The fortifications of Bellinzona are among the most important examples of medieval defensive architecture in the Alps and are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Dating back to Ancient Rome when Bellinzona was an important line of defence these fortifications now consist of three castles, along with stretches of wall, towers battlements and gates.
First written references to the fortresses date back to 590 A.D. But it was much later, in the mid 15th century, that the castle became part of a system designed to block the entire valley. Many routes converge at Bellinzona, including the St. Gotthard, Nufenen, Lukmanier and St. Bernard passes, and so in those days, when the Dukedom of Milan was a wealthy city-state on which several other European powers had their eye, it was an important line of defence.
The Dukes of Milan commissioned powerful reinforcements to the existing castles, and much of the system can still be seen and visited today.
Part of the battlements of Castelgrande run right down into the town centre. The castle itself is 50 metres above the town, and is just a few minutes away along steep paths running up from Piazza Collegiata and Piazza Nosetto. Alternatively, a modern lift takes you up from Piazzetta della Valle. Two towers, Torre Nera (28 metres) and Torre Bianca (27 metres) dominate Bellinzona's Old Town. The Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Art are located in the castle.
Castello di Montebello (in the photo below) is 90 metres above Castelgrande, and it is worth the walk up from Piazza Collegiata for the spectacular views.
Castello di Sasso Corbaro was built in just six months in 1479, after a defeat suffered by Milan's troops. The walls are up to 4.7 metres thick in parts. It is in an idyllic setting, with magnificent views right across to Lake Maggiore in Italy. The Museum at Sasso Corbaro includes the 'wooden room' built in the 17th century, entirely in walnut.
Bellinzona has some other interesting monuments. The church of Santa Maria delle Grazie dates to the late 15th century, and it is interesting for its fresco decorations created by an unknown artist between 1495 and 1505.
In addition to culture, the town has some wine cellars featuring some of the area's excellent red and white wines, such as Ticino DOC Merlot.
Bellinzona can be considered as the gateway to the Alps, or the gateway to Italy, depending on which way you are arriving from. In any case, it is a fascinating destination with its own unique character.
Castelgrande, inner court open 9.00 a.m.-10.00 p.m. every day except Monday, 9.00 a.m.-6.00 p.m. The walls are open every day 10.00 a.m.-7.00 p.m. in summer, 10.00 a.m.-5.00 p.m. in winter. Info +41 (0)91 8258 145
Castello di Montebello, the castle and the museum are open April-November 10.00 a.m.-6.00 p.m., info +41 (0)91 8251 342
Castello di Sasso Corbaro, open April-November 10.00 a.m.-10.00 p.m., except on Monday, 10.00 a.m.-6.00 p.m. The museum is open April-November 10.00 a.m.-6.00 p.m.. Info +41 (0)91 8255 906
For more information see: www.bellinzonaturismo.ch