The game of bowls – a part of Ticino’ storied past – is slowly disappearing and being transformed from a occasion to meet with family and friends to a real sport, played on professional pitches. Until the early post-war period almost all grottos had a bowls pitch where, after lunch or dinner, customers competed with one another. While once a popular game, tourists now have few opportunities to spend few relaxing hours playing bowls in the fresh Ticino valleys or at hangouts on the banks of the lake. However, several 'grottos' do still offer this option.
Bowls is played on a large rectangular turf surface measuring about 5 by 25 meters. Both the bowls (measuring 107mm in diameter) and the jack have a spherical shape and are made from a synthetic material. Bowls can be played in singles, pairs, triples and four-player teams. The competitors of each team take turns to roll either one or more bowls towards the jack. The aim of the game is, with as many bowls possible, to get as close as you can to the jack, which is the smallest ball. At the beginning of the game, a coin is tossed to decide which team will roll the jack, afterwards it becomes the right of the team that has won the round. At the end of each round, i.e. when all the bowls have been rolled, the players check which bowl is closest to the jack and one point is awarded to the team that has rolled that bowl. The same rule applies to the second closest bowl. If it belongs to the same team, one point is added and so on. If, on the contrary, the second or third closest bowls belong to the opponent team, scoring ends. The game is won by the first team that manages to score 15 points. There are basically two types of shots or delivery: the "draw shot" and the "running shot". The aim of the former is to roll your bowl as close as possible to the jack. The second requires using more force in order to move an opponent’s bowl away from the jack.
The game of bowls has ancient roots: several ancient stone spheres, dating back to around 7000 B.C., resembling the bowls used today, were found in Turkey. However, diffusion of the modern game dates back to the late 17th century. The game of bowls was played in squares, in streets and in gardens but also in the parks of the aristocracy. As recorded by Ticino academic Ottavio Lurati, several monarchs became totally entranced with the game. At the court of England, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, it was one of a series of favorite pastimes. Subsequently the game also became popular in Italy and began to be spread throughout the world, also thanks to Italian emigrants. Today it is played in five continents and in more than 110 countries. In Ticino, its practice grew rapidly, especially at the beginning of the 20th century when it became an extremely popular sport. Ticino artist Emilio Rissone, born in Lugano in 1933, dedicated numerous paintings to this subject, leaving several vivid pictures depicting the game of bowls in olden-day Ticino when, in summer, families spent Sunday afternoons at the grottos challenging each other at the game of bowls. Nowadays, the game has prevalently survived as a sport, practiced on professional bowls pitches. In fact, it is now extremely rare to find bowls pitches at Ticino ‘grottos’ that are open to tourists. A few do, however, still exist (info: local tourist offices).