Abruzzo has its share of castles, some of them are just glorious ruins while others have been beautifully restored. Almost every village boasts a tower, foundation or a few walls remaining from an ancient stronghold that remind us of this land’s glorious past, thriving economies, powerful nobles, bitter feuds and bloody sieges. Here are a few of my suggestions to put on your list of places to see in Abruzzo.
The formidable fortress above the village of Calscio has been named one of the most beautiful castles in the world by National Geographic. It is also the most photographed place in the region but don’t worry, you won’t have to elbow your way for the best Instagrammable spot. Although, it gets a fair amount of tourists in August, most of the year you’ll have the castle to yourself. Built in the 10th century, Rocca Calascio was used as an observation point from where signals were sent, using fire torches at night and mirrors in daylight, across the Tirino Valley and Navelli Plains. The fortress was enlarged over the following centuries. According to local legends, during the nights of the winter and summer solstice, ghosts gather around the castle. You can wonder around the ruins and admire stunning panoramic views any time of day or night. The observation tower is open every Sunday in summer.
Castello Piccolomini di Balsorano
Very few foreign visitors have heard of this one. A few decades ago, it used to be one of the most popular filming location with more than 30 Italian movies shot here. I have to add, though, most of them were horror or … ahm… pornographic works of questionable quality. Constructed in 1470 by the Piccolomini family, it was always used as a residential castle rather than a military fortress. The legend has it that the Piccolomini practised the “jus primae noctis”, the right of the first night with newly married women of the village. The ones that refused to sleep with the were thrown down from the ramparts. Despite the serious damage after the earthquake in 1915 and a not-so-careful restoration of some parts, the castle still retains its original Gothic and Renaissance features and beautiful frescoes. It houses a hotel and restaurant and is open for visits on request (call 00 39 337 668 068 to inquire).
Castello di Celano
One of the best-preserved ancient military structures in Abruzzo, the fortress dates back to the 14th century. Badly damaged in the earthquake of 1915, the castle’s splendour was restored in the 1950s but its magnificent frescoes were lost forever. Today, it is home to a sacred arts museum and the Ministry of Cultural Heritage offices. The views over the Fucino plains are to die for. I’ve seen some old paintings picturing Castello di Celano overlooking the Fucine lake, once the third largest in Italy, and am convinced that if it had not been drained in the 19th century, this part of Abruzzo would have become a major tourist destination today.
Castello di Bominaco
There is not much left from the castle but it still should be on your list of places to see in Abruzzo for several reasons. First of all, it is in a stunning location. Second, there is a beautiful chapel, Oratorio di San Pellegrino, near the castle with magnificent frescoes that is worth a visit. Constructed in the 12th century to guard the thriving Benedictine monastic community of Bominaco, the castle was one of the 99 castles that, according to a legend, founded the city of L’Aquila in 1254. In 1424, the mercenary captain Braccio da Montone during his rampage tour through Abruzzo destroyed the castle and the monastery. Although it was partially re-built in the 15th century, the fortress never regained its glory. Some locals believe that spirits of the victims massacred by Braccio da Montone still gather around the tower on dark moonless nights.
Another reason I love the Castello di Bominaco is because it gives you a clear idea how the fortresses in the area used to communicate. If you stand near the tower, you can see the castles of Rocca Calascio on the horizon as well as the fortress of San Pio Delle Camere across the valley and a few towns on the hills around. Being visible to each other, hey could send important messages lighting fires and flashing mirrors.
Castello di Salle Vecchio
As far as I know, this is the only castle in Abruzzo that has been in the same family for the last 400 years. Built in the 10th century as part of the defensive belt of the San Clemente Abbey (located in Castiglione a Casauria), Castello di Salle was an important military outpost in the Valley D’Orta. Over centuries, it changed many hands until it became a home of the noble Di Genova family in 1636. It remains in their possession today. Badly damaged in several earthquakes, the stronghold was restored by the owners 50 years ago and registered as a protected national monument. Small and rather cosy, the castle houses a history museum with the family’s collection of medieval arms, metal armor and documents. Visitors are allowed to take a glance at the private rooms of the nobles and see the bed where Napoleone Bonoparte once slept while visiting the Di Genova family. There is also a restaurant in the castle, which is open in summer.
Castello Ducale di Crecchio
Like any great castle, this one comes complete with a ghost. They say, the spirit of Duke De Riseis d’Aragona wonders inside the building on some nights. The castle has been through many turmoils: plundered and pillaged by Saracen pirates and feuding lords, damaged by earthquakes and reduced to rubble by the Allied forces, it rose from the ashes after a thorough restoration in the 1970s. The royal Savoy family visited this splendid abode on numerous occasions. Last visit was in 1943, when the last King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele III, his wife and son stayed here before fleeing on a boat from the port of Ortona. Historic documents say that the lady of the castle, Duchess Gaetana De Riseis, tried to convince the king to return to Rome. The room and bed where the King stayed miraculously survived the bombings. Today, the castle is home to the museum Museum of Byzantine and Early Medieval Abruzzo. In summer, the town of Crecchio hosts a wonderful event, A Cena con I Bizantini, with locals dressed in period costumes, guided visits to the castle and medieval food stands.