This week, we had Monday off school. It was a beautiful autumn day that called to be outdoors and this saw a visit to the three castles and stone walls of Bellinzona.
Bellinzona is a strategically important city which lies in the middle of the Ticino valley corridor that links Milan to the St. Gotthard Pass, the Nufenen Pass, the Lukmanier Pass, and the St. Bernard Pass, the principal access routes to the northern alps and the Danube beyond. It has a long history dating back to the Neolithic period, and a very rich and fascinating story of siege and occupation that I could almost feel as I wandered through what was there.
The site consists of a group of fortifications grouped around the castle of Castelgrande, which sits on a rocky peak in the town itself. Thick stone walls, which once ran across the entire valley, line the town and hillsides, and two other castles, the highest of which I am told is a “keep” complete the ensemble that gained UNESCO listing in 2000.
I have visited many castles, and while I have found some to be more personally impactful, there is no question that the extent of this grouping was something unique.
Castelgrand, as I mentioned, was right in the middle of town. The structure itself was impressive and well restored, and hosted a historical section that held comprehensive documentation of the human settlements of the last 6500 years on the castle hill as well as a series of tempera drawings that once adorned a 15th century town house.
Following this visit it was time for a light “peasant” lunch. Rather than go to one of the local restaurants, street food or fast food places, I chose to go to the market buy some bread, cheese and tomatoes and sit in the square as life wandered by. Eating in this way has always been very special for me. I have met very few people who willingly share in the appreciation of such fare, and every time I nourish myself in this way it brings back fond memories of close friends. I could have sat and dwelt on this for longer, but time was passing and it was up the cascade of steps to the second castle, Montebello.
This castle was unlike the first in that that there were two drawbridges, one either side of a moat, that provided access to the inner grounds. What made me smile, in a kind of an “oh!” moment was that, unlike the movies I have seen, these gates were not drawn open by rotating a wheel, but were cantilevered. In fact, the whole engineering of the structure really was something to behold. As with the first castle, this one held a museum, this one curated by the Cantonal Office for Cultural Assets. The collection dated from the Stone Age to Romanticism, the stages that marked human history in the region, and delved into some topics, such as the introduction of the first form of writing in the area, clothing and adornment, and the funeral rites that were found in the past.
While all of this was greatly impressive, those that know me well would know that I am a deeply sensory person. I was drawn to the feel of the stone, to its warmth in the sun and its coolness in the shade, to its texture as I drew my palm across it. This is the sort of experience that begs me to consider the past and ask questions of those who have walked in that place before me. With these thoughts in mind, I lay myself on a welcoming piece of sun-drenched, time weathered gneiss at the edge of a swathe of lawn, watched the sky above shift as the minutes passed, and listened to the gleeful babble of the children in my midst.
The final stronghold, Sasso Corbano, was another ten minutes walk up the hill. This much smaller geometric structure was built in 1479, in just over six months, by Sforza architect Benedetto Ferrini to complete the defensive barrier meant to prevent the Swiss Confederates from reaching Milan. The gem of this visit, however, was not the castle itself but the exhibition it housed. The tour started with a movie of the Renaissance, in Italian, of course, and focused on the contributions of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. However, it wasn’t their story, per se, that gave me goose bumps, but, rather, the images of Florence and of the steps I sat on almost twenty years ago as I watched the world go by. I promised myself, at that moment, that I will get there again soon, either by train or car.
Enough reminiscing and planning. Past the old dry well and up the stairs, the learning continued, culminating in an exhibition of a clutch of Raphael’s original preparatory drawings that were borrowed from Viennese Galleries and the Louvre. From there it was onto the ramparts and then back down to the exit for the saunter down the hill to the town below.
I really didn’t know what to expect on this day, but as I reflected on it in the early evening, I once again thought of how fortunate I am to be in a place that holds so much to see, to do, and to be. This is life being lived.