Crowning a jagged rise of ancient sandstone thrust up over the surrounding valley, this has been the site of a castle for many centuries. But its current, fantastical form—its glitter and swirls—has only occupied this prominent space for less than 200 years. Round towers and golden onion domes and a big clock ticking away below squared-away parapets, all of them competing for space atop Rocchetta Mattei, an impressive mishmash of architectural styles and inspirations.
Entering from below and following the curving cobblestone path into the castle, I arrived in a courtyard that was, once upon a time, resplendent with gardens, complete with a flowing fountain. All the surrounding symbols are about power—a harpy, a lion, even a balcony built especially for the pope, should he had ever chosen to visit, which he didn’t.
“The design, the artwork, the carvings, it was all to be magical, to … surprise,” says my guide, Angela. “Imagine the excitement of coming here, and entering this magical world.”
Descended from industrial wealth and granted the title of “count” by Pope Pius IX, Cesare Mattei was a dynamic figure in the middle of the 19th century. Creator of “electrohomeopathy,” which he claimed could heal all sorts of ailments, his treatments attracted patients from across Europe, including nobles and princes from Bavaria, Russia, and the Italian Piedmont. Mattei’s healing powers are even cited in Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamozov,” his last novel. On this fame, Mattei built his castle on a rock.
It’s just one revelation in a mountain chain that’s full of surprises. Forming a spine stretching 750 miles down the middle of the Italian Peninsula, the Apennines are often overlooked, seen as a second-fiddle attraction to the nearby Alps. Rolling south from the medium-sized city of Bologna—a surprisingly grand place, once a city-state and then the northern capital of the Papal States—the ground rises quickly from the plain of the Po River Valley. Small hills become soaring ridgelines, summits reaching above 6,000 feet, their sculpted flanks dappled by the sun.
As we neared the Rocchetta, Angela recalled some of the history of the area. While, with modern roads, you can now reach the heart of these small mountains in less than an hour, in centuries past, travel here was difficult, and villages were remote, developing their own distinct practices and food. Farming was tough, and chestnuts, one of the few things that grew easily here, formed the backbone of the diet, a sharp contrast to the wealth of culinary delights not so far away, Parmigiano Reggiano, prosciutto, and so much more.
Right in the middle of the Bolognese Apennines, Mattei built his kingdom. Mercurial by nature, in his later years, the man holed up in a bedroom that could be reached only over a drawbridge, paranoid about potential threats. Around him, the castle rose. He built a hall of peace, “Pax” inscribed above the windows, with views out to the mountains.
Mattei also constructed an imitation of the Alhambra, with four lion statues standing in place of 12. Plus, a chapel modeled on Cordoba.
“Everything in here is an illusion,” says another guide, Alice, as we stood in the latter. Intricate “metalwork” on the ceiling is actually painted-on, as are “mosaics” on the wall. There’s a forest of striped “stone” archways—many of which are actually built from wood—a knock revealed they’re hollow inside.
“All of this, it’s to create an esoteric fascination,” says Angela.
Abandoned for decades, the castle was recently restored and opened to the public. We lunched in a small restaurant about 10 minutes away, feasting on hearty local food like cinghiale, wild boar hunted locally and prepared in a stew with foraged ingredients such as rosemary and juniper berries. Temperatures get cold very quickly at high altitudes, and this is food that will last you through a gusty afternoon. It’s served with tigella, a stout, hardy bread roll, in this case, emblazoned with la rose sei petali, the flower of six petals, a traditional symbol of good luck.
Those six points showed up everywhere in La Scola, a village that descends gracefully down the side of a ridge. We arrived in the late afternoon, finding everything quiet, walking down its cobblestone streets, sweeping views at the end of each one. On the border with Lombardy, this was originally a place of defense in a time of war, with towers rising to keep a lookout against potential attacks. During the period of peace and prosperity that followed in the 15th century, those defenses were converted to residential buildings, the towers becoming “tower houses.” Master Comacine stonemasons were hired to carve the six-pointed flower and other potent symbols into the buildings, and those talismans remain to this day.
The main palace in town dates to 1638. An inscription above the door translates roughly to “well wishers, only.” A small slot in the rock, just to the right of the front door, was used to ensure that was the case. Through it, inhabitants observed the road outside, and could slide a weapon inside, if necessary. We visited a community oven, where the village gathered to bake bread, and a sundial, now restored and still marking the passage of the day.
After seeing a 700-year-old cypress tree that stretches higher than any of the town’s towers, we bumped into two men, visitors from Bologna. Angela had a staccato, rapid-fire conversation with them.
“They said they’ve lived in the city their whole life, but never knew about this place,” she said. “It’s their first visit here.”
Soon, it’s back to the city. Dusk turns to dark very quickly in mountainous regions. Taillights illuminated the two-lane road. Peaks disappeared into the gloaming. The busy streets of Bologna await. But so much remains to be found, in the Apennines, perhaps Europe’s most undiscovered mountain range.
If You Go
When to Go: Summers are the prime time to visit the Apennines, when temperatures are typically cooler than the rest of Italy, but remain pleasant. And autumn is a wonderland, with the changing trees forming a tapestry of gold, red, and rust on ridgelines all around.
Getting There and Around: Bologna’s Gugliemo Marconi Airport is well-connected to the rest of Europe, with many nonstop flights from major centers (meaning you’ll probably only have a single connection from the United States). Land, then rent a car and explore—getting behind the wheel is the best way to explore these mountains.
Take Note: While mountain villages are lovely during the day, it’s probably best to stay in Bologna, home to a number of good hotels, where the restaurants, serving up amazing pasta and other treats, stay open late.