[This article was originally published on ITALY Magazine, where I contribute regularly.]
As I pull off the countryside road into the parking area of the Bed & Breakfast where I’ll be spending the weekend, owners Valeria Lusa and Francesco Falorni come greet me, ready to welcome me to their “labor of love”.
I had found the B&B Torre del Borgo in a booklet about the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza, the area I’ll be exploring, and had been immediately attracted by the photos and the description of “an atmosphere from times gone by”. Now that I’m here, I’m not disappointed: Torre del Borgo is a former watchtower for the nearby Castle of Gropparello dating to the 15th century, carefully restored and transformed into a cozy period residence, where you immediately feel at home.
Plus, it makes for a perfect base to travel around the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza, in the region of Emilia-Romagna, a territory whose history goes back to Roman times – even Julius Caesar passed by here – and that flourished during the Middle Ages, when as many as 200 castles were erected, some of which still belonging to the same families who built them back then.
And my first stop on the itinerary is indeed a castle, the magical Castello di Gropparello. As I drive up the winding road, all of a sudden there it is – sentinels, I am told later during the visit, would have been able to see the enemy approach at least two marching days before. The castle is perched on a 80-meter high rock – it in fact almost looks like an extension of the rock.
I am very lucky to have Mr. Gianfranco Gibelli, the current owner of the castle, as my guide; he makes the castle come alive through the tales and anecdotes he reveals, not only about the fortress’ history, but also about what it’s like living in a castle today.
The Castle of Gropparello has been standing guard to the Vezzeno Valley, in the Duchy of Piacenza, since the 8th century. Its position was its defense: walking around the patrol path, you realize how unapproachable it was. As we continue the visit led by Mr. Gibelli, we’re taken into the courtyard, which reminds me of a medieval borgo and includes a balcony made to resemble none other than Romeo & Juliet’s balcony!
We are led up on the mastio (tower, the strongest element of the structure) – at the top, we have a 360° view of the verdant valley below. The tour continues in the part of the castle where Mr. Gibelli lives with his wife; this includes the dining room, with a monumental 16th century fireplace, where the family hosts the Christmas dinner, and what was once the guest room, which was transformed into the music room after guests complained of strange things happening during the night: cold air gusts, door opening by itself, bed sheets moving…well, every castle has its ghost and Gropparello does too! In the 13th century, Rosania Fulgosio, the beautiful wife of the lord of the area, fell in love with a commander and the two became lovers; when her husband found out, he entombed her alive within the castle’s walls. It is said that on windy nights you can hear someone screaming for help…
Besides guided tours, the Castle of Gropparello organizes re-enactments of medieval banquets, ‘murder mystery’ dinners, Halloween parties, and activities for children in their fantastic “Fairy Tales Park”.
My next stop on the itinerary is an archeological mystery – but not before I stop for lunch to try the classic tortelli con la coda, the Piacenza area version of tortelli with ricotta and spinach, which take the name from their shape ending with a “tail”. Delicious!
As I drive along peaceful countryside roads, I almost miss Veleia Romana, an archeological site on the gentle hills of the Val Chero, also known as the “Pompeii of the North”, because it was discovered at the same time as Pompeii. While there’s something to be said about how the site is preserved, it still retains an incredible fascination as you walk through the remains of this ancient city, founded in 158 BC by a Ligurian tribe (the Ligures Veleiates), and later conquered and transformed into a municipium by the Romans (in the 1st century BC). Veleia became a vacation resort enjoyed by consuls and commanders thanks to its therapeutic sulfur and salt waters; inhabited until the 5th century AD, it then disappeared for centuries.
Following the discovery of the Tabula Alimentaria, the largest Latin inscription on bronze of the Roman world, in a nearby church in 1747, the Duke of Parma and Piacenza, Don Filippo di Borbone, ordered excavations in the area and the ancient city slowly resurfaced. The tiny museum within the site displays a copy of the Tabula Alimentaria, while the original is at the Archeological Museum of Parma, which also holds the 12 statues belonging to the families of Augustus and Tiberius found at the site. Today, you can admire the remains of neighborhoods, the forum, the basilica, and the thermal baths; in the summer time, ancient theater plays are held at night in the forum.
On my way to visiting a local cantina (winery), I stop in Vigolo Marchese for a look at two Romanesque jewels set in an incredibly tranquil location: the Church of San Giovanni, built in 1008, and the Baptistery, supposedly built earlier than the church by a Templar returning from Jerusalem.
A few minutes down the road, I arrive at the Azienda Vitivinicola Pusterla – it’s time to try the local wines! The winery is unique in that it is set in a sort of mini medieval village, with still the original chapel dedicated to San Giovanni. The winery takes its name from the Milanese family of customs officers who acquired the property in the 15th century. Before then, it was a Roman settlement, then a convent for pilgrims traveling along the Via Francigena, and then a castle. All the typical wines of the area, Vini dei colli piacentini, are made here, including the reds Gutturnio, Bonarda and Barbera and the whites Ortrugo and Malvasia, following eco-friendly techniques in the winemaking process.
More on the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza in Part 2.