It’s rare to find such a perfectly preserved medieval town in Italy that hasn’t been spoiled to some degree by a bad planning decision in a subsequent century or as a result of war but the position of Castell’Arquato atop a rocky outcrop surrounded by flatter land meant that over the years there was always plenty of space below the old town for the newer buildings.
In fact on our way here from Bobbio, so flat and dull was the landscape on the route that my expectations of the town were much reduced. I needn’t have worried because after parking the car at the bottom of the hill you quickly enter the Monteguzzo gate to the old town and are transported back in time 800 years to something that could easily be a Hollywood film set.
In fact it was exactly that, briefly, when in 1985 the film Ladyhawke was partly shot in the perfectly preserved Rocca Viscontea fortress. I've never seen the film but it was set mostly in Italy and they certainly picked some great places to shoot the other scenes as well, including Campo Imperatore and Rocca Calascio in Abruzzo that we wrote about here.
About half way between Parma and Piacenza, Castell’Arquato is located in the first foothills of of the Apennines as you travel south from the Po Valley. Just about everything in the older part was built from the 10th to 14th centuries and little has changed since then. Surrounding the town on the gently rolling hills are vineyards that produce the wines of the Colli Piacentini DOC, a lesser known part of the Italian wine landscape but well worth trying.
Gutturnio is probably the most famous of the local wines and is a blend of Barbera and Croatina (known locally as Bonarda). The most common white wines in this DOC are from the Malvasia di Candia and Ortrugo grapes, either made as individual wines or as a blend of the two.
There’s a lot to see as you walk around the narrow cobbled streets of Castell’Arquato and it’s remarkable how much has been preserved, including the water fountains at the base of the Palazzo del Duca in the appropriately named Via Fontane del Duca. Much of this building dates back to 1292; the 8 water spouts were originally designed with the heads of animals but though the water is still flowing the stone carvings have long since worn away.
At the side of the Palazzo del Duca is the Torrione Farnese, constructed entirely with clay bricks in 1575 and now occupied, appropriately, by an organization called Scuola d'Arme Gens Innominabilis which was founded in Castell'Arquato in 2007 by a group of history buffs. They study and teach the art of medieval combat, in particular fencing and swordsmanship, and have a well-stocked 15th century field of arms which are put to use at their annual tournament. Their goal is to "bring the Middle Ages back to life" and they couldn't have chosen a better place to base themselves.
Passing through the archway in Via Sforza Caolzio (above) takes you up to the top of the town and the three impressive buildings of the Piazza del Municipio. The Rocca was completed in the middle of the 14th century for defensive purposes and has the well- preserved Ghibelline battlements, distinguished by their V shaped notches at the top (see photo below) which gave better protection to the archers firing their arrows from a standing position.
It’s a typical Italian design from the medieval period and differs from the crenellated battlements in England and elsewhere.
The tower of the Rocca is open to the public and it’s worthwhile walking up to the top to get a pigeon’s eye view of the town and the surrounding countryside and especially of the Piazza del Municipio itself.
Directly opposite the castle is the Palazzo del Podestà, which served as the town hall of Castell’Arquato and dates back to 1292 but with subsequent additions and changes over successive centuries. It housed the administrative and judicial functions and today is still the place where the town council of Castell’Arquato meets.
On the facade of the building is the coat of arms of Castell’Arquato, in the center of which is the Rocca tower surrounded by the emblems of those who have ruled the town over the centuries: the stars of the Scotti, the rampant lions of the Sforza di Santa Fiora, who were related to the Sforza Dukes of Milan, and finally the lily of the Farnese.
The third building and the oldest in this piazza is the Collegiate Church Santa Maria Assunta, built in the Romanesque style of the 12th century.
Sooner or later it’s time to eat on these trips and as Emilia is undoubtedly the food capital of Italy, you don’t have to splash out to find good food, especially cold cuts of pork.
Our preference is always for a quick, simple lunch if we’re traveling and time is short and we found the perfect place called La Butega that is in the Piazza del Municipio itself, tucked round the corner in the shade of the Collegiate Church.
A quick peek inside is often all that is required to size up a place and it was hard to fault the interior of La Butega. Two generous panini, one filled with aged culatello and parmigiano and the other with coppa and provolone, together with a couple of glasses of wine made the perfect lunch.
Culatello is a delicate prosciutto, cut from the best part of the upper thigh with the most sought after being from the small area around Zibello, not very far from here on the Po river where the fog and winter cold followed by the hot summer is perfect for the curing process. We wrote everything you need to know about it here. Coppa (below left photo) is a flavorful cut of pork taken from the back of the neck as it runs down to the shoulder.
Even in these inflationary times prices in Italy are still very reasonable as can be seen from La Butega's price list above, especially given the size and quality of the panini they serve, and of course if your currency is US dollars then you've never had it so good.