Bellinzona: Market Charm and Medieval Castles

After a quick wardrobe change to accommodate the first ignored, dreary forecast, I met my fellow classmates and Professor Moomaw in the Villa foyer.  We stood there bogged down with the thought of a mid-day ‘drizzle’ (which thus far, usually consists of hail).  With our fingers crossed and armed with raingear, we set out for the day’s destination—Bellinzona and its market!

Departing right on schedule, our train eased us into our journey through Ticino’s terrain,   heading north past Lugano and towards Zurich. Slicing through the land, my thoughts quickly drifted from, “I wonder what Bellinzona’s market will be like?  Will they have pesto?  How far are the castles from the center to town?  …I really hope it doesn’t rain.”  To becoming quickly enveloped by the lyrical landscape.  How was I going to capture and express the beauty in words?  A task too difficult for most, but I will say this—most simply put, life in canton Ticino is a postcard.  Just when you think the Swiss landscape can’t get more breath-taking, it does.  Mountains meeting lakes turning to streams and vistas as far as the eye could see, were just a few of the magnificent views.  So just know that if you receive a postcard from one of us spotlighting Swiss cheese or a city scene, the sender is playing a terrible joke on you: Switzerland is an incredible country of diverse landscapes and cultures. Ticino is proof of that.

Pulling into the Bellinzona station, my mind snapped quickly back to its initial thoughts of pesto; only to be swept away just outside the station, by the tree-lined street welcoming us into the heart of the city.  Trees were transformed quickly into tents, inviting us into Bellinzona’s outdoor market that filled streets and squares for blocks.  The main street was alive—offering local food, sauces, spices, clothing, jewelry, and crafts on a energized Saturday morning.   Young families, teens, elders, and dogs filled the space, building the market from just routine business into an exciting, community affair!  With 45 minutes of free time to explore, our group meandered through towards the end of the market, demarcated with a historic obelisk at Piazza Nosetto.

Reconvening briefly, we discussed the market and purchases made and then were off to conquer the UNESCO’s World Heritage Castles!  Only a two minute walk from where we stood at the beginning of the market, we were met by the well-fortressed wall of Castlegrande dating back to the 12th century.  At the base, two options were available for ascending to the castle; lift or stairs.  Some more foolish travelers opted for the stairs; scaling countless steps, which continually encircled a shaft of light, our only indication of higher ground.  Just when it seemed the burning in our legs was unbearable, a new kind of heat met us—the sun.  Emerging from the sleek concrete stairwell, our feet and eyes met a medieval world of stone.  Stone paths, walls and structures elevated us above the hustle and bustle of the market and provided us with spectacular views.  The surrounding mountains were dotted with homes, vineyards and two other castles, Montebello Castle and Sasso Corbaro Castle.  Snapping pictures left and right, we peppered the grounds; crawling on rocks and walls, attempting to capture the picturesque landscape that surrounded us.  After a bit, we found a nice shady space at the base of a tower to pause for lunch before trekking onward to Montebello Castle, close to the eye but so far away!

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Back on the stone brick streets, we marched through the market and ducked into a pathway along a central church.  Just a few steps off the main street, we begin our second hike.  A winding, steady and steep trip had us panting in no time, only a minor inconvenience dampening our expedition.  Once at the top, however, Montebello was a bit more accessible than Castlegrande. Here, we were able to cross draw-bridges and climb to stone look-outs—our sense of adventure enlivening the medieval structure.  We were not the only ones moving about, workers buzzed around setting-up a stage and seating in preparation for an evening event, illustrating the versatility of the space for both past and present uses.

Descending from the Castle, we planned the rest of the day.  The class portion of our day ended at 12:30 pm so some students chose to return to Riva, in hopes of exploring the lake and catching some rays.  Others hopped on the train westward to Locarno, a tourist town known for its lovely views and its historic relevance as the place the Locarno Pact was signed in 1925.  Once in Locarno, we immediately felt the anticipation of our fellow tourists, as they awaited a performance by Sting later that evening.  To escape the buzz for a bit, we bussed over to Ascona, a small fishing village that was transformed by artisans as an intentional community.  The compactly built old town provided a welcoming pedestrian atmosphere, enhanced by quaint shops and contemporary art studios.  Meeting at Lake Maggiore’s  edge, visitors and residents relaxed and ate along a restaurant and tree-lined waterfront.  Although, only a brief visit we could feel the charm and relaxed atmosphere that surrounded the historic town.

Tired from our day of exploring the Ticino Canton, most dozed on our return—breaking only to revisit Bellinzona during a train change.  Here the main street remained just as inviting, even without the activity of the market.  Little vehicular traffic imposed on our brief time between trains—making for a slow meandering.  Even though the main street had calmed, the in-between spaces that connect the market to the castles and landscape remained alive.

Only now can I reflect on why Ascona and Bellinzona standout as my favorite destinations thus far.  In both localities, the streetscape and overall urban design truly embraced human-scale.  The built environment did not overwhelm your sense of place and being. Instead, it reinforced the human activities that were occurring, all while seamlessly integrating the natural environment.  Saturday’s travels throughout Ticino gave me a more comprehensive view of the diversity in its major cities and landscape, knowledge that will undoubtedly contribute to our analysis of this region.

Author: Lauren Bulka, Graduate, Urban Affairs and Planning, Virginia Tech.

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