Bellinzona : the town
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High on Bellinzona’s central rock rise the massive towers and walls of Castelgrande (Tues–Sun 9am–midnight; free), most impressive of the town’s three medieval castles. Known to have been occupied as far back as the Neolithic age, the hill was fortified first by the Romans, and then again in the thirteenth century by Milanese forces to protect the valley routes to and from the great Alpine passes. For three centuries between the Swiss conquest and Ticinese independence, Castelgrande was known as the Castello d’Uri after its trans-Alpine occupiers (Montebello was the Castello di Svitto (Schwyz), while Sasso Corbaro was the Castello di Untervaldo). Just to confuse things further, the rock on which the castle sits is known as Monte San Michele. The whole hilltop complex has been imaginatively and sympathetically restored by local architect Aurelio Galfetti – he added a lift, one of the highlights of Bellinzona’s modern architecture, that is dramatically recessed deep into the bedrock of the hill behind the central Piazza del Sole and emerges at a purpose-built modern fortification on an upper terrace of the castle. The castle grounds are serene, overlooked by the slender thirteenth-century White Tower, with two upper windows on all four faces, and the fourteenth-century Black Tower, with three windows on its longer side. Despite their names, both, like the castle itself, are grey granite, and between them run lines of distinctive Lombard-style winged battlements, which you’ll see on castles all over Ticino. Off the central lawns you’ll find the historical museum (Feb–Dec Tues–Sun 10am–12.30pm & 1.30–5.30pm; Fr.4, or combination ticket for museums in all three castles Fr.8; SMP), divided into two sections. The archeology side offers a tour through Bellinzona’s ancient past, including an excellent audiovisual show (in English) presenting the history of the town. The museum’s pride and joy, though, is a set of murals made in 1470 to decorate the wooden ceiling of a villa in the town, depicting a complex set of allegorical themes dealing with love, faith and virtue.

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