Castello Grande in Bellinzona and view of the old town of Bellinzona
Behind the Pages

Bellinzona’s Secret

Despite being the capital city of the canton of Ticino, the town of Bellinzona is a sleepy provincial town, nestled in the folds of the mighty Alps. Located in Southern Switzerland, the town is overshadowed by the region’s more glamorous neighboring cities like Lugano and Locarno, and often overlooked by tourists.

But still waters run deep, as they say, and the first inkling I got that Bellinzona is actually quite special was when I saw its three medieval castles.

If you are an inquisitive observer, you might wonder why this small town would need three castles to protect it. And if you look closely, the position of the castles might give you an idea of their function. Traversing the town, the castles and their walls form a line of fortifications across the valley.

The castles were not built to protect the town, but something far more valuable. The castles controlled access from Italy, and the south, into Northern Europe, and levied taxes on goods moving from south to north. Quite a significant revenue generator for those who controlled the valley, don’t you think?

While the current castles date from the medieval ages, the importance of the valley in controlling the movement of goods, people, and even armies was recognized as far back as Roman times. And there have been fortifications in the valley at least since the Roman Empire.

It’s also interesting to note that the castles were supported by a network of towers across the valley, probably used for signaling and communication. Some of these towers are still visible as you travel through the Mesolcina valley from Bellinzona towards the San Bernardino pass.

Visiting the castles lets your imagination run wild. I couldn’t resist the pull of fantasizing about all the goods, people, and gold that had passed through their walls over the centuries. So for the settling of Suspicious Small Print, the third book of the Old Bookstore Mysteries, I did just that–I wrote a cozy mystery centered around Roman treasure discovered at one of the castles, and all the intrigue, mayhem, and murder that accompanies its discovery.

The castles are recognized by UNESCO for their historical value and heritage, and worth a visit. A pleasant hike starts at the center of town, from Castello Grande, and up cobbled streets and hidden stone steps, up to the other two castles above the town.

All images are the author’s own. Please do not copy or use without author’s permission. 

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