Spring is here, and most of us are thinking hopefully of warm weather. Why not head south toward Italy and drop in on Bellinzona? It is worth a trip to this fantastic little Swiss city that has a real Italian feel. Bellinzona is the capital of Ticino, and three imposing medieval castles define its skyline. These castles, Castelgrande, Castello di Montebello and Castello di Sasso Corbaro, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Kids love castles, and these three are awesome to explore.
The landmark castles were built in the 13th century, and the oldest one is the Castelgrande, also known as the Castle of Uri. It has two towers: the 28-meter Torre Nera, and the 27-meter Torre Bianca. The Museum of Art and the Archaeological Museum are located here. To get there you can take the elevator from Piazza del Sole in the center of town, or walk along the path from the Piazza Collegitat and Piazza Nosetto, which is a lovely hike. Integrated into the historic Castelgrande is an elegant modern restaurant designed by architect Aurellio Garfetti.
Ramparts from the Castelgrande connect to the Castello Montello, and while walking along the grass-covered walk way, one can see modern Bellinzona on one side and the ancient part on the other. It is open March to October. Castello Montebello is sometimes called Schwyz Castle, and it contains a small museum documenting the history of the area. Open March to October.
Corbaro Sasso, or the Castle of Unterwald, was built in 1479 and hosts temporary exhibits. There is a spectacular view from the terrace that reaches all the way to Lake Maggiore. It is open from April to October.
The Murata, or city wall of Bellinzona, is still intact in many places, giving the city a true medieval feel.
The Romans actually built the first castle here in the first century AD. They realized the importance of the location between the passes of Gotthard, Lukmanier and San Bernardino. The town belonged to various rulers, most notably the Dukes of Milan, until 1516, when it became part of the Swiss Confederacy. This city has a small town feel, but with its population of 18,000, Bellinzona has got enough cultural highlights to make a day trip turn into a weekend excursion.
I went to Bellinzona with a friend to escape the cool, rainy summer we were having in the mountains of Graubünden, and we were pleasantly surprised. Although it is not as warm as Locarno or Lugano, we breathed easily and put away our umbrellas, having been drenched for days in one of those rainy spells that sometimes plague Switzerland. It was a beautiful Saturday morning and there was a market that led from the old town to the Piazza Nosetto. The old town was alive with the sights and sounds the marketplace. You can buy souvenirs, antiques and handcrafts in addition to local food specialties, including the savory mountain cheeses for which Bellinzona is famous.
The old part of town has some spectacular architecture, and the lovely church of the Santa Maria delle Grazie, located in an old Franciscan monastery just outside the city walls, is an amazing specimen of Renaissance architecture featuring a superb mural of the life of Christ. The Teatro Sociale, restored in 1994, is a beautiful example of classical theatre architecture and home to international theatre and musical shows throughout the year.
After visiting the castles and a museum or two, we had a picnic and watched families out basking in the sun, relaxing on the grounds and photographing the architecture. Kids were out in full force, jumping on the walls and running around in the towers. The views from up there were fantastic.
Outside and Underground
If you feel castled out, you can take some fantastic hikes further north in Blenio Valley or drive south toward Locarno to explore the beautiful Maggia Valley. Also not far from Bellinzona is the Gotthard Base Tunnel Information Center (Alp Transit Center), which is about 24 km north of Bellinzona. There is a modern museum featuring multimedia enhancements that explain the challenges of building the 151.8 km tunnel system. You can also book packages that include a stay in Bellinzona along with culinary options sure to please. It is open Tuesday to Saturday (http://www.infocentro.ch/infocentro-progetto/EN/progetto.htm).
The Ticino River flows by the city and there is a bike path that runs parallel, winding from Bellinzona to Ascona. The 25-kilometer path starts at Bellinzona Station, passes through Locarno and culminates in Ascona. There are some beautiful places to stop and check out the local foods or picnic by the river.
Another option in the area is a river cruise in a canoe. There are various packages for kids and adults on the Ticino River around Bellinzona (www.swissriveradventures.ch).
If you decide to overnight in Bellinzona, there are a variety of places to stay from opulent villas to budget hotels and camping places. There is a public swimming pool and a mini-golf course in town. One of the reasons I liked this city so much is that it seemed so friendly, calm and accessible. Plus it’s on the way to the more popular destinations of Locarno, Lugano and Italy, so it’s a great place to take a learning or leisure break. See www.ticino.ch for more information.
By Mary Bider