Once upon a time, a gorgeous castle was built atop the hilltop town of Nerola, Italy. Now 1000 years old, Castello Orsini offers you the chance to live like royalty behind its ancient fortified walls.
You’ll see it coming long before you get there — well before you’re even in the same town.
The towers, turrets and battlements of Castello Orsini cut a striking figure on the skyline. Crowning the hilltop town of Nerola, which sprawls haphazardly down the hill, the fortress is visible from miles away.
The surrounds are bucolic countryside, all farms, small villages, vineyards and olive groves. Even before you’ve reached the castle you may quietly congratulate yourself for stumbling upon such a quiet, rural corner of Italy; you’d never guess you were just an hour northeast of Rome.
Then, as you enter Nerola, comes the mildly terrifying part. A steep ascent, some hairpin bends and narrow roads make for a nail-biting driving experience. In some ways it’s a journey better suited to the transport of centuries ago, when visitors would’ve come on foot or horseback.
When you find yourself at the castle entrance, taking in the ancient stone walls that encircle its grounds, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve somehow gone back a few centuries in time (but for a road sign or two).
At least until — open sesame — the spiked iron gate opens on its own accord as though by unseen hands. (AKA electricity and an unobtrusive CCTV camera.)
In you go.
Before you stands a vast rounded tower, one corner of the castle, with stone walls several feet thick and multiple storeys in height. The effect is magic.
Following along, anti-clockwise, you pass the next tower and the next, each a rounded bulwark jutting out from the castle. It occurs to you that the stony ground on which you’re currently driving may once have been the castle’s moat.
You’ve stumbled onto a proper old school castle-slash-fortress, battlements and all. And the (figurative) drawbridge is open.
Once you’ve parked, checked in, and taken your luggage to your room (look out for a hidden surprise or two in the lift well of the luggage lift!), you can check out the place for yourself.
Because, yep, this medieval castle you’re calling home for the night is all yours to explore. Let the fairytale fantasy begin.
Inside Castello Orsini: A picturesque Italian castle near Rome
So, what is this place? Originally built in the 10th or 11th century — so, you know, just a casual millennium in age — the castle came to belong to the Orsini for whom it’s named by 1235. The Orsini were an ancient princely family, prominent in medieval and Renaissance Rome and linked to numerous papal dynasties.
In an age where the Catholic Church was particularly intricately bound up with politics and geopolitics, the Orsini produced 34 cardinals and three popes. Not a bad tally. And then there were the family’s fiefdoms, conveniently spanning — and thus controlling — all the main routes to Rome from the north.
But with power comes enemies. By the 15th century, it was time for some upgrades and the family fortified Castello Orsini so it could hold its own against the ever-advancing cannon warfare of the day. And 300-odd years later the castle was sold to other dynastic power-brokers, the Barberini and the Colonna (long-time, ‘hereditary enemies’ of the Orsini). Wander around this place and you may well be tracing the footsteps of some of Italy’s most powerful aristocratic families who owned this place some century or another.
Owners in high places aren’t the castle’s only claim to fame, however. In another life, Castello Orsini also served as a hospital for pilgrims. And in the 1860s Garibaldi’s partisans clashed with papal forces here in the lead-up to Italian unification, as the first step in his failed bid to conquer Rome.
Steeped in history? Check. But the castle wears its past lightly, with little in the way of interpretive signage.
Which may be part of the reason why the past feels strangely alive here. Take an hour or so to wander around the castle’s labyrinthine Romanesque-medieval interior — you’re free to poke around most public areas. Look out for the assorted relics and wonders on display around its grand halls, banqueting rooms and hidden nooks and crannies alike. Much of the furniture dates back to the 1600s.
You can’t miss the wall-length tapestries, medieveal lances and halberds, treasure chests, frescoes, busts and more suits of armour than a Scooby Doo mansion — all posing in varied stances, as though imbued with their own personality.
From winding spiral staircases to an airy, sweeping ballroom, it’s intoxicating to snoop around such a finely restored slice of the Middle Ages. Guided tours are available for those who want to learn more about the castle’s history. Or you can just continue to poke around yourself. At any rate, you may well get lost, if you’re lucky.
Beyond the castle: A fascinating domain
But don’t forget what lies on the other side of the castle walls. Just before sunset, take a leisurely stroll along the length of the perimeter walls and soak up the views of the olive groves and green pastures of the Tiber Valley beyond. The surrounding area is part of the ancient Sabine Hills region, a fascinating domain to explore.
As the sky darkens, and a golden sunset on the horizon in the distance gives way to a fittingly royal purple afterglow, the distant lights of the urban sprawl of Rome begin to flicker — as do the medieval-style torches around the castle exterior, illuminating your way back in.
Cross the little arched bridge, go through the stately door, and pass the small decorative fountain. Continue through another doorway until you come to a courtyard flanked with barrels and overlooked by a staircase emblazoned with heraldic crests. You’re right near the bar — fancy an aperitivo?
The Prince’s Room: The royal suite
Once you’ve wined, dined and been merried (and perhaps even taken another passeggiata around the castle to work off your banquet?), thoughts may turn to bed.
So which room did you pick for tonight? Lodgings are on offer in a nearby 18th-century villa, the castle’s former stables, and the Borghetto dei Lecci, a group of old houses set inside the castle walls. Within the heart of the castle complex — the main building itself — are the north tower room, plus two royal suites. Each room is totally unique. You can spend the night stepping into the metaphorical shoes of a knight, a friar, an army captain or even a prince — take your pick.
Perhaps you opted for the story and the mystique of the Prince’s Room, touted as the castle’s most prestigious. It’s not far from the entrance. You get there via a narrow corridor with medieval weaponry splayed along its walls.
Just try and enter the Prince’s Room without gasping, I dare you. Take in the rough-hewn stone walls, terracotta floor, imposing arch, four-poster bed, iron torch lamps, stately desk, red velvet accents, and array of period furniture. A few modcons like a wide-screen TV are, to the layperson’s eye, the only hint that the room isn’t straight out of the medieval era.
It’s a spacious, two-storey room of sorts, with a thin metal staircase in the far corner leading to a short corridor and ensuite above. In an alcove in one corner rests a bust of Flavio Orsini, after whom the room is named; he stayed here in the 1500s.
Flavio Orsini was the Duke of Bracciano, and nicknamed the Prince of Nerola. Perhaps better known today, though, is an innovation of his wife Marie Anne de La Trémoille, a French courtier: reportedly inspired by the tangy scent of the oranges in the town, she used the essence to perfume her gloves and bath. After Flavio died and she returned to France, she brought the scent with her, where it remains popular today, known as ‘Neroli’. You may even find a beauty treatment or two inspired by this scent in this castle hotel’s wellness centre, if you’re so inclined.
When it’s bedtime, as you clamber up on the bed and draw the curtains, you’d be forgiven for finding it hard to shake the royal feeling. But if it’s a dark and stormy night out, beware: in inclement weather, they say, a ghost is known to haunt these parts.
Ghost, partisan, pilgrim, prince or perfume maker — roaming around the castle and considering the many people from all walks of life who’ve set foot here over its 1000-year-or-so history is both mind-boggling and oddly nostalgic.
When it’s time for you to move on, back to the 21st century, you may find yourself wishing you could stay longer; there are so many hidden corners and stories still yet to explore.
But back down the narrow streets of Nerola you go, taking one last wistful look at the fortress you just left behind. Perhaps promising to return once more someday. After all, from the knight’s to the friar’s, you’ve still got all the other rooms — other long-gone lives — to try out for yourself.