But to experience the full visual impact of Roccascalegna, follow the signs to the carpark off to the right just as you enter the modern town. Don’t turn off into the carpark, but continue instead along a small country road. Glance to your left. And look up. And then then look up further still…
Then swing your car round and head back into town and park. There are two ways up to the castle: a short, sharp climb up steps through the tiny old medieval hamlet, (which we’ll be showing you in the next Roccascalegna blog), or via an easy stroll – with plenty of benches where you can sit and admire the view – that winds its way up around the rock. You’ll see various well-marked walking-paths branching off into the surrounding countryside and in the spring, the area is a visual feast of beautiful spring flowers.
You’ll arrive first at the Church of St Peter the Apostle. We’ll be showing you its stunning stained-glass windows next time, so for the moment, head on up the old stone path to the castle gate. When you get to the top – look back…
Though there’s been a settlement at Roccascelegna since pre-Roman times, there’s no record of the castle before the 14th century. Over the next four hundred years though, it became a place of still-remembered myth and legend, replete with ghosts, hidden treasure, evil barons and bloody murder before being abandoned in the early 1700’s.
Then came nearly three centuries of decay and decline before responsibility for the castle was at last taken over by the Roccascalegna comune. Restoration work began in 1985 and was finally and triumphantly completed in 1996.
The oldest part of the castle is the Square Tower at its very pinnacle. It also features Roccascalegna’s greatest mystery. On either side of the entrance door, still clearly visible, is carved a Menorah – the seven-branched candlestick – one of the most sacred symbols of Judaism. Did Jewish stonemasons work on the tower back in the 14th century ? Or what other reasons could there be for such symbols to be so prominently displayed ? Many questions, but as yet – tantalisingly – no answers.
Inside the restored buildings, the suit of armour without which no self-respecting medieval castle would be complete; the head of a huge and angry wild boar; and in a display case, a wolf and a wildcat.
The wolf is the centrepiece of one of this summer’s two major exhibitions at Roccascalegna. La Bestia Feroce traces the role the wolf has played in the legend and reality of this region of Abruzzo. Once a ruthlessly-hunted predator, the wolf is now a valued and protected species and is fairly widespread in the Majella National Park. The second exhibition – Hopus Pocus – is a history of witchcraft in this part of Abruzzo, complete with the spells and ingredients for love potions and spells – and some rather darker relics…
Back outside, take in views that have hardly changed for six hundred years stretching for miles over the surrounding countryside – and from views down, views up at the castle’s commanding battlements.
And try and time your visit so that you can catch a view of the castle’s western walls bathed in the light of the setting sun. This will be the castle at its most benign. On the dark, cloudy days of winter, the colour of the stone turns to battleship gray and the atmosphere is anything but sunny…
Only by visiting Roccascalegna can you appreciate the astonishing feat of engineering it must have taken to graft this castle onto solid rock. And its sheer size. Unmoved and unchanging, the castle squats like a giant prehistoric beast on top of its rocky pinnacle, dominating the skyline.
But there’s much more to Roccascalegna than its castle. In the second part of this blog, you’ll see the beautiful stained-glass windows inside the Church of St Peter the Apostle – and visit the old town, built – like the castle – onto solid rock.
To plan ahead for a visit to the castle on your holiday for two, check Roccascalegna’s own website for the opening hours (though you can walk up to and around the outside of the castle at any time) and find out more too about the many events taking place at the castle – from wine tasting and gourmet evenings, to folk concerts, to stargazing, to pageants and punk rock – throughout every July and August.
Roccascalegna’s an easy and scenic 20-minute drive from your villas for two base near Casoli. After your visit to the castle, there are two or three bars within walking distance in Roccascalegna town for a bite and a drink. Or take a picnic and use the castle’s own free picnic area !