Abruzzo has practically as many castles as sheep, mainly due to its strategic location between the Tyrrhennian and Adriatic seas. The ancient Romans built myriad roads here, and after their empire fell, the network of highways and byways served as excellent inroads for foreign invaders, whose ranks included Lombards, Saracens, Hungarians, Normans, German Hohenstaufens, French Angevins and Spanish Aragonese.
During the Middle Ages, when most of these fortresses were built, their primary function was to provide a safe haven for neighboring villagers. During an attack, the Abruzzesi would round up their stock and hightail it up the hill, with barely a thought for the humble stone huts and few simple implements they were leaving behind. Sometimes they would be forced to bivouac for months within the castle's stout walls, surviving in extreme cases by slaughtering the sheep and cattle they'd brought along. For this reason, you'll find that most castles are built about halfway up the slope of the mountain. Temperatures and climatic conditions at the top were too severe for villagers to survive in improvised housing, and it was too far from the village to afford a safe retreat.
|The classic medieval castle was surrounded by a large grassy area that was in turn enclosed behind fortified walls. These were often built in the shape of an isosceles triangle pointing up the slope of the hill, and their perimeter was carefully calculated to allow all the villagers and their animals to comfortably fit inside. The best example of this set-up is San Pio delle Camere, which is basically a fine set of walls with a pentagonal watchtower at the uppermost vertex. The town it protected sits just below, within easy scampering distance.|
|Traveling south from L'Aquila on SS5bis, you'll soon come to Ocre, perched atop an outcropping where a Roman acropolis had been. Inside the walls you'll find the ruins of an entire village, including a 14th-century church. As you gaze out at the spectacular view across the valley to the mountains, you'll have little trouble understanding how safe generations of villagers must have felt here.|
|Continuing on SS5bis, you'll soon have an entirely different experience in Celano, the perfect example of a Renaissance "castle," which looks more like a gracious country manor than a fortress. There has been a castle on this spot since before the Romans, but the present beautifully preserved complex was built as a residence for local nobility rather than as a safe haven for local peasants. Indeed, the picturesque turrets were probably added by Antonio Piccolomini, who received the surrounding county from Alfonso of Aragon in the 15th century.|
|Traveling east on SS5, you'll want to stop in the charming town of Castel di Ieri, where an ageold watchtower stands silent and unadorned amongst the homes. Its origins and history are as vague as its name, which means "yesterday's castle." Just a mile or so farther is another fortified medieval village, Castelvecchio Subequo. Stand at the base of the fortress and let your eye wander upwards along its walls: you'll be able to identify three separate eras of construction, beginning with a crude pre-Roman stage. Built onto the watchtower is a much later dwelling with lovely windows.|
|A two-mile detour on the provincial road to Gagliano Aterno is well worth it, to see the beautiful noble residence that dominates the town with its airy loggias, fairy-tale moat and drawbridge. Begun in 1328, it has belonged to several of the most illustrious papal families in Italian Renaissance history.|
|Returning to Castelvecchio, drive north on SS261, passing the ruined fortress at Beffi on your way to see the picture-perfect watchtower of Tione d'Abruzzi. Just below the restored crenelated battlements is a Renaissance clock. The tower is now a municipal building; if it's open, you may be able to climb to the top.|
|A few miles up the road is Fontecchio, another castle-town whose tower has one of the oldest clocks in Italy. The provincial road to Caporciano takes you to SS17. Drive north a few miles to San Pio delle Camere (mentioned above), then on to one of the most interesting castles in Italy.|
|Rocca Calascio is unique, first because it was built at a much higher altitude than most bastions, and second due to its shape, consisting of a square 14th-century tower surrounded by a more recent wall linking four cylindrical towers. At its feet are the ruins of a strategically planned medieval village, and beyond that is a dizzying view of the valley and the snow-capped peaks of Gran Sasso.|
A few miles away is the tiny mountain village of Castelvecchio Calvisio. Over the centuries, it was invaded again and again, until finally its citizens began to erect thick stone arches above their streets. Today a large part of the old town resembles a maze of tunnels.
There are plenty more castles worth seeing in the immediate environs of L'Aquila. Pizzoli is a well- preserved Renaissance home with four curious external turrets. Castel del Monte is an entire medieval town that grew up around the existing watchtower. Santo Stefano, another fortress-town that once belonged to the Medicis, has a crenelated tower you can climb for a breathtaking view. And as you drive along you'll see the ruins of many more castles adorning hilltops, with names like Barisciano, Sant'Eusanio Forconese, Fossa and Prata. For more information about schedules for visiting the inside of castles, stop in at L'Aquila's Azienda Autonoma Soggiorno e Turismo (Via XX Settembre 8; tel. 22306).