The Reggio Emilia Countryside: Haunted Castles and Gluttonous Pleasures in the Lands of Matilde di Canossa

View of the hilly Reggio Emilia countryside from the Rossena Castle.
View of the hilly Reggio Emilia countryside from Rossena Castle.

“Beware of the ghost!” quipped my father as I prepared to leave for a two-day blog tour to the Reggio-Emilia countryside. That night I was going to sleep at Castello di Sarzano and, as everybody knows, every castle has its ghost (!).

Castello di Sarzano is in the heart of what are known as ‘terre matildiche’, the lands once ruled by Matilda of Tuscany.

During the trip, I was going to visit three of the castles that were part of the dense network of fortifications that dotted the hilly countryside south of Reggio-Emilia, about an hour and a half from Bologna, in the high Middle Ages, a time of constant battles for control of the territory.

Who Was Matilda of Tuscany?

Born in 1046, Matilda of Tuscany (Matilde di Canossa in Italian) achieved no easy feat for a woman at the time. When she was nine years old, she inherited a domain that extended from Tuscany to Mantua. She would become one of the most powerful women in the history of the Middle Ages, personally involved in the ‘Investiture Controversy’ (i.e. the Church wanted to have total control over appointment of the pope and any other church officials – the emperor would not see to that).

It all  began as a power struggle between Pope Gregory VII and Emperor Henry IV in 1076. Matilde supported the pope in the controversy, and the area around Bologna and Reggio Emilia was the setting for a number of events related to the dispute, the most famous of which took place in 1077.

A couple of years before, Pope Gregory VII declared that the papal power was the sole universal power and that the pope alone could appoint or depose churchmen. Henry IV reacted by withdrawing his imperial support of the pope. Then the pope excommunicated Henry and deposed him as German king. As more aristocrats seemed to be on the pope’s side than the emperor’s side, Henry had to relent and in 1077 traveled to Canossa to seek pardon from Gregory – what has become known as the ‘Walk to Canossa’.

View of the Reggio Emilia countryside from Canossa Castle.
Idyllic views of the Emilia-Romagna countryside from Castello di Canossa.

For three days and three nights, Henry IV remained outside the walls of the Castle of Canossa; barefoot in the snow, he was dressed with a hairshirt, a garment made with coarse animal hair that irritated the skin, used by Christians as a self-imposed means of repentance and mortification of the flesh (weren’t the Middle Ages interesting times?!). He obtained the pope’s forgiveness only after Matilde’s intercession; but he didn’t forget the humiliation.

A few years later, he forfeited Matilde’s lands and ordered she be banned from the empire. Matilde retreated to Canossa, the castle built in the 10th century by ancestor Adalberto Azzo, founder of the Canossa dynasty. Only four castles stayed faithful to Matilde; one was in Monteveglio, 45 minutes from Bologna (incidentally, Monteveglio is where I lead one of my walking tours). It was actually thanks to Monteveglio, which courageously resisted the imperial troops siege for four months, that Henry IV was forced to retreat.

With the threat gone, Matilde was then able to strengthen and enlarge her fiefdom. She supported the construction of churches and cathedrals, of hospices for the poor and had a role in the birth of the University of Bologna. She was learned, could write and spoke three languages. In 1111, the new emperor, Henry V, the son of her great enemy, appointed her vice queen of Italy.

The rock where the Castle of Canossa stands.
Castello di Canossa, from where Matilda ruled in the Middle Ages.

Road Trip in the Reggio Emilia Countryside

The best way to visit the Reggio Emilia countryside and the Terre Matildiche is on a road trip; part of the pleasure comes from driving along pleasant winding roads with views of rolling hills and oak forests, stopping to taste some Parmigiano, culatello or balsamic vinegar, visiting the producers and learning about the traditions behind these prized products; and of course paying a visit to the castles of Matilda, and, who knows, perhaps meeting a ghost or two.

My travel companions, bloggers Adeline from France and Christina from Canada, and I traveled to Reggio Emilia by train, where we were picked up by a driver and local guide. We first stopped at Gianferrari, a family-run prosciuttificio (producer of cured meats), where we learned about the process of salting and curing pork meat to obtain prosciutto and culatello.

Producer of Italian cured meats holding culatello cured meat.
Fancy some culatello? Lara Gianferrari shows the top product of the family-run cured meats producer Salumificio Gianferrari.

We then had a very pleasant lunch at restaurant Enrico IV (Henry IV – makes sense, no?!), where we had tastings of the holy trinity of the Reggio Emilia countryside, prosciutto, parmigiano and aceto balsamico; and of more good stuff.

Prosciutto, Parmigiano Reggiano, salame and balsamic vinegar at Restaurant Henry IV near Reggio Emilia.
Yum yum! Ain’t Emilia-Romagna food the best?! 😉

From there it was a short, panoramic drive to Castello di Rossena. Matilde ruled from Canossa Castle. Around it, defensive towers and watch towers were built; some of them eventually evolved into castles. Rossena was one of these former towers, built on a hill of volcanic rock. To this day, it has preserved its massive look, which you can observe well as you approach it from the road.

The highlight of the visit to me were the views from the walkway terraces, some of the prettiest I saw during the trip.

The walkway at Rossena Castle.
The ‘camminamento’ (walkway) at Rossena Castle. The views from here are beautiful (see first photo above and photo below).
The Emilia-Romagna countryside.
At Rossena Castle, guard soldiers had beautiful views to look at besides the advancing enemy troops.

We continued our Reggio Emilia castle-hopping tour to Castello di Canossa, which also stands on a cliff, not volcanic, but sandstone. Sadly, Canossa is mostly in ruins, but there is an interesting museum where you can observe what the fortified cliff looked like at the time of Matilda. This is where the (in)famous humiliation of Henry IV took place, and I liked picturing the scene in my mind as I visited. The museum details the history of Matilda, so for anyone interested in knowing more about this important female figure in medieval Italy, it’s a recommended stop.

In the late afternoon, we reached Castello di Sarzano where we would sleep for the night, just in time to catch a beautiful late autumn sunset.

Sunset over the Reggio Emilia countryside
Gorgeous sunset at Castello di Sarzano.

The position of Castello di Sarzano is idyllic, set among the hills, with beautiful views of the countryside and village of Casina below. Turned into an inn with restaurant, Sarzano had a major role at the time of Matilde, located along a strategic route that led to Tuscany. Not much remains today except for the tower, the donjon and parts of the walls that once encircled it.

As the driver said bye to the three of us before leaving for the night, he exclaimed, “Attenzione al fantasma! Beware of the ghost!” See, everybody knows castles have ghosts! One of my fellow bloggers didn’t look amused. A few minutes after each of us checked into our rooms, she sent a message saying she heard strange noises coming from the rooms. Birds or… the ghost? At that point I was really amused, but I have to admit I looked under the bed and in the closet before going to sleep (not that the ghost would hide there anyway).

Castello di Sarzano.
Castello di Sarzano was a strategic outpost in the network of fortifications controlled by Matilda.

After a quiet night, the following morning we went to visit a Parmigiano Reggiano producer, Giuliano Ugoletti of Latteria Campola. As Giuliano explained the process, I was reminded once again of how much passion and craftsmanship goes into the making of this cheese that is renowned all over the world. You really need to love it to be able to withstand the grueling hours, waking up at dawn every day, and with no day off basically. I’ve met other Parmigiano producers before, but none as enthusiastic as Giuliano, who compared ‘forme’ (wheels of Parmigiano) left to age to “children”: “they want to be looked after all the time,” he said. (When the wheels are taken into the aging room, the work is far from done. Every 10 days, each wheel is carefully wiped, brushed and turned.)

Parmigiano Reggiano wheels in the aging room.
Parmigiano Reggiano wheels in the aging room. “Forme (wheels) are like children,” said cheesemaker Giuliano Ugoletti of Latteria Campola. “They want to be looked after all the time.”
Giuliano Ugoletti of Latteria Campola with the hammer used to check for possible internal flaws of Parmigiano Reggiano.
Proud casaro (cheesemaker) Giuliano Ugoletti of Latteria Campola with the hammer used to check for possible internal flaws in the wheels.

For lunch we headed to Agriturismo Cavazzone, where we were greeted by the owner Umberto Sidoli, a producer of traditional balsamic vinegar, a passion he inherited from his grandfather. Balsamic vinegar isn’t just from Modena! The Reggio Emilia area also produces it, although few are aware of it because Modena’s aceto balsamico get all the love. In fact, the first document attesting the existence of balsamic vinegar is from Reggio Emilia and refers to Bonifacio, Matilde’s father, who paid homage to emperor Henry III as he was visiting the area by giving him a bottle of the exquisite liquid.

Wooden barrels of balsamic vinegar.
The wooden barrels at Agriturismo Cavazzone where balsamic vinegar is left to age. They can be of cherry, chestnut, oak, mulberry and juniper. The grape must is moved through different barrels and will absorb the scents of the different woods.

Guided by Umberto, we visited the cellar containing a large number of wooden barrels where grape must ages, a process that takes years (I’ll go in detail about the making of balsamic vinegar in another post). I suggest you stop at Cavazzone for lunch, as we did, the perfect ending to our little road trip in the Reggio Emilia countryside.

Ghosts from the past are all around in this beautiful Reggio Emilia lands, and, if you take the time to learn a bit about the history of the area, you’ll feel them; they’re good ghosts, not around to scare you, just to be remembered.

Practical info for your castle visits:

Castello di Rossena – open on Saturday afternoon and Sundays. During the week, you need to call in advance and they open it for you. If you don’t mind ghosts (just kidding!), you can sleep in the castle, choosing between a double room or hostel-like dormitories. Shared bathroom.

Castello di Canossa – open every day except Monday, 10 am to 7 pm in summer, 10 am to 5 pm in winter. http://www.castellodicanossa.com/

Both Rossena and Canossa are managed by the Associazione Matilde di Canossa. The guides are volunteer. Use this email address to contact them about both castles: info@castellodicanossa.com.

Castello di Sarzano – open Fridays to Sundays. For other days of the week, you need to call ahead or write, locanda@ilfalcopellegrino.it. https://www.ilfalcopellegrino.it/

Producers I visited:

Salumificio Gianferrari – Via Val d’Enza Nord 144, Ciano d’Enza (RE), www.gianferrari.it.

Ristorante Enrico IV –  Via Val d’Enza Nord 149, Ciano d’Enza (RE), www.ristoranteenricoiv.it.

Latteria Campola – Via Roma Nord 45, Vezzano (RE). You can buy Parmigiano and other products in the shop adjacent to the production area.

Agriturismo Cavazzone – Via Cavazzone 4, Viano (RE),  www.cavazzone.it/it.

The tour was organized by the Emilia Romagna Tourist Board as part of the BlogVille project. I was very pleased to be invited as the ‘resident blogger.’ Transportation, lodging and food costs were covered by the board.  

*All photos by me, please don’t use without proper credit.

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