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 stay overnight and trace the footsteps of a Middle Ages dynasty.
You’ll see it coming long before you get there.
Driving through a quiet valley patchworked with farms, small villages, vineyards and olive groves, you’d never guess you were just an hour northeast of Rome. Bucolic countryside stretches out endlessly in every direction.
Until, around one bend or another, a striking configuration suddenly emerges on the skyline. A striking medieval configuration.
Crowning the sprawling hilltop town of Nerola, the towers and battlements of Castello Orsini are visible from miles away. Intrigued, you draw closer.
Then, as you enter Nerola, comes the mildly terrifying part. Your typical tight-squeeze Italian roads, so narrow you find yourself holding your breath, plus a steep ascent and some hairpin bends — often all at once, why tf not! — make for some nail-biting driving. Frankly 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 not hard to feel like you’ve somehow ended up a few centuries back in time (OK, apart from a road sign or two).
As you pull up — open sesame — the spiked iron gate opens on its own accord as though by unseen hands.*
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 intimidating (which was, no doubt, the point). And also kind of 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, taken your luggage to your room,** blah, blah, blah, you can check out the place for yourself.
Because, yep, this medieval castle you’re calling home for the night is ready for you to explore. Let the fairytale and/or history nerd 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 aristocratic family, prominent in medieval and Renaissance Rome and linked to numerous papal dynasties.
In an age where the Catholic Church was particularly intricately entangled in politics and geopolitics, the Orsini family produced no less than 34 cardinals and three popes. 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). To wander around this place is to trace the footsteps of some of medieval Italy’s most powerful 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 signage or other interpretive elements.
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, medieval lances and halberds, treasure chests, frescoes, busts and… the tinmen. There are more suits of armour around here than a Scooby Doo mansion — each one posing differently, like they all have their own personalities.
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. 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 the golden sunset on the horizon in the distance gives way to a fittingly royal purple afterglow, the distant lights of the urban outskirts of Rome begin to flicker. As do the 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 banister 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 choose for the night? They say each one is unique. You can spend the night stepping into the metaphorical shoes of a knight, a friar, a squire, an army captain or even a prince — take your pick.
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 complex — the main castle building itself — are the north tower room, plus two royal suites.
Maybe, like me, you liked the sound of the Prince’s Room.*** It’s not far from the entrance. You get there via a narrow corridor that has 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. Today though his wife, French courtier Marie Anne de La Trémoille, is better known — or at least a creation of hers is. Reportedly inspired by the tangy scent of the oranges in the town of Nerola here, 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.
At bedtime, as you clamber up on the four-poster bed in your princely room and draw the curtains around each corner, you’d be forgiven for feeling a little like you’re tucking in and going to sleep 500 odd years ago.**** And if it’s a dark and stormy night out, beware: they say a ghost is known to haunt these parts in bad weather.
True or not, supernatural or not, it’s not the only ‘ghost’ the building holds. 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 evocative and vaguely mind-boggling.
Following a surprisingly generous buffet breakfast, it’s time to make a move. As you leave the castle, and head back out the gate, you might find yourself thinking about all the hidden corners and stories still left to explore.
But back down the narrow streets of Nerola you go, taking one last wistful look at the fortress you just left behind. Maybe promising to return 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.
*AKA electricity and CCTV.
**Tip: look out for a hidden surprise or two in the lift well of the luggage lift!
***They say it’s touted as the castle’s most prestigious.
****Assuming you had the lottery-squared-level luck of not being born a peasant or serf or, you know, plague victim.