One of the main reasons it took us ten years to finally make it to Abruzzo’s iconic Rocca Calascio Castle was entirely down to Bradt Guides Abruzzo – still the only all-encompassing printed work about the region.
The castle’s nearly 5000 dizzying feet up, perched on a vertiginous mountain-top. “You’ll have to work to get to the fortress (by car),” advises the Guide. “The road that brings you to the carpark is, in places, extremely narrow with very sharp drops. That it is a gravel two-way road with many pot-holes makes it especially hair-raising.”
And if that jumbo-size warning was designed to put you off going, it certainly worked with us, as the only alternative seemed to be a stiff 2-mile hike up the aforesaid death-trap highway to doom – or an even stiffer, (though admittedly shorter), straight-line approach up what seemed a vertical mountain track.
A sign at the start of this testing trek advising it’d take 30 minutes was clearly the work of someone with a Degree in Advanced Optimism from Oxford University.
Coming down – maybe. Going up – I think not.
So anyway, this all contrived to keep us away from Rocca Calascio until a combination of a stunning, blue-sky, end-of-October day – and stumbling across Google’s 3D satellite imagery of the approach road, which kind-of convinced us we had a fighting chance of not only driving safely up, but also at least 50-50 odds of getting back down again in one piece.
As it turned out, Bradt’s alarmist advice is a pile of unmitigated horse-poo.
Far from being a gravel track, the road is nicely and neatly tarmac’d; wide enough for two cars going up/down to safely slide past each other; provided with several parking bays en-route; and bordered by sturdy barriers to stop you coming to harm if you zig instead of zag at any point along the way.
The road’s even thoughtfully widened at the several hairpin bends you’ll need to negotiate to make getting round them a doddle.
Yes, it’s true there’s a 200m stretch of older tarmac very near the start of the climb that doesn’t have barriers, and does have a few (easily-avoidable) pot-holes, but as a genuine white-knuckle moment, it rates something like 2/10.
But do be warned that the carpark at the top is small. No problem on our October visit – but possibly an issue during the height of summer.
There doesn’t seem any way of knowing if you’ll find a space until you finally arrive, so if you’re unlucky, you’ll need to hope you can dive into one of the car-parking bays you’ll pass on the way back down.
Once parked, there’s a relatively straightforward upward amble of around 10 minutes along a cobbled path through the abandoned borgo of Rocca Calalascio, (slowly becoming unabandoned with one year-round accommodation provider/bar/restaurant, and a handful of other places – closed by the time of our autumn visit – offering touristy bits/pieces).
You’ll emerge from the borgo at the foot of a narrow rocky track that seems to lead straight up to the castle. Or maybe not. Too steep and too uncertain for us, so we stuck boringly to the perfectly OK shale path that within a few minutes took us to the strange, octagonal church of Santa Maria della Pieta, (usually closed it seems), built in the 16th century to give thanks for a victory by the Castle garrison over a large band of marauding brigands.
The unusually-shaped 16th century church of Santa Maria della Pieta lies just below the castle. In the background, the Campo Imperatore
But it was the backdrop to the church that captured my interest – the massive Campo Imperatore. With only one road across it that snow keeps closed for much of the year, it’s an area of the Gran Sasso so bleak, isolated and inhospitable, it’s become known as ‘Little Tibet’.
And did I mention windswept ? The persistent gale that was blowing during our visit made conversation and keeping a steady camera equally difficult.
On the near horizon,lowering over the landscape, is Corno Grande – at a shade under 10,000 feet, the highest peak in the entire Apennine mountain chain.
Corno Grande. The highest mountain in the Apennines. The view from Rocca Calascio across the Campo Imperatore is of sheer rock faces, but hidden from view is a walkable route to the summit.
Threatening looks can be deceptive. A route up the mountain’s western face, beguilingly named the Via Normale, is walkable to the very summit. Well…OK…you need to scramble across shale screes in places, but it’s a highly-popular (and highly-populated) summer draw.
The view of Corno Grande’s sheer faces presented to Rocca Calascio isn’t so benign, but gives a superb view of its distinctive three peaks.
Another couple of hundred meters past the church then brings you to the castle. The highest in all of Italy.
(And if it looks vaguely familiar btw, it was prominently featured in the 1985 movie Ladyhawke, and much more recently, George Clooney’s The American.)
Started in the 10th century, but not taking on its final shape for another 300 or so years, Rocca Calascio was no home to Kings and Queens, or Lords and Ladies. Not even the odd dragon.
Rocca Calascio Castle was an army base. A garrison, pure and simple, whose only function was to use its supreme position to survey the the expanses of the Campo Imperatore and Gran Sasso for uninvited intruders who, once spotted, would be swiftly dissuaded by extreme force from progressing any further.
The castle’s defences prevented any attempt at siege or assault during its history – but you can access the ramparts during your visit
Unsurprisingly, the Castle was never once put under siege or attacked. It was only laid low by a massive earthquake in the late 15th century and never rebuilt.
And considering what must have gone into building it in the first place – that’s hardly surprising.
Being Italy, there’s a refreshing lack of even the remotest nod towards ‘health and safety’ and keeping a sharp eye on where you’re walking to avoid tripping over rocks – or even possibly falling quite a long way – keeps you alert.
The castle has commanding views over the surrounding countryside of the Gran Sasso National Park. Little that took place under their watchful gaze will have escaped the occupying garrison
The views defy description. And with the harshness of the surrounding area discouraging habitation, the landscape you’re gazing over is pretty much the same landscape over which the castle’s soldiers will have kept watch all those centuries ago.
So wander – carefully – to your heart’s content. Take a shedload of photos. And eventually make your way back down to the real world.
Plenty of places nearby of assorted standards in which to eat and drink.
Was it all worth the 10-year wait ?
Absolutely. Isn’t it great when reality exceeds expectations…