustaceans and other hard-shelled creatures. Discovered in 1933, the complete skeleton is the world’s only find so far.

This is the skull of Cyamodus hildegardis with powerful crushing teeth. The placodonts, with their typical plate-like teeth, lived in the coastal areas of the middle and late Triassic Tethys, where they haunted their hard-shelled prey. So far, two species as several nearly complete skeletons have been found in the Besano Formation of Monte San Giorgio.

Pholidopleurus ticinensis, a 10 cm long bony fish from the middle Besano Formation of the Val Porina mine.

The middle and upper part of Besano Formation bear several dolomite beds with many remains of washed-in terrestrial plants. These are mainly branches, twigs and cones of ancestral conifers of the genus Voltzia. Plant tissues were coalified by diagenesis.

Compared with the quite common ammonoids, remains of nautiloids are rare. Their descendants belonging to the genus Nautilus still live in the Pacific Ocean today. The fossils found on Monte San Giorgio include rare remains of curled representatives of the genus Pleuronautilus and, more commonly, straight conical shells of the orthocerate genus Michelinoceras.

Of course, the fossils that I show above are just a small collection that I’m interested in exhibited in this museum. You’ll also be surprised if you’re a fan of geology. Anyway, don’t be afraid if you think you don’t understand the words. This museum is even children friendly so you can simply watch the animations and have an understanding of the life 240 million years ago.

If you have any question concerning any part of this trip please don’t hesitate to contact. I’ll try my best to solve your problems or questions.

This post is one of the serial posts about the 12 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Switzerland. If you are interested please take a look at the posts below and experience the cultural and natural richness of this wonderful country.

  • Abbey of St Gall
  • Benedictine Convent of St John at Müstair
  • Old City of Berne
  • Three Castles, Defensive Wall and Ramparts of the Market-Town of Bellinzona
  • Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch
  • Monte San Giorgio
  • Lavaux, Vineyard Terraces
  • Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes
  • Swiss Tectonic Arena Sardona
  • La Chaux-de-Fonds / Le Locle, Watchmaking Town Planning
  • Prehistoric Pile Dwellings around the Alps
  • The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement
Monte San Giorgio and the Fossil museum – A sea of memories was last modified: August 7th, 2017 by Dong

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