Our Balade In Bellinzona

 

Bellinzona would be epic (and possibly ruined) if it were located on a lake.  Instead, it is strategically located at the confluence mountain passes and near others (NufenenSt. GotthardLukmanierSan Bernardino and the Poebene).  At one time, it was the capital of the region.

Bellinzona’s Old Town is graceful and enchanting.  It has beautiful, ornate merchants’ houses, stone gateways, wrought iron balconies and peaceful courtyards.  It is car free.  If you ignore the other tourists strolling the alleyways, it is easy to transport yourself to a bygone era.

It’s not glitzy, but its richly decorated patrician houses, beautiful churches and charming streets are relaxing and seductive.  You can literally feel your blood pressure drop.  Walking the streets, you want to stop, enjoy the atmosphere and take in all the colorful details.

This peacefulness is ironic.  Bellinzona doesn’t derive its name from its beauty (Belle or Bella), but from “zone bellica” which translates into “war zone.”   The main evidence of the city’s turbulent past are its castles and fortifications which are just outside the old town.

 

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Lugano At Night

 

Lugano was beautiful at night and the weather was warm enough to enjoy a stroll.  We walked down to the city past the San Lorenzo Cathedral and enjoyed the view. The steep, narrow streets head up from the Old Town to the San Lorenzo Cathedral.  We walked past it on the way to the hotel and paused to enjoy the view.

 

Thun Is Adorable And How To Finance A Bachelor Party

After a big hike in Thun, we spent the night there.  It is so cute, how could we not?  Plus, we were exhausted after the hike.

After fortifying ourselves with delicious Indian food from a stand at the Indian Film Festival in town, we off in search of someplace to watch the European Cup games.

As we strolled the town in search of somewhere to watch the European Cup games outside, we learned how to finance a bachelor party.  Gentleman (and perhaps ladies), take note.

Buddies take the groom out with some beverages.  Passers by put a contribution in the hat and are rewarded with a refreshing drink.  It’s kind of like a lemonade stand, um, more or less.

Congratulations!

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Bellinzona’s Strategic Location

Bellinzona has been a fortress since Roman times due to its strategic location.  It is located on the valley floor at the base of the great alpine passes of the St. Gotthard, San Bernardino and Lucomagno (Lukmanier).

Romans built fortifications on the spot where Castelgrande now sits.   The nearby town of Bellinzona is named not for the Italian bella (“beautiful”), but for the Latin bellum (“war”), and this truly was a medieval war zone. Several castles in Bellinzona recall a pivotal Swiss victory in 1513. With this success, the Swiss gained a toehold in Ticino.

The Duke of Milan (the Visconti family) purchased Bellinzona in 1242.  They built a new castle atop the town.  Later, their allies, the Rusconi family of Como, built Montebello up the hill.

The Swiss, invigorated by their victory over the Hapsburgs at the Battle of Sempach and wanting to protect their newly won independence decided that possessing strategic Bellinzona on the other side of the Alps would reinforce their defenses.  They began their campaign in the 1420’s.  In response, Milan’s current rulers, the powerful Sforza family, reinforced the castles and built Sasso Corbaro even further up the hill.  They also built a massive chain of fortifications that extended across the valley.

It took the Swiss about 100 years, but they won.  In 1516, Bellinzona became part of the Swiss Federation.  The Swiss did their best to ensure that they kept it.   For the next 300 years, Swiss overlords oppressed and controlled the local population.

The three castles (Castelgrande, Castello di Montebello and Castello di Sasso Corbaro) and their accompanying fortifications are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Ciao Bella Lugano

We took the Bernina Express train and bus around Lake Como to get to Lugano. Lugano is the largest and busiest town in the Italian part of Switzerland.  Depending on who you believe, it’s Switzerland’s second or third most largest banking center.  In his book on Switzerland, Rick Steves’ says George Bush is rumored to pop in yearly.  If it’s true, I can’t blame him.  Lugano has better weather than Geneva or Zurich.  While we were enjoying the sun, it hailed in Geneva.

Looking at Lugano, you can tell it has some money.  High-end boutiques and private banks line the lakefront.  Luckily for us, it is also lined with parks, statues, flowers and shaded walks.  While that is all pretty standard for Switzerland, its Italianate Lombardy style buildings let you know you are south of the Alps.

Lugano isn’t magnificent, but it is pretty and interesting.  Surrounded by mountains, Lugano has a traffic-free historic town center, and wonderful Italian food.

Piazza della Riforma is Lugano’s liveliest square.  As the name of implies, Lugano has a progressive spirit.  The region (Ticino) gave Napoleon the finger by creating the independent Republic of Ticino.  Italian revolutionaries met in Lugano (near Milan but safely over the border in Switzerland) to plan Italian unification.  From teenagers joking with each other, to couples strolling, to children chasing pigeons to flashy Italian sports cars in garish colors, there was always something happening in the square.

Via Nassa is one of Lugano’s main shopping streets.  Like Geneva, that are lots of places to spend your money while killing time before your meeting with your private banker.

Lugano isn’t flat.  If you aren’t up for climbing some hills, you can take the funicular.  You can ride it for free with your Swisspass train pass.   Please note that I mentioned free in a post about Switzerland.  It doesn’t happen every day.

We strolled through Parco Civico Ciani on the shores of Lake Ceresio.  It has subtropical plants, loads of flowers and ancient trees.

With its Italian influenced culture, the smell of Italian food wafting through the air and mild climate, it is easy to forget that you are not in Italy.  Lugano put up signs on how to cross the street in Switzerland.  I am not sure whether it is for the pedestrians to learn how it is done in Switzerland or to provide guidance for dealing with the many Italian drivers.

Lake Lugano (like many of the lakes in the region, including Lake Como) is polluted and swimming isn’t advised.  This is unusual for Switzerland.  How can you not want to jump into this baby?

Chur, We Can’t Pronounce It But We Liked It

Chur, the capital of the Graubünden canton (state/province), is Switzerland’s oldest city.  It has been continuously inhabited since Roman times, but archaeological evidence has turned up evidence of inhabitation in the bronze and iron ages (over 11,000 years ago).

Like many european towns, Chur’s old town is car-free.  This helps give it a great atmosphere.  In 1464, much of Chur burned in a massive fire.  It was rebuilt by German artisans who left their mark. The old town is rich with great architecture that looks a bit more German than the nearby Heidiland.

It is one the largest city with the most amenities between Zurich and Milan.  Better yet, it has hiking trails and ski lifts that leave from the city itself!  About 50% of the area around the city is forests.  In a matter of minutes, you can walk from the old town to mountain forests.  Love it!

Chur has the highest average temperature of all Swiss cities.  Its location in a protected valley at foot of important Alpine passes gives it the “Föhn”, (a warm wind from the Swiss mountains). and wins with his vineyards a special picture.  Graubünden, is famous for its fine wines.  Some of the more famous ones,  Gravedona, Menaggio, Dongo, are the names of nearby towns.

Wine isn’t the only thing to drink in Chur.  Mineral quality water flows from the city’s taps and fountains.  We tasted it.  They weren’t lying.  It’s pretty darn good.  The water comes from the springs in the nearby Rabiosa Gorge (4 km/2.5 miles from Chur).

Although we had a wonderful meal filled with local specialities, Chur is cosmopolitan enough to boast over 130 divers restaurants that include French, Italian, Spanish, Thai, Japanese, Greek, Portuguese, Indonesian and Chinese.  That’s not bad for a little town in Heidiland.

We visited Chur in eastern Switzerland because it was the starting point for the Bernina Express, one of Switzerland’s epic train journeys.  After a visit, we’ve deemed it worthy of a return trip.  It’s a cute town and a great starting point for outdoor activities.  It is also a convenient place from which to travel to the more expensive St. Moritz, Davos and Klosters.

Chur is not pronounced like you might expect.  To complicate matters, it is pronounced differently in Swiss German, French and Italian.  In French (don’t quote me not this) it is pronounced like “Coire.”  In Swiss German, it sounds like “Kur.”  When in doubt, just point to it on a map, smile and pull our your best “bitte,” “mercy,” or “prego”.

Neuchâtel, As Cute As Any French Town…But Swiss

Last weekend, we stopped for a peak at Neuchâtel.  I’d heard it was cute, so we had to check it out.  From the French influenced architecture to the cafes that spill out onto squares, it looks and feels more French than the rest of Switzerland.

People have lived there since about 13,000 B.C., but a castle was built on the site in 1011.  From the name Neuchâtel, it’s assumed that it replaced an older one on the site (In French, Neuf = New and Chateau = Castle).  A town soon followed.  Needless to say, it’s been around long enough to develop some cool, quirky features.

The Seyon River  used to flow through the town (where Rue Seyon is now located).  It’s flooding was devastating and a tunnel was built diverting the river a few blocs.   To mark where the river once flowed, there is a little water feature running through the street.

Footbridge across castle moat.  Pretty sweet.  The best part is that it connects to a park.  How much would you like to play capture the fort here?

Empress Josephine slept here.

The Swiss officials drained millions of cubic feet from Lake Neuchâtel, in 1870, lowering the lake level by 10 feet.  As a result, formerly lakeside chateaus  and their stone banks now sit inland.  A good amount of Neuchatel’s lakeside is now lined with elegant promenades.  The Promenade Noir was urban infill on the new lakefront property.  The buildings on one side of the street date from the 1600’s and the other side date from the 1800’s.  The building above is across the street from the building below!

Nice looking post office on new lakefront property.

Many of Neuchâtel’s older buildings are made from the local, yellow sandstone.  It’s an amazing, rich, color.

It’s even got its own cheese.  I prefer Neuchâtel to Philadelphia Cream Cheese on a bagel.  It healthier too.  Heck, it may even be healthier than Philly light.  You can blow the calories you saved on some Swiss chocolate.

Although the lakeside had a pretty view of the Alps and Jura, we like the views from our lake (Lac Leman/Lake Geneva) better.  The views get better as you get higher.  Some of the surrounding areas have stunning views.  Sorry I couldn’t get any decent ones from the car window.

Neuchâtel watchmakers made delightful little mechanical figurines that are displayed in the Musée d’Art.  We visited on a holiday morning so it was closed.  We hear it’s worth a peek if you get the chance to visit though.

 

Thun, Worth Making A Stop On The Way To Interlaken

We’d passed by Thun, before.  It’s on the way to Interlaken and we’d heard there was a castle there.  We’d just never stopped to see it.  Last weekend was a long weekend so we weren’t on as much of a schedule.  Someone at his work told him that the town merited a stop and a stroll.  They were right.

The most important things to know about Thun are:

  • It is located on the Aare River at the lower end of Lake Thun.
  • The historic Old Town and the newer cafes and restaurants on the river are pretty freaking cute.
  • Of course it has a castle because no self-respecting cute Swiss town would be could dead without one.
  • The distance between the aforementioned castle is short, but very steep.  Welcome to the Bernese Oberland.

It sounds nice, but is pretty standard for Switzerland.

We found Thun to be unique with interesting features that make it one of the better Swiss towns.

The main shopping thoroughfare boasts terraced sidewalks built on the roofs of the stores’ first floors.  You can stroll the upper level or climb down stone stairs to visit the “sunken” street-level shops.

They have a covered bridge.

He loved the old bridge over the river. Yep, they retrofitted it to generate power.

Somehow, the town seems more colorful than cities like Bern, Zurich or Geneva.

Fribourg’s Wrought Iron Signs With Icons

I visited Fribourg.  It is a charming, medieval town.  Wonderful old details have been preserved and in the historic quarters many new additions are consistent with the traditional surroundings.  Before streets were numbered, buildings and businesses were identified by symbols carved into the buildings or signs hanging from them.  Walking through the streets, I noticed many hanging wrought iron signs with icons over shops, cafes, hotels, restaurants and other businesses.

Such signs were hugely popular in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Their purpose was to attract the public; they were a sort of advertising.  As a result, they were often artistic and elaborate. Even the metal posts from which they hung were elaborately worked.  They functioned not only to identify the business and as advertisement, but also as landmarks for directional information before street names and building numbers.

Over time, certain symbols became common on signs as a sort of code to help the illiterate public identify the nature of the business inside.  They include:

  • Bible = Bookseller
  • Civet Cat = Perfumer
  • Key = Locksmith
  • Mortar & Pestle = Apothecary
  • Red & White Striped Pole = Barber (the red stripe signifies the bloodletting they preformed)
  • Shoe = Shoemaker
  • Sugar Loaf = Grocer
  • Three Golden Balls = Pawn Broker (this became the symbol of the Medici family)
  • Eagle on a bolt of cloth = Merchants, finishers and dyers of foreign cloth
  • Lambs = Wool manufacturers and merchants
  • Alehouse = traditional garland of leaves or hops

Eventually, increased travel led to competition.  To differentiate themselves from their competition, signs began bearing the name of the business and a representative symbol for illiterate customers.  Over time, the sizes and heights became more or less standardized to keep those on horseback from banging their noggin.  While these types of signs were common in Europe, different areas enacted different rules governing their size and height.

I chuckled at some of the more modern twists on the signs.  WC means water closet.  This sign marks the entrance to public toilets.

Even Starbucks got themselves one.

I have to admit, they are a bit more charming (if less hypnotizing) than the giant neon signs that are so prevalent in the US.  Looking for pictures of them made me a bit homesick, but not hungry.

From Getty Images via The Telegraph

Fribourg, Freiburg, A Charming Town And Lots Of Fun In Any Language

Founded in 1157, Fribourg was a sovereign republic until it joined the Swiss Confederation in 1481. Fribourg sits in a valley between lakes and mountains with the Saane river (Sarine in French) flowing through it. It is a gorgeous setting, but this is Switzerland, where picturesque settings abound.  We’ve gotten accustomed to the incredible beauty and now almost expect it.  Fribourg did not disappoint.

Fribourg isn’t large (population 40,000), but is charming.  It is home to the University of Fribourg.  This gives the city a slightly more cosmopolitan atmosphere and the vibrancy of a university town.   It’s medieval neighborhoods are well-preserved and charming.  The buildings show a blend of French and German Swiss culture.

Fribourg is known for its beautiful Gothic buildings.  Its old patrician townhouses combine German baroque and French classicism.  They have tons of detail, from stone carvings to ornate doors, to places to scrape your shoes.  Architectural buffs and home decor enthusiasts will love them.

Wander the small, steep streets and medieval staircases.  If you get tired, you can easily stop at a cafe in one of its many cobblestoned squares adorned with fountains.  Fribourg also has a funicular for those less enthusiastic about urban hiking.

Walk across Fribourg’s beautiful bridges.  The Pont de Berne, is a well-preserved covered wooden bridge dating from 1580.  The solid, yet elegant, Central Bridge links the old town with opposing cliffs.

Crossing the river and climbing the hill on the opposite side yields stunning views of Fribourg’s Old Town.  The St. Nicholas‘s Cathedral  lofty 15th-century Gothic bell tower is also easily visible on the skyline.

The city hall’s (Hôtel de Ville) gothic clock tower dates from 1546 (the blue pointy thing).  On Wednesdays, the square in front of city hall houses a market.  The nearby Rue de Lausanne is a car-free pedestrian zone.

Fribourg is not just the name of the city.  It is also the name of the canton (like the state).  The canton of Fribourg is bilingual with the Saane river (Sarine in French) forming the language boundary. On one side, they speak French, on the other, Swiss  German. All road signs in the Canton are bilingual!

Fribourg is the French speaking of the city.  Freiburg is the German spelling, but is not commonly used to avoid confusion with the German town of Freiburg.

It is worth taking at least an afternoon to wander Fribourg’s streets.  We plan on returning to spend an evening there.