Castle Summer

Italy closes for vacation in August. With no air-conditioning, it’s impossible to do anything, so most everyone goes to the beach. I prefer the mountains, so when I get back from the US I escape to the Valle d’Aosta, near the French and Swiss borders, whenever I have the chance. So now, in late September, here’s all this year’s Aostan castle posts rolled into one.

Valle d’Aosta is mountains, slate roofs, wood carving, polenta, fontina cheese, and castles. Its French town names, such as Quart and Nus, were originally names of Roman military outposts that morphed during the centuries in which Aosta looked more towards France than Italy. Today most people speak Italian as their first language. But the region is officially bilingual and there are a lot of French tourists. Valle d’Aosta also has its own dialect, Valdotaîn.

The Valle d’Aosta regional website lists 22 towers or castles, and truly they do seem to dot every hill along the valley. They range from pillaged ruins to fully restored manors with some original furniture. Some are open all year, but many are only open for a limited period during the summer. Most of them originate from the first millennium or shortly thereafter and have undergone many modifications. One, Forte di Bard, was featured in the opening scene of The Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Most of these castles were originally built by various members or relatives of the Challant family, who were vassals of the Savoys (the future Italian royal family). They were almost like a system of toll booths, providing safe passage for people, goods and news across the Alps and into the Piedmont region and beyond. And that mattered a lot in those days, so perhaps it helps to think of them as the Mark Zuckerbergs of an analog information highway.

The castles I visited this summer were Fénis, Issogné, Verrès, Sarre, and Cly. Giving a detailed history of each castle would take way too long, though, so instead I want to write briefly about what interested me in each place.

You can click on these photos to enlarge or read the captions.

I’ll start with Cly, because it is a ruin, little modified by later additions. It sits on its hill looking like something out of a Wordsworth poem, its internal walls now almost indistinguishable from the outer ones. Upon entering, you see a lot of grass and large piles of stone, because the last owner used the castle for scrap. But slowly the outlines of a typical medieval castle appear. The donjon, from where we get the English word dungeon, was not a basement prison but a tower one, and it’s still standing. It could only be accessed by a removable ladder, but it had open windows, so people sometimes escaped. Nearby is a small chapel with a rounded apse, with traces of frescoes remaining, and up against the south wall of the castle (for warmth) was a series of rooms used as living quarters by the lords of the manor. Now only outer walls, punctuated by large fireplaces, remain. Other areas included a judicial hall, stables, and on the north side for coolness, food and wine storage. Far to the west side of the castle was the cistern, also very important during a siege. Cly is only visitable in short guided tours (only during August, I think).

Unfortunately I didn’t take pictures of the fireplace or furniture inside Fénis.

Fénis also looks typically medieval, and is perhaps the best furnished of the castles.   One of my favorite features of Fénis is an enormous fireplace, so big you can stand in it and look way up to a tiny opening at the top. At one time this fireplace was furnished with wooden beams used for smoking meat. The courtyard is also famous, with its elaborate Jacquerian frescoes comparing the lord of the manor to St. George, and a giant St. Christopher (patron saint of travelers) saluting guests as they left the premises. The crenelated walls were reconstructed in the 19th century and aren’t entirely accurate, but the effect is charming.

Verrès, by contrast, is austere. It’s a box fort that anticipates later Renaissance forms, built high on an imposing, windswept outcropping, and almost devoid of decoration. There is no furniture in the castle today, but I love the medieval technological adaptations that remain. Next to the main dining room on the first floor (second floor by American reckoning) there is a kitchen with a pass-through window, two huge fireplaces for cooking, and cabinets built into the stone walls that could be used as warming drawers or ovens. In an extension of the kitchen on the other side of the dining hall, servants congregated around another fireplace and a door opens to yet a another cabinet, this time built into an outside wall–it was a refrigerator, or maybe a freezer, depending on the weather!

The main bedroom on that floor has small toilet closets on the outside walls, with exposed holes that empty straight down into the yard below. The presence of more than one toilet suggests that several people slept in this room, but all I could think about was how cold it must have been inside those closets! In fact, the guide kept emphasizing the cold and discomfort, adding that the owner applied all lessons learned in constructing a more welcoming castle at Issogné down in the valley. Certainly Verrès was a barren and imposing place, and given its location I would imagine it was isolated as well. I can only guess that people must have gotten on each other’s nerves during the winter!

Issogné is the prettiest of the castles and like Fénis, well-furnished. I have a hard time imagining it as a siege-type castle, but inside the courtyard are lovely porticoes with frescoes depicting all the aspects of medieval life that the Challant family presided over in the nearby town. The table is set for dining and there is a large chapel furnished with frescoes and an altar. There is also a small frescoed chapel off one of the bedrooms, because apparently the bedroom was occupied at one point by a clerical member of the family. The beds have draperies, the walls have warm patterned designs or frescoes and the ceilings are coffered and painted.

Sarre was, I thought, an anomaly. It began as a medieval castle, but its history is obscured because it was bought by the Savoys in the mid-19th century for use as a hunting lodge. The main halls are decorated in ornate frescoes adorned with real mountain goat skulls and horns–hundreds of thems. The castle was at that moment exhibiting clothing worn by the last Savoy Queen, Margherita, a beauty whose husband, the king, designed her wedding dress. The clothing displayed is elegant, but combined with the skulls and the royal couple’s complicity with Mussolini, the effect is disquieting. I also got a feeling we were looking at the royal family’s bric-a-brac. My favorite part of the tour was the anecdote that the person who bought the castle was originally instructed to buy the fairy-tale castle of Aymavilles across the river, but got his directions mixed up and bought Sarre instead.

There are other aspects of Valle d’Aosta that are well-worth recounting, and other castles closer to home that certainly merit a post, but I’ll save them for another day. Meanwhile, September has come and almost gone, and the temperatures still haven’t gone down to my satisfaction yet, but it’s back to work! A presto!

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2 thoughts on “Castle Summer

  1. I may be obliged to join you if you do another castle trek next summer. Though my current plan is to walk the northern route of the Camino de Compstella in spring (if family circumstances permit — a definite maybe)

    1. Oh!!! If you’re walking Santiago di Compostela, please let’s talk about it! Where, when, how?! The part near me? Can we sing Santa Maria strela do día? (You may soon be sorry you mentioned this…😆)

      And yes, I can make castle treks happen most any time, at least for the ones that are open!

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