We Americans like castles. We even build our own we like them so much. Ours aren’t old though.
Travelers like old castles the best. We like them still standing. We think they are all in Tuscany. We prefer them on flat surfaces so we don’t have to trek up steep hills. That fact eliminates lots of castles from our short list of the best.
So I give you Vigoleno. It’s in Emilia. That’s the western part of the region we know as Emilia Romagna. You know it as the region of the best food, but you must consider The Castles of the Duchy of Parma, Piacenza and Pontremoli for its concentration of castles, Romanesque churches and spas to be one of the most compelling destinations in Italy.
But back to Vigoleno. Here’s how you get in the walled city. You enter through a passageway that can be observed from the tower and walk up the ramp to the town gate. The walls that flank you are topped with Ghibelline merlons. Those are the upright things at the top of the wall that the guys with the weapons hid behind until they exposed themselves in order to shoot you with an arrow or two. The space between them where the shooting happens is called a crenel and together they make up a crenelated wall.
Impressive, isn’t it? The tower is the Mastio or Keep in English. For a four euro charge you can climb to the top of the mastio for views of the borgo, the internal village, from above. Each room has different exhibits teaching you things about the medieval period while you rest your aching legs. One room even tries to satisfy our popular obsession with torture.
Ah, the walkways! And more Ghibelline merlons than you can shake a stick at!
The castle’s foundation dates back to the tenth century but the first documented date is 1141 when it was an outpost on the road to Parma.
When you finally get to the top, this is what you can see, a drone’s eye view. Prominent in this view is the Romanesque Church of San Giorgio, you know, the George of slaying the dragon fame. When it’s open, you must visit.
Before you go inside, check your pockets for a 1 euro coin or two. Entrance is free, but light will cost you. After you explore the area around the entrance, turn and face the door. You’ll find a little box tacked to the wall on the right. It’s where you insert your euro coin and the lights come on. Don’t expect a flood of brilliance. Each medieval fresco gets a dab of light so as not to fade the colors. Like this:
Explore the interior and then exit the church by going left and circling it. On the opposite corner there is some interesting art and carving.
By now you may be in need of a liquid pick-me-up, so continue to circle the church until you’re in front of it. There’s a bar with a view to your left. We ordered a Crodino and a tonic water and were quite surprised when the owner laid a wooden platter of cold cuts and a basket of bread in front of us. Taste Emilian salume free. It doesn’t get better than that, eh? You might also try some of the local wine here, a sparkling red Gutturnio might surprise you and goes great with salami.
And speaking of wine, there is a very limited production of Vin Santo in the area around the castle. You thought Vin Santo was only a Tuscan thing, but you might get a chance to try the Emilian dessert wine made from the aromatic dried grapes in the area.
Although we didn’t visit (and wish we had) the deconsecrated church of San Rocco holds the Orasanti Museum, collecting the stories and artifacts of a wandering emigration of street artists who used animals in their activities, especially bears, as the name suggests.
You can continue to tour by taking a walk outside the walls, have a meal at the Taverna al Castello or…you can stay in the castle. Yes, this might just be the holy grail of tourism, to pretend to be king and queen of a castle built to protect your overlord Parma. It has to be a romantic thing though, it’s not like the town is crowded with night clubs and little shops. One the other hand there is a restaurant and a room or suite here might not be as expensive as you imagine.
If you’ve seen enough there are lots more castles to discover in the area, and the medieval town of Castell’Arquatto is only a short distance away. Salsomaggiore is a pleasant spa town.
Happy travels in Emilia-Romagna!