Who doesn’t like to visit a mediaeval castle? The small town of Bellinzona in the Swiss canton of Ticino has not one, but three picture-book mediaeval castles you can visit. In 2000 the three castles of Bellinzona became a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Linked by a wall, they could once close off the whole Ticino Valley. In the Middle Ages, the whole of Europe was punctuated by such castles, with fortification walls and strong ramparts. But in the European Alpine region, the castles of Bellinzona with their connecting walls are the only remaining examples of such a defensive military architecture from that time.
Sasso Corbano Castle – high up on the mountain
Together with a group of Swiss school children and a few Asian tourists we take bus No. 4 to Sasso Corbano. The scenic castle is the highest of the three Belinzona castles. From up there we have great views over the town of Bellinzona, over the valley and to the Lago Maggiore in the west. Today all three castles belong to Bellinzona and thus are Swiss. But when the Dukes of Milano built Sasso Corbano in the late 15th century, they wanted to protect the lowlands against the Swiss.
Apart from the views, there is not much to see at Sasso Corbano Castle. There is a good restaurant, a small museum space for special exhibitions (nothing on show right now), and for 5 € visitors can climb the tower. “Nothing to see there that you cannot see from the terrace,” even the cashier told us.
As bus No. 4 only runs every two hours or so, we make our way by foot to the next castle, to Montebello Castle.
„Guys! Look, a hole! You can crawl into it! Especially me!!” a small blond boy yells to this family. And that pretty much sums up the charm of Montebello Castle. This castle is situated about 90 meters above the city on the hill of Montebello. The oldest parts of Montebello Castle date back to the 14th century. Like the other castles it was built as part of a defence line against invaders from the mountains in the North. Not without reason: People from the colder parts of Europe always aimed to move south towards the Dolce Vita. In the warmer regions of Italy, crops grew better, and the food was probably more delicious.
Montebello Castle is a sprawling complex with several nested castle walls and courtyards. Visitors can climb some of the walls and enjoy the spectacular views.
The museum of Montebello Castle
We also visited the museum, which houses two exhibitions. A small exhibition explains the restoration works done over the last years.
Another, more detailed exhibition in the main tower gives an overview on the archaeology, excavations, and historical objects found in the area. Animated movies show how burials worked in the stone ages and how the Romans in the area dressed. We learn that important trading routes ran through Bellinzona. Archaeologists found coins and amber from as far as the Baltic countries.
Unfortunately the explanations are in Italian only. There is an English version available for download, but during our visit the Internet was not working. And as Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, roaming costs are high – so we had to cope with the Italian explanations.
Castelgrande – the biggest of the Bellinzona castles
Castelgrande, the biggest and most important castle of Bellinzona sits right in the centre of the small town. The high rocky outcrop dominating the valley was probably the main reason for the importance of the town in the first place. After all, from this rock you could practically control the traffic even without so many fortifications. Accordingly, this was the first castle the Italians built in Bellinzona.
A lift brings us through the rocks up to the castle grounds. A movie in the museum explains more about the history of the castles. Originally built as an Italian defence against Switzerland, the city eventually switched sides when the counts of Milano were conquered by France. From 1503 the town minted their own coins for a short time. As they had to buy the raw material or melt other coins this was not profitable, though.
The most interesting objects in the museum are numerous rare small paintings from the Renaissance period. Some show portraits, animal fables, or illustrations of funny stories. They had decorated the ceiling beams of an aristocratic manor house in Bellinzona. Art historians could barely rescue them in the 1960s when that house was torn down against many protests.
What else to see and do in Bellinzona?
Apart from visiting the castles we found not much to do in Bellinzona. The old town is nice enough, but very small. With a few hours of strolling through the streets and having an Aperol Spritz in one of the bars you will have seen most of it.
Are the castles of Bellinzona worth a visit?
Definitely yes. Especially Montebello Castle is like the archetype of a mediaeval castle. We visited the Sasso Corbano Castle first and walked back into town. However, it might make more sense to start from the town centre and visit the castles in order of their construction dates. In our opinion you can skip the museums (10 CHF per person per visit). They do not offer much historical information on the castles. But they do display some beautiful archaeological finds from the area. Again with only very little explanation, though.
How to organize a visit to the castles of Bellinzona?
Bellinzona is a small town, and most sights are reachable on foot. The Castelgrande is in the city centre and you can easily walk to the castle Montebello. Visiting all three castles of Bellinzona in one day is not difficult at all. We started our sightseeing day at the highest castle, at Sasso Corbano Castle. To reach Sasso Corbano, we took Bus No. 4 from the station. From Sasso Corbano we walked back to the city centre and Castelgrande via Montebello Castle. The whole walk (with a small detour to the San Sebastiano church) was less than 3 km and always downhill.
If you are interested in visiting UNESCO sites in Switzerland, also read out post about the Aletsch glacier, the largest glacier in the European alps. In the Vallais region you can visit the UNESCO listed vineyards of Lavaux and the modern architecture by Le Corbusier (although UNESCO sites).
NB: We were not sponsored for this blog article about the castles of Bellinzona. We visited Bellinzona on our own and paid all expenses ourselves.
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