The picturesque capital of the Ticino region of Switzerland is home to one of the greatest surviving examples of medieval fortification, the Three Castles of Bellinzona. Due to its strategic location, Bellinzona has always been a key trading center and the three castles and walls that surround the ancient city were constructed throughout the years to fortify the area. Although the area has been occupied since the Neolithic age it wasn’t until the late 1st century BC, under Roman Emperor Augustus, that the first fort was built in the area. The three castles, walls and ramparts were added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2000 as outstanding examples of late medieval defensive structures and are composed of Castelgrande, castle Montebello and Sasso Corbaro.
According to archaeological studies, the Castelgrande location was the only fortification in Bellinzona from 1 BC through the 13th century. Castelgrande stands on a rocky peak that overlooks the entire Ticino valley, the fortified walls run from the castle to protect the ancient town area as well as block the passage through the valley. While there are still some visible ruins of the previous castles that stood in the location, the current castle was built in stages from the 1250s through th 1500s and it has had extensive renovations and some expansion over the past two centuries. The castle has an amazing inner courtyard and a wonderful museum that covers the history of the area from the first Neolithic village through to today. Visitors can also grab a bite to eat at the 19th century arsenal which has been converted into a restaurant. Castle Montebello is located east of the town center and was built before 1313 by the Rusconi family of Como and was renovated and expanded to its current state between 1462 and 1490. The castle fell into disrepair during the 1800s but thankfully renovations were started in 1903 bringing it back to its original beauty. Unlike Castlegrande, Montebello is not protected by natural features, it is instead surrounded by deep moats that protect the walls. In addition to the castle and walls, visitors can enjoy the Archaeological and Civic Museum located in the tower and Montebello’s former residential quarters.
Sasso Corbaro is the only of the three castles that is not connected to the city walls, sitting on a rocky hill southeast of the town instead. The northeastern tower was the first part of the castle built in 1478 to close a gap in the city defenses. Used as a prison during peacetime, the castle was abandoned in 1798 and by 1900 the castle was falling into ruins. In 1919 the state began restorations which included rebuilding the outer courtyard, entrance gates, chapel and well. The main feature of the castle is the “Sala Emma Poglia” a 17th century “wooden room” made for the Emma family to enhance the entrance hall of her home in Olivone. Aware of its historical significance, it was purchased in 1944 by the Canton of Ticino and is on display at Sasso Cobaro along with a variety of other temporary exhibitions. With three castle and a medieval town to explore be prepared to spend the whole day enjoying the amazing views and taking in all of the culture and history Bellinzona offers.