Something wicked this way comes…
Mystery and intrigue are packed into the ancient stone walls of medieval Castel del Monte, a little village tucked into the hills of northern Abruzzo, in central Italy, where 450 people live. The setting is beautiful, perched on a slope overlooking the mountains and valleys of Campo Imperatore in the Gran Sasso National Park.
This village has long housed residents that made their living raising sheep and creating wool products of such quality that it captured the attention of the Medici family who came to town, built a palace and closely oversaw Italy’s premiere wool industry. For centuries the shepherds led their flocks into fresh pastures high into the mountains, an annual migration called Transumanza. Today, this tradition is rarely continued in Abruzzo, but tourists that travel to this village can visit a former shepherd’s home and a museum that highlights the tools and costumes of this forgotten practice.
It is a pretty village to visit, and is in fact considered one of Italy’s Most Beautiful Villages. My daughter and I visited many medieval stone villages during our three week stay in Italy this summer, but I have to say this was one of our favorites.
The unique feature that sets this village apart are the narrow sporti tunnels that dip underneath Castel del Monte village in nine different places. They served 2 purposes–to allow residents to enter their homes from a protected lower level when snow accumulation prevented them from accessing their front doors, and also allowed residents to sneak away from bandits that used to converge upon this place. (Massive gates at the fortified village’s five entrances were firmly shut each night up until the 19th century to keep them out.)
But the mysterious sporti tunnels also had another purpose.
To break a spell witches cast upon children.
Residents believed in witches. When a child became sick without a sound medical explanation, the parents blamed the witches, who— according to an ancient story teller Francesco Giuliani, who lived here in the 1800’s— either snuck into a home through a keyhole or crept after a child in a shadowy lane to snatch them and suck their blood at night.
The only way to break the spell, the residents believed, was for the parents of the sick child to walk through the village under seven sporti tunnels at midnight. And if that didn’t work, they gathered the child’s clothes on the tenth night and heaped them in a pile at a specific place, beat them and lit them on fire to burn the curse.
We spoke to a local man (in his 30’s?) whose grandmother vividly recalls stories of villagers believing and practicing these rituals to break the witches curse. Today, all that is history. But not forgotten.
Each year on August 17th, locals honor their ancient beliefs in La Notte delle Streghe, or Night of the Witches. Past folklore comes alive for those who visit on this night as costumed locals re-enact scenes in little niches around the village, telling tales in this mysterious medieval backdrop with candles and lanterns illuminating the cobblestone lanes and spooky sporti tunnels.
This Night of the Witches event has drawn visitors to this tiny village for 20 years, since 1996, and lasts from dusk to nearly midnight. Folklore scenes are based on the writings of Giuliani which is the only documented account of the beliefs and rites to exorcise the witches, but also combine a little magic and fun.
We were a month too early to attend what sounds like a fascinating theatrical festival. And were visiting Castel del Monte during the day. Thus most of the magic, drama and mystery were evaporated by the sun. Yet it was easy to imagine how spooky this place could be at night…wandering past tall textured walls of ancient six-story homes and walking down the steps through the sporti…
where something just might be lurking in those dark shadows…