All roads lead to Bellinzona, the fortified valley city that guards the important European crossroads of the St. Gotthard and San Bernardino routes. The capital of Ticino, its importance through the ages is evident in the three massive fortified castles that rise over its ancient center. As the only example of late-medieval military architecture preserved along the Alpine range, the castles and fortifications have been named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. They were built by the Sforza and Visconti families, the dukes of Milan who ruled northern Italy and its environs for centuries. In the 15th century many of the surrounding valleys began falling into the hands of the expanding Swiss Confederation. Bellinzona, however, remained Italian until Milan itself—as well as Bellinzona—was occupied by the French in 1503. Bellinzona decided to cast its lot in with the confederation. Ironically, the names of the castles that had been built in part to keep the Swiss at bay were then changed to Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwalden—the three core cantons of the Swiss Confederation. Eventually the names were changed again, and the fortresses are known today as Castelgrande, Castello di Montebello, and Castello di Sasso Corbaro.

The three castles have been exceptionally well restored, and each merits a visit (a walk along the ramparts at night is particularly appealing), but the city itself should not be overlooked. It's a classic Lombard town, with graceful architecture, red cobblestones, and an easy, authentically Italian feel. Plus, it's relatively free of tourists and thus reveals the Ticino way of life, complete with a lively produce market on Saturday featuring boar salami, wild mushrooms, and local cheeses.

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