The routes through the Alps have always been of crucial strategic importance. In Bellinzona several pass routes come together within a small area – an ideal place to control transit traffic.
The three Castles of Bellinzona, Castelgrande, Montebello and Sasso Corbaro together with their fortress walls were built in the Medieval Age and have since been both the northern border of the Plain of the Po and a southern bastion of the alpine valleys.
This bolt once should have prevented the onrushing Swiss citizens from expanding southwards. But in 1503 Bellinzona chose to no longer to be subject of Milan and instead joined the Swiss Confederation so that in the following years the fortresses were used against the south and against Milan.
Nowadays, the bulwark is the most important witness of the medieval art of fortifications in the alpine area. Since 2000 the three castles of Bellinzona have been an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Built on a hill, the oldest of the three castles offered shelter and protection to the surrounding settlements. Already in 590 Gregor von Tours mentioned a “Castrum” located in this place. During the battles between the Franks and the Lombards this fortress played a key role. From 1503 on it became the seat of the reeves of the canton of Uri.
The heart of the extensive building with curtain walls, towers, residential buildings, courtyards and formerly also three churches stems from the 13th century. Between 1486 and 1489 the Sforza family from Milan extended the castle in order to repel the Swiss which were advancing from the north. The Torre Nera (black tower) and the Torre Bianca (white tower) are relics of the medieval buildings.
Castelgrande has been restored between 1982 and 1992 and can nowadays be reached by an elevator from the Piazza del Sole. The architect in charge of the restoration was Aurelio Galfetti, who combined modern architecture with medieval pride to create an “Acropolis of Light”.
The principal gate originally was in the south-eastern part of the curtain wall. From the old town it can be reached through steep, attractive alleys. The beautiful view over the city, the other two castles and the surrounding mountains are certainly worth the effort of climbing – and obviously there is the elevator for those who prefer a “lighter” programme.
The first mentions of the middle of the three fortresses date back to 1313, but probably the central part of the building was constructed already towards the end of the 13th century – by the time the opening of the road through the Schöllenen Gorge had made the Gotthard Pass the most important route across the Alps.
Castle Sasso Corbaro
High above the old town there is Sasso Corbaro, the smallest and newest of the three castles. After having been defeated in Giornico in 1478 the Sforza family ordered to build it quickly in the place of a tower in order to block the advancing Swiss from moving down to the valley. Though, as history teaches us, their efforts remained vain.
Nowadays, the castle of Sasso Corbaro hosts the Museo dell’Arte e delle Tradizioni Popolari del Ticino. Visitors can gain insights into the popular art of Ticino, the daily life of mountain farmers, their devoutness and traditional costumes. Also, the terrace of the castle offers a unique view over the town, the castles of Montebello and Castelgrande and the surrounding area, from the mountains over the Plain of Magadino and down to the Lake Maggiore.
The train of the Castles
World Wonders Project
- VENUES Suitable for families
Three Castles, Defensive Wall and Ramparts of the Market-Town of Bellinzona - UNESCO Videos
A Journey Through Time and Space - Watch the video
Lord of the castle - Watch the video
Bellinzona, the key to the Alps - Watch the video