BELLINZONA, SWITZERLAND — Switzerland has never had any great need for castles. There are a few scattered here and there throughout its mountainous terrain. Some have become famous, like Chateau Chillon just outside of Montreux. Yet given that Switzerland is one of the world’s oldest democracies. Yet the number of Switzerland’s majestic grand residences seems small when compared to France, Germany, England and elsewhere. Bellinzona, however, proves an exception to the rule. And any Swiss town that can boast of not one or two fortresses, but three — Castelgrande, Montebello and Sasso Corbaro — must have a great story behind it.
Bellinzona: Palm trees in Switzerland?
Bellinzona is the capital of the Italian speaking region of Switzerland known as Ticino, making it the southernmost capital in the country. In fact, the area surrounding Bellinzona is so tropical in some places that palm trees are not uncommon in the region. Yes, you read that right, Ticino has more than its share of palm trees. And cactus too, for that matter.
Strategically situated where the valley narrows on the way to the Alpine passes of St. Gotthard, San Bernardino and Lucomagno, Bellinzona has long been a north-south gateway to Italy through Milan.
Until 1516, when Bellinzona first became part of the Swiss Confederation, there had been centuries of contention between the Dukes of Milan and the city. Frequently, the arguments centered around customs. This ultimately influenced the construction of the castles to some degree, as travelers would bypass their tolls by simply walking higher up on the surrounding hills.
Since 2000, the three fortifications of Bellinzona — Castelgrande, Montebello and Sasso Corbaro — began to receive more attention as UNESCO World Heritage sites. UNESCO chose that year to number these castles as among the most important examples of medieval defensive architecture in the Alps.
Dating from the latter part of the first century BC, Castelgrande, the oldest and most powerful of the trio of fortresses, features stunning views of the Old Town and the surrounding area. It also contains a small museum that documents the history of the three forts. The museum also includes a nice orientation of Bellinzona and its geographical importance in the history of Switzerland and northern Italy.
Over the course of several incarnations, Castelgrande was known by different names. Before the 13th century it became known as the “Stronghold.” During the 14th and 15th centuries as Montebello, the second fortress, arose, Stronghold became the “Old Castle.” That designation lasted until 1506 when it became Uri Castle. Finally, since the year 1818, it gained its currend official designation as Saint Michael’s Castle. However, locals still affectionately call the edifice Castelgrande.
Unusual features of Castelgrande
The interior space of Castelgrande today is mostly flat and open. We can trace its current status beck to the vandalism of the Dukes of Milan several centuries ago. They built three large baileys to provide temporary housing for their troops when stationed in Bellinzona. Indeed, official records and archaeological evidence dating from the 11th to the 15th centuries indicate that the castle grounds were once crowded with various buildings.
Thanks to the imposing rock-face upon which the castle was cleverly built, it also incorporates both natural as well as man-made defense mechanisms. For example, Castelgrande Hill includes a nearly vertical side on the north and a steep southern side.
While the Roman fort is not visible today, the original Roman foundations were essentially re-used during the High Middle Ages. That’s when the rulers of the time extended and strengthened the evolving castle’s fortifications, raised the walls and added the towers. They also totally rebuilt Castelgrande’s western walls and connected them to the town walls.
Denizens of Bellinzona initially referred to Montebello Castle as the Small, New or Middle Castle until the 15th century. They dubbed it St. Martin’s Castle after 1818. Located East of the town center, It was built before 1313 for the pro-Imperial Rusca family, who occupied it following the Visconti victory and occupation of the Castelgrande. By the 19th century the castle fell into disrepair. But in 1903, renovation of the edifice commenced.
As the second of the three structures, when observing Montebello Castle, one can easily see the historical progression of fortress construction in Bellinzona. Each additional stronghold climbs progressively up the hillside toward their eventual crest.
A small chapel, dedicated to Saint Michael, leans against the wall of the more recent south-facing section of Montebello. Built around 1600, it became one of the few buildings erected in the castle complexes of Bellinzona that came under the rule of the three Swiss cantons.
Montebello Castle houses the town’s Archaeological and Civic Museum. This museum, which first opened in 1974, is divided into two sections, one for history and the other devoted to archaeology. You can find this museum meandering through the tower and into the former residential quarters of Montebello Castle.
The museum’s history section features a rare 13th-century Baptismal font as well as a collection of ceremonial and military arms. On view as well visitors can discover displays of drawings and sketches from several artists. Its archaeology section includes many items dating from 1400–1500 BC. It also includes ceramics, glassware, funeral urns, ornamental objects and iron and bronze jewelry from around the canton of Ticino.
Castle number three, Sasso Corbaro, was known as Unterwalden Castle after 1506. After 1818, it became Saint Barbara’s Castle. Rising about 2,000 feet on the rocky hill southwest of town, Sasso Corbaro became the third and the highest of the town’s three castles. But unlike its two siblings, its builders and architects did not integrate it into the town walls.
Built in 1478, the first part of the castle was the northeastern tower. Its purpose: to close a gap in the defenses of the town. But unfortunately, due to numerous lightning strikes the building suffer in the the 16th and 17th centuries, Sasso Corbaro had fallen into ruins by 1900.
Today, after extensive renovations, the castle now serves as home to the Sala Emma Poglia known as the “wooden room.” That room was built for the Emma family during the 17th century. The room derives its name from the fact that it is paneled entirely in walnut. As seen today, the room today also includes the stove which provided heating for the family.
Don’t overlook the murata
When visiting Bellinzona today, travelers should not overlook the murata, or connecting city walls between the Castelgrande and Montebello Castle. These additional defensive landmarks add another element to the town’s extensive history. Locals claim the murata are wider than the Great Wall of China. Length? Well that’s another story.
Barring that discussion, Bellinzona is indeed a pleasant and slightly offbeat discovery for travelers en route to Locarno, Lugano, Ascona or Italy. At least when international travel becomes a pleasant and viable option once again in our current travel-restricted environment.
— Headline image: View of Bellinzona’s Castelgrande as seen from Castello di Montebello.
Via the Wikipedia entry on Bellinzona. GNU 1.2 document license.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.