On Tuesday, I told you all about our time in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, on our way back to Germany from a totally rad two weeks in Italy last summer. Apparently, order isn’t very important to me this week because I’m sharing today about our very first stop on that road trip before we even made it to the Italian border – Bellinzona, Switzerland.
Never heard of it?
Honestly, I hadn’t either. But that’s what you get when you start randomly grabbing names off a map.
How do I come up with these places? Well, my pit stop selection process usually goes a little something like this…
- Chart the route in Google maps.
- Decide how many segments we’ll need to complete the trip. My kids can usually handle 3 hours if awake and offered food, 4 if asleep and forced to wear eye masks.
- Search for a city or attraction in the targeted area that we’re interested in seeing anyway, or…
- Find a park, hiking trail, vista, or other outdoor wonder to explore.
Sometimes the second option is the best because it ensures that the wiggly males from the back seat can just run around and be loud, obnoxious boys for a while instead of having to sit quietly in the back seat like little girls.
When I found Bellizona, I hit the jackpot. This small city is big time famous for its three castles (Castelgrande, Montebello, and Sasso Corbaro) that have together been an UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000.
Check out this blurb from Bellizona’s tourism website (emphasis theirs):
These fortresses number among the finest examples of medieval fortification architecture in the alpine region. As they appear today, Bellinzona’s fortifications, whose origins actually go much further back to a prehistoric settlement on Castelgrande hill, are mainly the result of intensive and complex building activity undertaken by the Dukes of Milan in the 15th century… These battlements, towers and gateway, included in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2000, are still a source of wonder today.
For more history, lore, and practical visitor information click here and here.
Since we could only spend a few hours in Bellinzona, I decided we should concentrate our time at only one of the castles. Our options:
- Castelgrande: the largest and the oldest. Located in the city center, access is via a steep set of stairs, a long and winding path, or an elevator.
- Montebello: smaller, and stands guard 90m above Bellinzona. Access is via a footpath from Piazza Collegiata in the center or by car/bus on the Via Artore.
- Sasso Corbaro: austere yet solid new kid on the block. Only possible to visit by car.
While the Catelgrande might be the first choice of many (check out Urban Bliss Life’s visit with kids), we opted for Montebello instead for two reasons (1) ease of access by car, and (2) it’s possible to see the other castles from Montebello.
The GPS took us right to the parking lot of the castle (free). While we cleaned up the poo explosion from the birthday boy‘s car seat, the older boys discovered a decent playground adjacent to the parking lot (score!) with a typically Swiss fresh water fountain. Once all the muck had been removed, I strapped Big Foot to my back, and we all went to have a look see.
Doc Sci was about to go all gaga on me about the drawbridges when I reminded him that the purpose of this visit was for him to nap. We’d been up since 3:30am, and he still had another five hours of driving to do. Safety first, boys & girls!
I was instantly enchanted by this castle. It had everything you could ask for in an old fortress – walls to walk, bridges to cross, heavy doors to heave, and absolutely marvelous views.
Plus, it was deserted. I love having the place to ourselves.
The boys and I scrambled up and down stairs, scurried in and out of every available doorway, and burst out into the meadow in front of the castle. I was surprised at how close the Castelgrande seemed from Montebello and that I could see the Sasso Corbaro peeking out from the trees further up.
But, T-Rex? He was just surprised at how fun it was to tumble down the grassy hill.
The walls belonging to the actual castle of Montebello are rigged with modern metal walkways and railings for visitors to traipse about as they please. Unfortunately, the outer walls are not… or at least I couldn’t find a way up. I might’ve tried harder if I didn’t have a baby on my back.
In short, these little-known castles are gems. They’re brilliant for boys, history nerds, and weary-on-the-way to Italy travelers. I only wish we’d had more time to fully appreciate all three castles at Bellinzona!
My snapshot of the castles at Bellinzona: silent, ancient, fantastic, and worthy of all the time you can spare to explore.
Have you been to Bellinzona? I’d love to hear about your visit or why you might add it to your own bucket list!Be sure to check out What to See in Zadar from Chasing the Donkey as well as all the other fine Sunday Traveler posts!