We Had Fun Storming Bellinzona’s Castles

From Lugano, we took a day trip to Bellinzona.  Bellinzona’s three medieval castles (Castelgrande, Castello di Montebello and Castello di Sasso Corbaro) and their fortifications are among the most important examples of medieval defensive architecture in the Alps. These fortifications are also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Living in Switzerland, we have castle fatigue.  Poor us.  We happily forego an opportunity to see castles if they aren’t great.  My buddy Rick Steves’ has a list of Europe’s 10 best castles.  I’ve been lucky enough to see a fair number of them and some others, like Windsor Castle, that didn’t make his list.  You can’t swing a dead cat in Switzerland without hitting a castle or the ruins of one (sometimes they’re cooler than the ones still standing).   As a UNESCO World Heritage site, Bellinzona’s castles were supposed to be pretty good and they were definitely worth the trip.

Castelgrande is Bellinzona’s oldest and largest castle.  It overlooks the Old Town. They have built an ingenious elevator/stair system that allows to visitors access the castle from the rock underneath, from inside.  It beats the old school method of scaling the walls.  Castelgrande has a little museum with a cool video that documents Bellinzona’s history and the history of its castles.

Wear whatever you want, but I’d imagine that it is hard to climb the ramparts in these bad boys.

The castles of Montebello and Sasso Cobaro are up the hill above the town.  Although floods destroyed a large part of the medieval fortifications, large chunks of the immense wall remain.   You can see them the photo above.

If you were to ask an eight year-old to draw a castle, they would draw Montebello.  It looks like your stereotypical castle. We climbed the ramparts, posed on the drawbridge and enjoyed the wonderful views.  Montebello’s interior buildings contain a museum with archaeological discoveries and artifacts from Bellinzona that date back to Roman times.

Montebello’s museum also had weaponry.  I had to get a picture with the gun that was about my size.  Who in the heck was large enough to fire this thing?

Magglio, the Luger and Sneaky Pete, got disbelieving looks and thumbs up from people when we told them we hiked up to Castello di Sasso Corbaro.  It was a beautiful day and the views were even better.  From there, you could easily see the mountain passes come together just north of Bellinzona and why it was so strategically important (click here for a panoramic view).

 

Advertisements

Colorful Colmar

I’ve been lucky enough to travel a fair amount in Europe, but never to Alsace (France) and always wanted to see it.  On the way to visit some friends in Germany, we stopped for a night.  We chose to stay the night in Colmar because it is a Rick Steves’ pick.  If it’s good enough for Rick, it’s good enough for me.  As usual, he didn’t let me down.

Alsatian towns are known for cobblestone streets, restored half-timbered buildings painted a myriad of colors and decorated with flowers.  Colmar is no exception.   Colmar is a larger than most with several distinct neighborhoods.  The Petit Venise quarter doesn’t look much like Venice (its canals don’t look much like Brugges either).  Regardless, you still want to stroll the streets and take pictures.

The “Fishermen’s quarter” is where fishermen and merchants sold fish and seafood here until mid 20th century.

Another famous neighborhood, the Quartier des Tanneurs contains tall houses with rooftop porches where Tanners dried their hides.  These tiny neighborhoods look wonderful in the summer, but are apparently also popular in the winter.  Colmar (and nearby Strasbourg) are known for their Christmas market and festive decorations.

Colmar has several unique old buildings.  The Ancienne Douane (Old Customs’s House), La Maison des Têtes (its intricate façade is ornamented with 106 heads, têtes in French), and the gothic Cathédrale Saint-Martin.

Colmar’s Museum of Unterlinden houses Matthias Grünewald‘s Issenheim Alterpiece.  Acclaimed as one of the most dramatic and moving pieces of art, it is unique and filled with iconography.   While I’m not one for most religious art, it was impressive.  The story behind it is interesting.   The religious community of Issenheim cared for the sick and terminally ill.  Depicting realistic pain, misery, Christ’s death and resurrection, analogized their suffering.

Although it might not be immediately obvious, many consider this one of the most exciting works in the history of German art!

We spent another couple of hours examining the museum’s other art, weapons, gold beer steins and other everyday objects from Alsace’s history.  From masterpieces to the everyday, it is one of the better museums we’ve seen.  Even on one of the first sunny summer days it merits a visit.  For us, the 10 most interesting things were:

  1. We saw people performing restoration work on a painting in the middle of the museum.  It was fascinating to watch them work.  I don’t think my eyesight or hand-eye coordination is good enough for that job.
  2. I stumbled into a room with a series of woodcut prints by Albrecht Durer.  I’m a fan of his and excited to see them up close.  They were pretty sweet.
  3. He liked the collection of old wine making equipment.  If you need to hide some bodies, you could definitely do in their giant wood casks.
  4. I couldn’t help but laugh at some of the suits of armor.  Just like the suits we saw at the Tower of London, there were excessively large codpieces that made me giggle and suits large enough to fit Pavarotti.
  5. He liked the old guns, swords helmets and instruments of punishment/torture.
  6. It was fun to compare the old paintings of Colmar to what we saw strolling the streets.  Some of the areas above were instantly recognizable!
  7. How could you not want to drink out of the gold and silver beer steins?
  8. Populated since the Neolithic era, the museum had archaeological finds in the basement, including burial sites replete with skeletons from Alsace.
  9. The museum itself is pretty sweet.  Housed in a former convent from the 13th century, it remains calm, orderly and detailed.
  10. Cheeky sculptures

Someone should have gone easy on the tartes

Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the French sculptor who designed the Statute of Liberty is from Colmar.  The town is justifiably proud of its hometown boy made good.  His sculptures (above) and tributes to his work decorate the town…and the traffic circles.  They are clearly proud of their hometown boy who made it to the big time.   Thanks for Lady Liberty Freddie!

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?

Hey Hey Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s Old Town

Stockholm is one of the prettiest cities we have ever seen.  Lots of European cities have old towns (Fribourg, MalmöGeneva, Prague, Annecy).  Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town, charming.  It is an island connected to the rest of the city by bridges.  The buildings date from the 13th century.  We loved strolling Västerlånggatan in Gamla Stan.  There are lots of boutiques, cafés and restaurants.

It is enchanting with cobblestone streets, narrow alleys, old architecture, lanterns, boutiques, antique shops and cafés.   Parts of it are filled
 with souvenir shops and restaurants, and the like.  Yeah, they are a bit of a tourist trap (especially Västerlånggatan), but they don’t make the old town worth writing off.

Wander the side narrow streets.  Look for the signs above doors that indicate the building has paid its fire insurance (thanks Rick Steves).  Notice tons of other period details.  Find places with some Swedes.  Trust me when I tell you, it’s great fun.

For those who get bored after their 20th (or 2nd) palace, Stockholm has some swingin’ history.  Loads of writers and artists pickled themselves here.  It also has some gory history.  In 1520, the bloodbath of Stockholm took place here.  80-90 people were executed in this square (near the Nobel Museum).

Plus, you never know who you might run into at the palace…

Prince Charles leaving Sweden’s Royal Palace

 

Top 10 Posts

I’ve had a lot of fun doing this blog and am surprised by how many people have checked in to see what we are up to.  Thanks.  Here are links to my top 10 most popular posts thus far:

1.     Fabulous Fabian Cancellara
2.     Proof That I Will Write About Absolutely 
        Anything
3.     Fall Fashion Trends
4.     I Love Rick Steves
5.     Expat 101 Lesson Six – How To Exit A 
        Parking Lot
6.     Driving In Switzerland
7.     Naughty Naughty, I Got A Speeding 
        Ticket
8.     B.Y.O.K. – Bring Your Own Kitchen
9.     Belgian Trappist Beers
10.   A Glorious Hike In The Shadow Of The 
        Eiger  

Here are a few of my favorites that didn’t make the above list:

He wants to be my top all time post.  Unfortunately, he cannot seem to top Fabian Cancellara and toilet paper.  I love him and he’s still tops in my book.

Las Aventuras De Los Gringos En Madrid

Last weekend, we met our friends, Boris and Natasha, in Madrid.  We did a walking tour from Rick Steves‘ book.
 
Boris and Natasha (names were changed to protect the not so innocent)
We started at Puerta del Sol.  The building below was Franco’s headquarters and people tried to escape from questioning by jumping.  Others claimed to have been thrown from the windows.
The square is also the place where Napoleon’s troops shot Spanish protestors that was commemorated in Goya‘s painting, The Third of May.
The Third of May 1808 by Francisco Goya, showi...

The Third of May 1808 by Francisco Goya, showing Spanish resisters being executed by Napoleon’s troops. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These days, it is a hugely popular public area where the biggest dangers were the huge lines to buy lottery tickets for the big drawing (the king won once) and the hordes of fashionistas at Topshop.
The guard’s hats are flat in the back so they can lean their head against the wall while smoking.  He says they wouldn’t catch anyone in a footchase.
Reading that page in the guidebook was so exhausting that we had to stop for sustenance…at a confiteria.
Sorry, they were so good that I we dug in before taking a picture.
We walked to Plaza Mayor,  a huge public space that was used for bullfighting, royal showboating, the Inquisition and its subsequent “bonfires”.  We saw it filled with a Christmas market.
We needed a cafe con leche, so we popped into a cafe.  They came with churros, so of course we had to eat them.  Properly fortified, we were ready to hit the market (Mercado de San Miguel).
Stuffed as we were, walking through was enough to make us hungry.  The food was so beautiful that I couldn’t stop taking pictures.
We went to a convent and bought some cookies (we didn’t intend for it to be a food tour even though it clearly turned into one).
File:Atentado en la calle Mayor..jpg
In 1906 there was a royal wedding procession past this spot. Someone threw a bomb along with the flowers. It killed 23. The statute below memorizes the dead.
Madrid’s Cathedral
The Royal Palace
Madrid is a really beautiful city.  We whiled away the afternoon strolling public squares, grand promenades and wonderful Retiro Park.
 
Un poquito Espagnol will get you a long way in Madrid.  I was delighted to realize I learned some by osmosis in the US.