The weekend weather forecast for Zurich and all of northern Switzerland was looking rather wet, but I really wanted to squeeze in one more hike before the fall chill sets in. An officemate suggested Bellinzona, the capital of the Italian-speaking corner of Switzerland – the canton of Ticino. This small city is often overlooked next to its glitzier lakeside neighbor, Lugano, but has a lot to offer. UNESCO recognizes its three medieval castles as a world heritage site, and the surrounding hills include a web of well-organized hiking trails. Read on, and check out the photo gallery.
We set out early on Sunday morning on the IC2, a fast, direct train from Zürich to Bellinzona, which passes under the Alps. The Gotthard Base Tunnel was opened just three years ago, and is the world’s longest railway and deepest traffic tunnel. An astonishing engineering feat! But, of course, there is nothing to see but blackness during the ~15 minutes we spent speeding under the Alps.
We headed directly to Monte Carasso, a small suburb of Bellinzona, where there is a gondola to take hikers and tourists up the hill above the valley. After purchasing tickets and studying the trail map, Andy and I set off toward the trailhead while Pam explored the nearby village, with a plan to meet for lunch at Curzútt.
We were short on time so we scurried quickly up the steepest approach, the gray trail next to the word “Sementina” on the map above; then across the impressive Ponte Tibetano bridge – a 270m suspension bridge crossing the deep valley at the center of the map above.
The hike itself was pleasant, through a dense forest of chestnut trees. It is chestnut season, and the forest floor is literally carpeted with chestnuts. Amazing! Although we saw a few visitors filling small bags with a few chestnuts to take home, it appears chestnuts are no longer an economically viable crop. Some informational signs indicate that the local forest service has arranged selective cutting and pruning to diversify the forest for a broader range of fruit and nut crops.
We met Pam at Curzútt, a tiny village that appears to have been refurbished by a local foundation to serve as a hotel and restaurant, just a hop off the funicular railway. What a treat, to enjoy fresh Italian pasta and wine, in a beautiful outdoor setting!
We took the funicular railway (gondola) to the top (Mornero), which may (on a clear day) offer nice views and sunshine, but today was rather hazy and cloudy. It was interesting to see the Via ferrata hikers returning from their ascent – a style of trail that is a sort of cross between hiking and climbing, requiring one to wear a harness and clip into fixed safety cables, otherwise not requiring technical climbing skills.
After a speedy descent back to the valley, Andy headed home while Pam and I took time to explore CastleGrande – the largest and oldest of the three medieval castles that once controlled this strategic valley and its approach to trade routes over the Alps. It is in impressively good condition, and its towers offer distant 360º views of the valley, even today. Below is Castlegrande seen from atop one of its extended walls; Montebello castle is seen on the hilltop at right.
It was pouring rain when we returned to Zürich. It’s wonderful to be able to escape to a totally different weather and terrain simply by hopping on a train three blocks from home, and a 90-minute train ride.
Check out all the photos in the gallery.