Seeking Castles and Scaling Mountains – Bellinzona & Locarno

The Romance Continues – Seeking Castles & Scaling Mountains

Bellinzona – Castlegrande

I did not suffer from any jet lag or experience any fatigue from my air travel to Switzerland. It was an 8-hour flight from Delhi to Milan, and before that a 2-hour flight from Pune to Delhi. Not counting the travel time between airports and final destinations. Maybe it was the excitement of being in a new country and taming the eager explorer within. Day 1 in Switzerland was a Sunday for us. Plans were drawn to step out early and stay out late, exploring all we could and cover as much ground. (The beauty of travelling with like minded people). 8 am was the decided rendezvous time. I woke up way before that to enjoy the morning lights.

The lane beside our hotel – Dawn with some night lights still at play.

We walked across the border passing the custom offices of Switzerland first, followed by the Italian post. Border is called Dogana and they have it written in big letters. Pontè Chiasso is  a place we encountered immediately after the border posts. This is the last stop for Italian buses headed towards Chiasso. The neighborhood had an uphill road that drove into Como, Italy. We spotted a small café  with two tiny chairs on the pavement. They had just opened and the only thing available was espresso and some left over croissants from the night before. While talking to the barista, someone mentioned “Castles”! We scurried back to the train station to get hold of a map; since it gives the entire exploring feeling a genuine kick! The train station was back in Chiasso and a 5-minute walk away. Through broken English and sign language, the attendant at the train station circled a place called Bellinzona and confirmed castles did exist there. We paid for the train tickets – one way; and she threw in the map for free!

The Swiss trains are probably one of the best you will experience in Europe. Not only are they maintained brilliantly, but the entire experience of the ride is simply poetry in motion! With our tickets punched at the train station, we got onto the train and were spoilt for choice. It was empty! We had the whole train to ourselves! I stood by the glass door, leaning against the support pillar, camera ready. My first train ride in Switzerland – an experience in itself, as the country enthralled me with views, even in an unknown place like Chiasso. A land of valleys and lakes, the scenes I got to witness were simply incredible!

So off we were to Bellinzona – seeking castles and maybe a princess locked up in a tower!

And…we were off…

 

Poetry in Motion – A small photo essay on the first train ride in Switzerland

 

Not sure if my cell phone camera does justice – I tried my best to capture. Pardon the flash though. For a first time traveller and novice blogger, I think these shots are still great!

The two-hour train ride was spectacular, however by now we had rumblings in the tummy as we hadn’t had any breakfast yet. The first thing to do in Bellinzona was to grab a bite. The air in Bellinzona was nippy even at 10:30 am. Winter still had its presence I thought. Sunday is when everyone is away, with all the shops closed and streets deserted. Barring, of course, a couple of bars and restaurants. We walked aimlessly as the map we had, was of Switzerland in entirety and not a detailed one of Bellinzona. The locals gave us conflicting directions. And with empty stomachs, we were all a little cranky. So, given that not everyone ate beef and pork and since the locals did not indulge in chicken as much as we’d love them to, we gave the restaurants a pass. The Wi-Fi was better here and one of our phones performed and fired up the local GPS. A 20- minute walk took us to the nearest McDonalds’ (BLEH). The vegans and chicken meat eaters could now eat. (though the vegans had to suffice with french fires and some salad in between bread.) A burger, fries, coke & satisfied hunger pangs later, the only English speaking crew member at McDonalds’ chalked out a route for us towards the castle. We thanked her profusely and started off in earnest. Had to cover up for the lost time. We encountered a few Ferraris on our way to the castle – all zooming in and out about town. Such show offs!

The Church of San Peter, Paul and Stephen. Bellinzona. The bell tower far off behind was clearly visible from the ramparts of Castlegrande!

 

The entire city has Wi-Fi and you stay connected as you move from one place to another. I read up a bit about Bellinzona while we were walking towards the castle. Given that there were castles here, the place has got to have history. Bellinzona dates back to the medieval times and is currently the capital of the Canton of Ticino in Switzerland. When Bellinzona fell to Milan, it flourished under the House of the Visconti. Trade flourished, as an alternative trade route opened up. This brought the creation a long wall built around the city, called “The Murata” allowing Milan to tax the route. We saw a part of the Murata as we approached the castle.

Part of the Murata or The City Wall

Bellinzona is known for its 3 castles which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The three castles are- Castlegrande, Montebello, and Castle Sasso Corbaro. Castlegrnade is the one we visited and is connected to Montebello. Castlegrande has a restaurant just outside before you can enter, with its own vineyard and some delicious smelling food. We asked if we could taste some grapes straight off the vines and the staff was generous enough. The grapes were sour, still in their nascent stages of growth, I presumed. A series of steps through steep twisty town lanes led to the Castle.

One of the many vineyards, spotted on the way up to Castlegrande!

Castlegrande has been fortified since the late 1st century and still stands tall. It’s watch tower overlooks the city and in more modern times now, the castle plays host to concerts. There were preparations for one on the castle grounds. Lush green meadows bordered by stone wall ramparts greeted us when we entered the castle. These were the outer grounds of the castle and you have to purchase tickets if you wish to proceed further inside. I didn’t come across any tour guides and tour groups here. While we accessed the castle by climbing some steep narrow streets from the city center, you can also reach it via an elevator from the other side at “the foot of the rock”.

Castlegrande – First Sight
Steep steps lead the way to the castle. The narrow street lanes are not this steep though.
Cobblestoned Gateway
Outer grounds.
Ramparts – Castlegrande
Parting Shot – Disappointed not to have found the princess! 😉

 

LOCARNO – ORSELINA – CARDADA – CIMETTA

Done with exploring Castlegrande and enjoying our walk in the narrow steep streets of Bellinzona, we still had a lot of day left and definitely didn’t want to waste it travelling back. Locarno showed up on the map and was just a half hour train ride away.  Located on the shores of Lake Maggiore and lying again at the foot of the Alps, Locarno seemed worth a try. I am glad we made this choice. Like they say, an unplanned trip always bears the sweetest fruits. What had begun as an aimless exploration in the morning was taking solid shape and form now. Locarno is an Italian speaking town and plays host to the Locarno International Film Festival. A quick and scenic train ride later we were in Locarno. Tip – Its best if you purchase a day pass for train rides if you are going to ride it all day. Hard lesson learnt. Nevertheless, Locarno presented itself with more people – a welcome sign as Bellinzona was deserted and though the population of these places cannot be compared to our overflowing one at home, you kind of start feeling depressed if you don’t see people around. Locarno had hordes of people. The air was fresh, streets organized and the traffic disciplined – nobody honks…ever!

Roll the dice!

We brisk walked towards the lake front and were contemplating a ferry ride. The ferry had just left and would take another hour. Souvenir shops by the lake front presented good amusement while we waited. Across the road, we spotted a mountain and a funicular. On inquiring we were told it leads to Cimetta – a mountain top, and has a series of funiculars with the final ascension through a chair lift. We dumped the ferry plan and decided to scale up for a bird’s eye view of the town. Splendid idea, as Cardada – one stop before Cimetta catered to adventure sports like hang gliding. You can also rent a mountain bike and bicycle all the way to the mountain top. Use this link  for more information.

The first ride upwards was through a manual funicular which resembled a toy train. It twisted and turned along the tracks that were carved out into the mountain and 15 minutes later dropped us off at Orselina.

Towards Orselina

 

Orselina is known for the Sanctuary of Madonna del Sasso, the principal sight that drives pilgrims in the city. Orselina and the sanctuary lie above the city of Locarno. The founding of the sanctuary and pilgrimage church of Madonna del Sasso goes back to the vision of  Virgin Mary. The sanctuary has a platform that provides a spectacular view of the city. We did not venture inside the sanctuary as we wanted to scale up further. To Cardada.

The sanctuary of Madonna del Sasso – With its spectacular view of Lake Maggiore!

A round trip, Orselina – Cardada – Cimetta set us back by 36CHF. The funicular from Orselina – Cardada was unmanned and was a glass box suspended. It took us to Cardada, swinging like a pendulum initially but stable as it ascended offering gorgeous vistas of Lake Maggiore and the city of Locarno below. The funicular can get crowded and its bet if you head up in front to gather as many vistas as possible. The lake with its piers looked serene, picture perfect.

Vistas of Locarno from the Funicular

 

The funicular took about 10 mins to get up to Cardada. It was beautiful. A small trail ran through the mountain towards the Chair Lift for Cimetta. We decided to savor it in first and take it slow. A resto bar built in a bungalow with a platform overlooked Orselina and way below Locarno. A mug of beer each to celebrate the view was in order.

It was an overcast day and the entire place through the lens of my cell phone camera had a bluish tinge. At about 4:30 pm in the afternoon, it was nippy and we could see clouds floating by. Cardada had a telescope and you could view the expanse through it for 1CHF for about 5 mins approximately. A stroll through the nature trail took us to the chair lift for the final leg of the ascension. Onwards and upwards to Cimetta! The chair lift has just one bar that runs across the passengers to keep them from falling off, I was expecting something more. If you are over enthusiastic with your camera, be cautious. You don’t want broken bones as the price for a selfie now, do you? A circular motor operates the numerous chairs transporting people, a simple mechanism that saves time.  You can hike it up if you like or go mountain biking all the way to Cimetta. The air was cooler at the top and views were incredible. I will let the pictures do the talking since, “a picture is worth a thousand words”

The chair lift towards Cimetta.
Beautiful vistas await as you ascend

An hour later, we decided to head back down. The last funicular from Cardada to Orselina runs every 30 minutes and the link shared earlier should help you with all the details you would want to plan your adventure, should you visit this place.

Back in Locarno, we shopped for some eatables to have on the train. You have mobile apps for train timetables and they list down everything. If your internet doesn’t work, for any reason, the best you can do is look for someone who can understand broken Italian and English to converse in for directions. We juggled platforms to finally catch a train headed for Milan that would stop at Chiasso, after boarding a couple of wrong ones. Hey! Don’t blame us. It was the first day! The train ride back was made up of stretching my legs with the head plopped over the shoulder, gazing out of the enormous windows of the carriage. The sun had started his descend painting the sky crimson! Venus, far away started shining brightly and I knew, I wouldn’t need a lullaby to fall asleep tonight. A day explored well indeed!

Have you been to Switzerland? Drop in to share your travel story in the comments below!

 

 

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