IMMERSE YOURSELF: If you love castles you have to check out the three UNESCO castles in the city of Bellinzona.
IMMERSE YOURSELF: If you love castles you have to check out the three UNESCO castles in the city of Bellinzona. Contributed

All aboard for a trip into our ancient past

I LOVE a castle, and in my travels I've capered and cavorted over many. The three UNESCO castles in the city of Bellinzona, down the Italian end of Switzerland, are probably three of the most preserved and restored of all I've encountered.

Getting to the castles in Bellinzona is almost as good as visiting these three beauties.

A small tourist train - Trenino Artu, much like a child's choo choo train - departs in front of the imposing theatre (Teatro Social) in the Piazza Governo, and it's quite the quirky experience.

On our visit on a quiet Sunday morning after one of the World Cup finals (everyone but us was sleeping in), we were alone on the little train.

Off we trundled - feeling a bit silly taking up the entire train to ourselves - out of the pretty town past monuments and flower-bedecked roundabouts, to make an ascent that took us, it seemed, to the very heavens.

As the little train trundled higher and higher, the views of the city became more scenic, more impossibly beautiful.

Just when we thought the little train couldn't possibly make it around another tight bend or choof any higher, it stopped and off we trotted to explore the Castle Castegrande, the big daddy of them all, high on a rocky pinnacle overlooking a verdant valley.

There is something unattractively smug about having an ancient castle all to yourself on a Sunday morning.

It's yours to enjoy alone, to snap photos of yourself against its mighty walls, walls that obviously hold many dark secrets.

The castles were built in medieval times to block access to the Ticino valley to northern populations and control tolls and roads to S. Gotthard. Over the aeons these castles have seen it all.

Now, as well as delighting tourists such as us, they are the backdrop for musical concerts. On summer evenings as the sun goes down the ancient walls become mysterious and magical and look like works of art. If you've ever been privileged to attend a concert in any one of Europe's ancient settings, you'll know that goose bumpy feeling of awe mixed with envy. If only we had such history.

More on www. and www.myswitzerland. com/rail (for a Swiss Pass).