"If you choose to live in a castle, it's not the castle that adapts to you; you must adapt to the castle." Gianfranco Gibelli, the loving owner of the 8th-century Castle of Gropparello, located in what was once the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza in the Emilia-Romagna region, seems himself to come out of the past his no ordinary home is imbued with.
Out of sheer love, Gibelli bought what he saw as "a sleeping giant that wished to return to life", restored it and now, besides living in the castle with his family, offers highly entertaining guided tours; in addition, he organizes re-enactments of medieval banquets, has transformed one of the castle's towers into a romantic suite, and has created a park where children are led into a fairytale world, the first of its kind.
[Photo: The drawbridge still used to access the castle, now the residence of the Gibelli family.]
The Castle of Gropparello, described by a Renaissance author as “bello allo sguardo”, beautiful to the eye, sits on a 80-meter high rock – in fact, it almost looks like an extension of the rock. Its unique position made it unapproachable; this is clear when you take a walk around the patrol path. The castle has been standing guard to the Vezzeno Valley, the access “gate” to the Duchy of Piacenza, since the 8th century. Sentinels would have been able to see the enemy approach at least two marching days before. This was a territory that saw many battles between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, factions supporting the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor respectively, which explains the large number of fortresses scattered throughout the area.
When giving tours, Gibelli makes the castle come alive through the tales and anecdotes he reveals, not just about the fortress’ history, but also about what it's like living in a castle today, the intrigue of the historic spaces, imagining what went on there, and the discomforts too: "We moved in the castle in the summer and by the following winter we thought we would die here - from cold." But even enduring the cold is part of the fascination of living in a castle. When Gibelli brings us into the living room, and describes it as the setting for the family’s Christmas dinner, you understand this fascination. “We live in a medieval manner in the historic part of the castle,” Gibelli explains.
[Photo: Mr. Gibelli, owner of the Castle of Gropparello, describes the monumental fireplace in the dining room.]
The living room, which features a monumental fireplace from the 16th century whose Etruscan elements help us identify the author, Giulio Romano, a pupil of Raphael, is preceded by the large hall where dances and banquets used to take place. This room is still used today when re-enactments of medieval dinners are organized. After the living room, we find the music room, which features a collection of musical instruments. It used to be the guest room, but Gibelli had to change its function after guests complained of strange things happening during the night: cold air gusts, the door opening by itself, bed sheets moving…well, every castle has its ghost and Gropparello does too! In the 13th century, Rosania Fulgosio, the beautiful wife of the lord of the area, fell in love with a commander and the two became lovers; when her husband, Pietrone, found out, he entombed her alive within the castle’s walls. It is said that on windy nights you can hear someone screaming for help… Gibelli even wrote a book about the Gropparello ghost legend and paranormal scholars have been studying unexplainable happenings in the castle for 20 years.
[Photo: The balcony in the castle's courtyard resembles Romeo and Juliet's balcony.]
Leaving the main structure, we step into the courtyard, which looks like a tiny medieval village and includes a balcony made to resemble none other than Romeo & Juliet’s balcony! We are also led up on the mastio (tower), the strongest element of the structure – at the top, we enjoy a 360° view of the verdant valley below and the Natural Park of the Vezzeno Gorges. The Celts, the Romans and Charlemagne passed by here.
Despite the many centuries that have gone by, the Gropparello Castle has retained all the fascination of a medieval fortress. Even access is only possible through the two ancient drawbridges. The sober elegance of its rooms and the soft light entering through the large windows contribute to lend the place a magical atmosphere. It may get freezing cold in the winter, but I believe it is worth the magic.
For more information about the Castello di Gropparello, click here.