Castles of Tuscany x 2: Castello dell’Aquila

Driving through northern Tuscany’s Lunigiana region feels like drifting through a portal into a medieval fantasy. Ruins of once-glorious fortifications magically appear like apparitions on hilltops above as you wind around switchbacks hugging the river valley.

Often referred to as, “the land of a hundred castles,” the region is rich in such fairytale imagery and lore. Of the surviving castles, two of the most significant rest in the eastern area near Fivizzano. Lucky for us, this is also the site of a month-long house-sitting assignment.

We were fortunate to experience Fivizzano’s treasures, Castello dell’Aquila and Castello Verrucola, through the eyes of each home’s current inhabitant and owner, each a steadfast champion of cultural preservation. We felt like royalty just being invited through the grand gates.

Castello dell’Aquila
Bird’s Eye View with Medieval Bones to Boot
The eagle's perch. Photo courtesy of Castello dell'Aquila.
The eagle’s perch. Photo courtesy of Castello dell’Aquila.

We could not have known how fitting the name was until making the journey up, and up, while curving around narrow mountain roads to reach the medieval hamlet of Gragnola. From there, a single track dirt track continues to climb around the mountain, leading to the estate’s gate.

We arranged to meet the owner Gabriela at the restored fortress, the Eagles’ Castle, assuming a brief tour would follow with an opportunity to soak in the expansive views, if only for a moment.

As is often the case with most hospitality in Italy, “brief” was not to be part of the equation. Gabriela was instantly welcoming and open to in-depth conversation about the castle’s history, her tenure as proprietress, and the decade-spanning renovation process.

An Eagle’s Eye

One of the largest castles in the region, the “Eagle,” as I will affectionately call her, has documented origins as early as the 13th century. It’s not difficult to imagine why a powerful lord of the day would have chosen to build on this location. From the terrace, the seer has panoramic views of the valley below where two rivers converge.

Even in a rainy day’s photo the strategic importance of this location is clear to see.

The castle’s perch allowed for domination of these vital trade routes connecting to Rome. One can only imagine the tariffs once issued from these gates.

In the 14th century, the military complex was converted into a residence unrivaled in grandness for the famous Italian Malaspina family. Upgrades and additions were made over the next two centuries, until the eventual decline of the Malaspina’s way of life lead to a long period of neglect.

In 1920, an earthquake destroyed many of the properties structures insuring decades of blight to come.

Armed with a Dream and Shovel
Taking a tour with Gabriela Girardin, the castle's greatest champion.
Taking a tour with Gabriela Girardin, the castle’s greatest champion.

Almost twenty years ago, when Gabriela first set eyes on the castle ruins, she was captivated. Craving a project and overall life change, she was immediately taken with the idea of restoring the castle but says initially she didn’t grasp the project’s scale.

It’s no wonder. Photos taken from the time reveal trees and vines covering every surface. Entire areas were covered by overgrowth. Still, she heard the call of destiny and decided to take a chance.

Photo courtesy of Castello dell'Aquila.
Vines and trees had overtaken the castle. Photo courtesy of Castello dell’Aquila.

The idea that a private citizen can possess something of such historical value was initially difficult for us to get our heads around. But, when you realize how many historical treasures are scattered throughout Italy, it begins to make sense. Restoration and maintenance of every structure seems an impossible task for government alone, (although many Italians believe this should be a priority for government and would be achievable if funds were used more wisely.)

Moving Forward by Going Back

For the next ten years, Gabriela spent unimaginable funds to painstakingly restore the fortress, area by area, using historic materials from site wherever possible and contracting with an endless assortment of preservation specialists.

Our first real insight into the enormity of the project came as she pointed out the arched gate. The massive structure had been completely walled in when she purchased the property.

Her passion and pride were on full display as she lead us to the tower and pointed to the roof, which had been destroyed. Today, it’s purposefully jagged finish serves as clever nod to the past (and makes for a cool vista from the rooftop terrace.)

Our heads were churning with information when Gabriela casually mentioned the dead body.

When it became time to tackle one of the last area’s of restoration, she had dreams of creating a beautiful new bathroom in an area that had once served as the property’s pig sty.

In 2004, during the renovation, workers stumbled across what appeared to be human remains. “I thought it was likely a runaway soldier from WWII,” says Gabriela. Archeologists from the University of Siena soon discovered the remains were indeed of a soldier, but one much, much older.

A replica of the bones mimic the position where the soldier was discovered.
A replica of the bones mimic the position where the soldier was discovered.

That the bones were dated to over 700 years ago is not even the most stunning aspect of the story. “Cause of death” was the wowzer for everyone involved. The man was killed by an arrow. How did they determine this? Because it was still there, intact in the bones of his throat. Apparently it’s the only case known in the world where an arrow has been found still lodged inside the victim.

700 years later, the body is still talked and telling of the crime.
700 years later, the body is still talked and telling of the crime.

Those university smarties were also able to determine that the body was buried immediately after death, concluding that the killer hoped to keep the murder quiet for as long as possible.

As you can imagine, the discovery went on to provided years of research opportunities for many universities within Italy and archeologists worldwide.

Sharing History & Mystery

Today, Gabriela opens her home to weary travelers looking for a oh-so-romantic place to lay their heads in one of dozens of rooms housed in the immaculately-restored tower.

Blushing brides and handsome grooms enter matrimonial bliss within the impressive walls of the Great Hall. Warm summer evenings see guests spilling onto the vast lawn for special events. And, everyone is invited to experience the castle through a pre-arranged tour.

An intimate chapel, recently reconsecrated, serves as a place of prayer and contemplation for visitors and locals alike.

Through one person’s passion and dedication, Castello dell’Aquila continues to serve, as it has for thousands of years, as a source of pride and wonder for the region and a historical treasure for the world.

That in itself, is magical.

Related stories you may enjoy:

Castles of Tuscany x2: Castello della Verrucola

Cycling in Trentino, Italy
Ebb & Flow on Italy’s Isola del Giglio
Practicing the Art of Mosaic in Ravenna
A Place to Call Home, Lucca


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