Who doesn’t love an old castle?
Rocca Calascio is the highest castle in Italy. Located 2 hours east of Rome in northern Abruzzo in the Gran Sasso National Park, it sits as the lower apex of a triangle between two tiny medieval stone villages, Santo Stefano di Sessanio to the west and Castel del Monte to the east. From its lofty position 1,460 meters above sea level, it overlooks the Campo Imperatore landscape to the north and the Majella Mountains in the south.
This dramatic fortress began as a military watchtower back in the 10th century to keep an eye on an invaders that might try approaching Rome across the mountains from the Adriatic Sea in the east. The castle was added years later during the Medieval Age, to protect the residents who moved in and established the little village of Rocca Calascio nearby. Never damaged in war, this fortress was instead destroyed by an earthquakes in 1461 and 1701, and has been lying in ruins ever since.
Wandering around the ruins makes you wonder about the people who lived here. What stories could these stones tell?
The occupants in this region relied on agriculture and wool production. Thousands of sheep migrated here each spring and stayed in the pastures until fall when shepherds and their sheep dogs returned the flocks to warmer climes in Puglia. Wool production was big business and created much wealth for the residents. But along with wealth, often comes greed…
Once upon a time, back in 1418, a greedy son imprisoned his mother inside these castle walls soon after his father died, in his attempt to seize control over the surrounding villages. His mother, Lacovella, had become the recipient of the famous Baronage of Carapelle Calvisio, a feudal agreement erected in 1308 that gave an individual dominion over Santa Stefano di Sessanio, Castel del Monte, Rocca Calascio and 3 other villages. When Pope Pio II’s army came to the rescue and liberated the castle, he assigned control of the lands to the Antonio Piccolomini, the pope’s nephew. I don’t know whatever happened to poor Lacovella. But that’s when Antonio built defensive walls around tiny Rocca Calascio and the four circular turrets around the castle.
The imposing structure of Rocca Calascio is an iconic site in Abruzzo, and has been the setting for movies starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Sean Connery and George Clooney. The panoramic landscapes are truly epic and easily imagined as movie backdrops. The base of the castle is easy to reach from the tiny stone hamlet of the same name, Rocca Calascio. A rather easy ten minute walk up a dirt trail leads to the base of the fortress where an octagonal church, Santa Maria della Pieta, sits overlooking surrounding mountains and agricultural plots in the valley.
To reach the fortress itself requires a bit of scrambling over a rocky incline to reach the top where the ruins are scattered about.
Can you spot the wolf hiding in the shadows?
Getting to the hamlet of Rocca Calascio from Santo Stefano is easy, as it’s only a ten minute bus ride. It departs at 8:50am from Santo Stefano and returns at 1:30pm or 3pm in the summer months. However, for photographers who want to stay for sunset (around 9:30pm) public transport is neither readily available nor cheap. No buses run at night or Sundays. A taxi costs 60 euro just to hail from the nearest taxi stand– which is L’Aquila– to Santo Stefano, plus the fare to the fortress at Rocca Calascio and the return trip in the dark which likely adds a hefty fee.
You can also hike here from Santo Stefano de Sessanio. Supposedly. The 5 km trail takes 2 hours each way. However, we never quite found the trail. (Directions from the hotel clerk: “Go down the slanted road leading into town, cross the paved road to the little lake and find the trail there.”) We followed the directions but found 3 different roads pointing opposite directions that were all marked Rocca Calascio. We walked along 2 of them for 30 minutes without any luck. We also read directions in Stuart Haines’ book Walking in Abruzzo which instructs to descend the same ramp, then “walk 30 meters up the road descending from Campo Imperatore then turn right at a concrete hut and climb the hillside on a vague path and follow the contouring… to a rib that is descended to a lane.” Admittedly, my daughter and I tend to be a little directionally challenged. We never did figure out the hiking route between the villages, but enjoyed the stunning scenery regardless!
Regarding photography: visiting Rocca Calascio castle during daylight hours on a summer day certainly isn’t the most conducive for stellar panoramic shots. The direct sun shining on this exposed mountaintop results in very harsh light both day and night, as you can see in the above image which was taken around 8pm. You can always hope for cloudy, stormy days. Or create your own atmospheric conditions in Photoshop.
But if you really want to photograph this ruin in the blue hour (up to 30 minutes before dawn/after sunset) then a car rental from Rome, 2 hours west, is likely your best bet. Just remember your tripod, headlamp, and wear sturdy shoes. And if you want to sneak around the interior of Rocca Calascio castle know that it is only open on Sundays in June and July, but is open daily in August which is the busiest tourism season in Abruzzo.