Hot on the heels of returning from Scotland we all took a long weekend in the canton of Ticino. This has ended up being a 2-part series. Stay tuned for tales our our trek into Lugano and Locarno.
Switzerland, if you look at a map, has four points at the bottom. Ticino is the 3rd point on from the West. The first is has Geneva, the second one has the Matterhorn, and the one on the far East is where the rich vacation in St. Moritz. We seem to be working our way across, so one day we will probably vacation above our means at some spa on a mountain.
The three cities we visited were Bellinzona, Locarno, and Lugano. It turns out that 1 August is National Swiss Day. 1 August is like July 4th in America – celebrated with fireworks, paper lanterns, parades, bonfires, and barbeques. And it also turns out that lots of people are traveling on National Swiss Day. We had planned on staying a night in each town, however, hotel rooms were scarce so we ended up staying in Bellinzona for the entire time and taking in Locarno and Lugano as day trips.
Bellinzona ended up being a great choice. Founded in 590 as the town Belitio, Bellinzona is poised in a narrow valley between two mountain ranges and right along the Ticino River. Like many other towns in the Neutral, But Prepared Switzerland it has been home to fortifications since the Roman Emperor Augustus built a fort there in 1AD. Everyone recognized Bellinzona’s location as an extremely important location and ideal for defending Northern Italy from invasion.
Given the importance of the location LOADS of people wanted Bellinzona for themselves. Diocletian, Constantin, the Ostrogoths, the Byzantines, and the Longobards all wanted it. And hence the name. The Bellinzona doesn’t mean “beautiful place” as many people, including me, first thought. It means “war zone.”
Bellinzona grew incredibly prosperous while the Visconti (and, therefore, the city of Milan, Italy) controlled it. They collected tolls, taxes, and duties to people wanting to sell and transport their goods through the city.
Finally, King Louis XII of France invaded Bellinzona and fortified Castelgrande (who you will meet later) with platoons of soldiers to keep the Swiss from invading. However, King Louis should have been more concerned with winning the hearts of the people. They had only been in the city for a year before the people of Bellinzona grabbed all the weapons they could carry and drove the French out of the city. To keep the French from coming back they became members of Swiss Federation and accepted all the rights, privileges, and trained armies that came with it.
Ticino may fly a Swiss flag, but they are still Italians at heart. My German was of absolutely no use in Bellinzona, Locarno, and Lugano. English and Italian were what we needed. And this is where I found out that German is starting to become my go-to language. Who knew.
It’s easy to believe that you are in Italy as you walk through Bellinzona. The buildings are painted in Mediterranean colors and they have a particular “Italian” vibe. And no building more so than the Palazzo Civico.
These two buildings are great combinations of Swiss painting style and Italianate architecture.
And since it’s a very Italian and Catholic section of Switzerland there is an exquisite church. Actually a couple of them. The first one is Collegiata Dei Santi Pietro.
It has an imposing and ornate facade. It’s located in the center of Bellinzona’s old town in the Plaza Collegiata. The plaza is a huge square where the neighboring cafes set up tables and sun umbrellas. We had lunch at one of those cafes and it was absolutely ideal for people watching and enjoying the breeze.
There was also a great schematic for the front of the building. Sorry the photo is crooked. I had a child hanging from my elbow.
The inside is extraordinarily grand and seems like it reflects Carolingian and Italianate design.
The ceiling is fantastic. Murals and carvings. I would miss the entire homily if I went to church here. It was built in 1424 and was repaired and rebuilt by the same guy who built Italy’s Como Cathedral.
But wait until you get inside!
It reminds me a lot of the little church we found in Schonenwerd.
Every alcove along the edge of the church was filled with an altar and a statue of the Virgin Mary or another saint. Some had a small gold and marble tabernacle. All the altars had live plants and the tabernacles all had lit candles. This smaller church didn’t have many paintings, but we didn’t miss it. Actually, having murals over the statues would have made it seem cluttered.
The Catholic church play a big part in the lives of people in Bellinzona, but the main focal point of the city is Castelgrande. And it is a very large castle.
Castelgrande as it looks today was built around the 1470 but there are indications that people have lived at that site on-and-off since 5500BC and that hill has been fortified since at least the 1 century BC.
The Romans built a fort here and their foundations were used in the castle built in the 13th century. And there were a lot of building there at one time, but the Duke of Milan, who was in charge via the Visconti family, had them torn down to make the interior grounds more open.
And there is this. A very long wall that you can walk on! It’s goes across the city and it is awesome!
Montebello has a more traditional look to it with towers and moats and a drawbridge.
Like most castles, the inner keep was built first. This time in the 13th century. Then in the next century the first wall was built and in the 15th century another wall was built. Finally in the 1600s a chapel was built. After that it was all fixing stuff from assaults and keeping up with needed repairs.
See all the holes in the walls? And see the little roof just over on the right? Those holes were places for other little slanted roofs. Those slanted roofs lined the entire wall of the castle. It gave shade to the servants and soldier working outside and protection from arrows that were shot over the castle wall from advancing armies. Pretty neat, huh!
They also had walkways around the top of the castle wall so the soldiers could keep watch.
The castle also had a really cool and almost secret tunnel. It was a small doorway that was under that awning I pointed out above. The stairs went almost straight down to a hallway that curved off to the left. The boys bounded down and disappeared for a good 20 minutes.
Montebello also houses an absolutely amazing museum full of all the archaeological finds they have excavated over the years; most of it Roman. Photographs were forbidden, but let me say that it was at least as good of an exhibit as what we saw at Vindolanda in Scotland.
The view alone was worth the visit.
Another remnant of Roman life are the olive trees. Montebello had a small grove of olive trees. H loves, loves, loves olives and was extremely excited about them. He was only slightly disappointed to learn that he couldn’t eat them right off the tree. It turns out he is a patient little boy.
Next time we explore more of Italian Switzerland when we take day trips to Lugano and Locarno.