Italy is one big, amazing historical site, dotted with ruins of antique cities, fortresses and castles. Some however are not ruins at all, still in pretty good shape considering the centuries that have passed beneath their sturdy stone walls. These are excellent settings for cultural events, and many have attracted the creative minds of film directors, looking for the ideal location for their work. There are a couple of examples not far from us; one, the castle of Torrechiara, approximately 11 miles from Parma – a beautiful castle which encloses its little hamlet, overlooking nearby Langhirano. The other, in the province of Piacenza, is the fort and hamlet of Castell’Arquato, a wonderful relic of the past, which has preserved virtually unblemished all of its charm and historical allure: one of the most beautiful, antique hamlets in Italy. Both were used in the film “Ladyhawke”, which, although wanting to evoke a French environment, was actually shot almost entirely in the “Bel Paese”.
A visit to Castell’Arquato is like stepping back in time. The fortress tower, over 130 ft high, soaring over the entrance of the hamlet, is currently open to visitors. This is part of the original structure which was never meant to be a residence, but mainly destined to defensive and surveillance purposes. Built between 1342 and 1349, it now houses an interesting museum of medieval life.
The “Palazzo della Podestà”, built in 1292, not dissimilar to a small castle with its typical dovetail merlons, was the seat of the governing authorities, and home to the Count Santa Fiora. The tourist office, now situated at one end of this palace, is under the “proclamation” balcony ; name which derives from the fact that in medieval times, new edicts were proclaimed out loud from here. In front of the Palazzo della Podestà rises “La Collegiata di Santa Maria”, a church built between 1117 and 1122, constructed on the site of a previous church which was destroyed in an earthquake. The San Giuseppe chapel, one of the many inside the church, was built in 1630, to give thanks for the end of the great plague. Throughout the years, frescoes were discovered and brought to light, along with many other treasures. The interior is well worth a visit thanks to its beauty, as does the connected cloister, with its wooden- ceilinged porticos and arches. Another museum, exhibiting religious relics of all kinds, can be visited here too.
But the whole complex simply reeks of medieval; the cobblestone paving, the decorations on the buildings, the “garden of poetry” with its fountain….. and there is another detail which makes it all the more fascinating (and has little to do with the medieval era) – Castell’Arquato is built on a plane of fossil shells. Yes, sea shells! Incredible although it might seem, the whole area was submersed by the sea 500,000 years ago, and the proof lies in the fact that the bones of a cetacean were found in a gully of Mount Falcone in 1934. These, together with many other fossils, were embedded at 1000 ft above current sea level, which means that the level has changed somewhat! This fascinating fact is well explained in the geological museum, situated in what was once a “Hospitale”, a place where wayfarers could spend a night while travelling through. The premises are big enough to house the whale skeleton, and the hundreds of other sea creature fossils which have been found in the rocks all aound this zone. There are also videos explaining evolution, many rock and mineral specimens, and more besides.
The very particular environment is ideal for special occasions and events. For Valentine’s day, in past years (and hopefully again in the near future) romantic evenings were organized, including candlelit visits to the fort, and mini aphrodisiac cookery courses for couples. The restaurants in the hamlet prepare special dinners for two…..needless to say, many couples choose this beautiful setting for a memorable wedding. During the first week of September, a medieval – themed fair is held, with historical re-enactments, shows, gastronomic stalls selling typical products, and medieval games.
So be it for a full immersion in history, for a cultural visit, or even to simply walk the pretty lanes and enjoy a glass of local (excellent) wine, a trip to Castell’Arquato simply has to be on your list.