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Everyone passes through BELLINZONA, but few people bother to stop – their loss, since this graceful and beautiful old town is the perfect place to draw breath before hitting the lakeside glitz further south, and is a mellow introduction to the easy pace of the Ticino. A fortress since Roman times, Bellinzona occupies a prime valley-floor position, holding the keys to the great Alpine passes of the Novena (Nufenen), Gottardo (Gotthard), Lucomagno (Lukmanier) and San Bernadino. In 1242 it was bought by the Visconti family, dukes of Milan, who built a new castle atop the hill plum in the middle of the valley, while their allies, the Rusconi family of Como, built another castle slightly up the hillside. In the late fourteenth century, the newly independent Swiss confederates north of the Gotthard Pass, who had successfully thrown off Habsburg rule, started to look to secure their position by conquering the territory on the south side of the pass. They began a violent campaign against the Milanese forces in the 1420s, which spurred the Sforza dynasty – then in the ascendant in Milan – to reinforce the two existing castles at Bellinzona and build a third, even higher up the hillside. A massive chain of fortifications cut right across the Ticino valley at Bellinzona … but to no avail, since the Swiss won the town under the Treaty of Arona in 1503. Three centuries of domination and oppression followed, with Swiss overlords posted to Bellinzona to keep control of the peasantry. When Ticino became independent in 1803, Bellinzona, Locarno and Lugano shared the status of cantonal capital on a six-year rota, until Bellinzona was handed sole rights as capital in 1878. Since then, the town has earned a reputation as the poor relation of Locarno and Lugano – undeserved, since it might lack a lake, but it also lacks the hectic pace, the crowds and the touristic sheen of its bigger neighbours. Gentle Bellinzona is blessed with medieval architecture and picturesque churches galore, and also serves as the main access point for excursions into the wild and little-known Alto Ticino region.

Bellinzona’s February carnival, known as Rabadan, takes in a huge masked parade and festivities in and around the Old Town, starting on the Thursday before Mardi Gras and continuing all weekend. The town also hosts an array of music festivals, including a piano competition in late April and May; “Piazza Blues”, drawing some big-name performers to play open air on a weekend in late June (www.piazzablues.ch); and an opera festival in late July, with performances held in the open courtyard of Castelgrande – Carmen is slated for 2000, and Aida for 2001. Tickets for the blues festival (free or Fr.10), and the piano and opera festivals (Fr.50–130) can be had from the tourist office.

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