Bellinzona, Lugano and Sights Around Ticino

It’s my fifth day in Switzerland, and this is part five of my story. We (wife and me) were heading south that day, across the famous Alps and into the land of the people who brought us pepperoni and gelato. No, we weren’t going to Italy (though how I wish), but it’s pretty darned close to Italy…in fact it’s just across the border. In fact…if only Switzerland was already part of the Shengen agreement (it wasn’t yet then, which was a total bummer), we could have gone all the way to Milan after lunch, taken a picture, then be back on Swiss soil for afternoon snack.

I’ve spent most of my time roaming around the German-speaking side of Switzerland (Zurich, Bern) and spent a day on part of the French-speaking side (Geneva). This time, I present the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino.

Ticino is the southernmost canton of the Swiss confederation (a canton is basically a state, like what California is in the US). The trip from Zurich to Ticino took us right through the heart of the Swiss Alps. If the trip to Geneva took me through vast farmlands on both sides, this time it was all mountains left and right…tall, majestic mountains…the kind you could put on a postcard. To say it’s breathtaking would probably be an understatement.

The magnificent Alps
The view from the railways

Bridges in Switzerland can be attractions themselves

The railway took us through the St. Gotthard rail tunnel. This tunnel cuts though the Gotthard Massif, a big hulk of a mountain in the Alps, and the construction of the tunnel is considered a modern engineering marvel.

Upon getting through to the other side of the Alps, our first stop was the town of Bellinzona, known as the town of three castles…because, well, there literally are three medieval castles there. Upon getting there, the first thing I noticed was that the architecture of the buildings was now different. In the other Swiss cities I’ve been on days before, buildings looked rather minimalistic. They looked robust, but were largely devoid of adornments on the exterior, and colors were rather “monochrome”-ish. The structures largely spoke of function over form. Here in Bellinzona, the buildings came in several different colors and had fancy exterior details. I guess they have a bit of the “Italian flair”.

As I mentioned before, this town has three castles. After getting off the train, we headed out, on foot, to the largest and nearest one, the Castelgrande (Grand Castle). This castle sits atop a rocky hill, which gives it an ideal defensive position. Similar to the other two castles in this town, it is built more as a fortress…more like a home for a regiment of soldiers, rather than a home for royalty. It is surrounded by ramparts, with gaps for archers to take positions and fire arrows from.

We took the picture above, at the base of the hill. After spending some time thinking about how the heck we are going to get up there, we noticed some people walking towards the back of the Nag Arnoldi sign (you can see them on the picture above). We decided to follow them, and lo and behold, once we got to the back, a big hole in the mountain appeared in front of us (A bit like Lord of the Rings, huh? Now, where was Gimli and Legolas?). We went inside the cave that looked like a tunnel (or tunnel that looked like a cave), and were surprised to see a circular chamber at the end, with an elevator  in the middle (now Lord of the Rings meets The Da Vinci Code). We didn’t know where it led (and we were the only ones there that time) so we just stood there, staring for a while, until the elevator opened and out came some tourists (you could tell by the look). One of them was talking on what I thought was an American accent, so I approached her and asked if the elevator went all the way up to the castle. She said yes, and so we went in, and pushed the button for up (it only went up or down, no floors in between).

The elevator took us right to the castle walls, and after a few steps we went through a door that led us to the central courtyard. We found that the courtyard was filled with sculptures of the artist named Nag Arnoldi, and that explains why there is a sign with his name below the hill. There is actually also a road going up the castle, but it starts somewhere at the other side of the hill, and we didn’t know how to locate where it started.

Inside the castle walls
The tower, the courtyard, and the sculptures
The ramparts
A view of the other castles, Castel Gandolfo (middle) and Castel Sasso Corbaro (top), from the Castel Grande.

A view of the town, from the castle walls.

In the interest of time, we decided that one castle is enough, and so after we walked around the Castelgrande, we headed back down to the train station, and took the next train to our destination. This time we are headed to Lugano, a quaint little city  on the side of Lake Maggiore, still on the canton of Ticino.

Lugano is an interesting little city, and in fact it’s my wife’s second favorite Swiss city (the first being Zurich). It’s not that big, and it is nestled between the beautiful lake, and the beautiful mountains. There’s also very little flat pieces of land, and so most of Lugano is in rolling terrain, quite like Baguio City here in the Philippines. Imagine Baguio…shrink it a little bit, totally clean it up (as in no rusting GI sheet in sight), make the buildings more posh, grow a little more trees, and add a large lake on the side. That, is Lugano (and may I add, that might also have been Baguio, if only the city planning was done and implemented properly).

Similar to Bellinzona, their structures are more “artsy” compared to their counterparts on the other parts of Switzerland. In fact, since the people are practically Italian by ethnicity, but Swiss by nationality, it does feel a bit like you are already in another country, until you notice that there’s banks all over the place, and that trains still arrive spot on time, then you’re reminded that this is still very much in Switzerland (it is a very diverse country, by European standards). Trains in Italy, by the way, don’t enjoy the same reputation as the Swiss, when it comes to timeliness.

The scenic lakeside of Lugano

Looks a bit eerie to me, but this is one of Lugano's landmarks.
McDonalds in Lugano. This has got to be the swankiest McDonalds I have seen, yet.
So here we are, high up in the mountains, and their McDonalds has shrimps!


We spent just over a couple of hours in Lugano, with the first hour spent on a short guided tour, and the next on walking around on our own. The journey took longer than the stay, but it was all worth it. This is, without any doubt, a very beautiful place.

To cap the brief visit, we had gelato on one of the local stores, before we headed all the way back to Zurich. That’s as close as I could get, to a real Italian gelato, for now.

* We visited Lugano on May 2008. All photos taken by my wife with her Sony DSC T300


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