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Facade, Brunella Fortress, Aulla

Exploring the Brunella Fortress in Aulla, Lunigiana, Italy

The Brunella Fortress, Aulla, Lunigiana

The Brunella Fortress, Aulla, Lunigiana

It is a part of Italy that is somewhat off the beaten track, often overlooked by those whose travels take them to major urban centers or to the Cinque Terre on the coast below. However, if you are prepared to venture into less traveled areas and let fortune guide you to places that are mere dots on a map, you are in for a treat. Under the stern and forbidding Apuan Alps (where Michelangelo insisted on going to excavate the marble for his sculptures) is the province of Lunigiana. Tucked away in the northern part of Tuscany that links La Spezia in Liguria with Parma in Emilia Romagna, this is the land of medieval villages where over 100 ancient fortresses and castles dot the stunning landscape. One of the most prominent and striking of these is the Brunella Fortress in Aulla. Strategically located on a rocky bluff overlooking the confluence of the rivers Magra and Aulla, the fortress once controlled the access routes, linking the coast and the mountain passes through which pilgrims and traders travelled on their way south to Rome.

The access over the moat to the Brunella Fortress, Aulla, Lunigiana

The access over the moat to the Brunella Fortress, Aulla, Lunigiana

Nobody can say with any degree of certainty who actually built the fortress which rose on the remains of a 13th century castle. Some believe that it was the work of Jacopo Ambrogio Malaspina, the Lord of Aulla in medieval times who is credited with construction of a string of castles throughout the area. Others are of the view that it was commissioned by a military commander, Giovanni delle Bande Nere (John of the Black Bands). What is clear is that whoever built the fortification had a keen sense of military tactics and the future of warfare. This is the first structure in the region designed to withstand cannon fire.

Takng its name from the color of the stone used to build it (“Bruna” or brown), the fortress consists of a quadrangle, surrounded on two sides by a deep moat. Steep, rocky cliffs protect the other two sides. Massive walls and robust bulwarks rise ominously, designed to repel cannon fire and embrasures every few feet allowed the occupants to fight off an attack using stones or boiling oil that could easily be thrown down the chutes. In olden days a drawbridge provided access to the stronghold. Today there is a solid rock walkway that leads to the long, narrow corridor that takes you into the building.

Side towers of the Brunella fortress, Aulla, Lunigiana

Side towers of the Brunella fortress, Aulla, Lunigiana

Over the centuries numerous conquerors occupied the fortress, subject to the vagaries of war — local lords, Spaniards, French, Austrians and Germans. However, possibly the most memorable occupants were the family of Aubrey Waterfield, an English painter who bought the fortress in the early 1900s. Their story is beautifully narrated in a book, “A Tuscan Childhood,” written by Waterfield’s daughter, Kinta Beevor, who provides a glimpse of life in the area over almost 70 years.

The Waterfields restored the fortress, transforming it into a mansion where they lived until the 1970s. When Waterfield found that Spanish troops had hauled tons of earth to the roof of the fortress to absorb the recoil of their cannons, he transformed it into a roof garden complete with an alley of ilex trees to provide shade, flower beds, a lawn and a sunken marble bath. You can take a steep stairway up to the roof. Regrettably, when the fortress was sold to the Italian Government in the early 1970s, some misguided bureaucrat made the decision to destroy the rooftop garden and cut down the trees so that today only a swath of grass remains. There are vague promises to have the garden restored sometime in the future. We shall see….. Today the central tower of the fortress, with its vaulted ceilings and large stone fireplaces, houses the Museum of Natural History of Lunigiana in three tiny rooms. The rest of the interior of the fortress is off limits; however, you can walk around the structure, through the moat. The Brunella is one of the best preserved of the Lunigiana castles and fortresses. It is unique in its structure and its history. It is but one of the many treasures you can find in Italy when you go off the beaten track and let serendipity be your guide.

The remains of the rooftop garden, Brunella Fortress, Aulla Lunigiana

The remains of the rooftop garden, Brunella Fortress, Aulla Lunigiana

IF YOU GO
This is an easy day trip from many points in Tuscany and Liguria. However, if you want to spend the night in the region, the Demy Hotel (3 stars) has 44 basic rooms (Via A. Salucci 9, Aulla; www.demyhotel.it; Tel 39-0187-408370). Other than the Brunella there is not much to see in Aulla itself. A better choice might be one of the hotels in la Spezia. The Brunella Fortres is open every day except Monday. In the summer the hours are 0900-1200 and 1500 to 1900. In winter the museum closes an hour earlier. Finding the Fortress can be a bit of a challenge. We used the Google Map feature on our iPad with excellent results throughout our trip to Lunigiana. If you are driving, take the Aulla exit off the A15 autostrada between La Spezia and Parma. Follow the signs for S62 SOUTH towards Betolla. Look for the SS63 which branches off the SS62 not far past the Piazza di Calvo Natale. Turn left on Viale Rimembranza and follow the road until you see a very tight, very sharp right hand turn onto an unnamed road which is marked with a signpost for Castello. Follow this road through a series of tight switchbacks up the hill until you reach the parking lot for the castle. There are some brown signposts but you have to keep a sharp eye out for them. One of the challenges of driving in Italy is that the one-way system of roads changes frequently so you need to be aware that the roads mentioned above may have been reversed!!!

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View over Fort Bulnes

The Fortress of the Far South, Fort Bulnes, Chile

Fort Bulnes, Patagonia, Chile

Fort Bulnes, Patagonia, Chile

It is as inhospitable a spit of land as you will find anywhere in the world, a place where ocean current collide . . where violent tempests rake the land . . where survival requires tenacity and determination. Yet for generations, nations of the world vied for this spot at the ends of the earth, overlooking the strategic navigation route linking east to west. It was thus that Chile lay claim to the Strait of Magellan and, in 1843 built a fort high on a cliff overlooking the passageway — Fort Bulnes.

The Chapel, Fort Bulnes, Patagonia

The Chapel, Fort Bulnes, Patagonia

This was not the first attempt at establishing a toehold in the area. In 1584, in order to prevent the English Explorer, Sir Francis Drake, from returning to the Pacific via the Staits of Magellan, Captain Sarmiento de Gamboa of Spain founded an outpost, the Ciudad de Rey Don Felipe (The City of King Don Felipe), just a mile away from where Fort Bulnes sits today. But nature proved to be a cruel companion — the inhabitants of Ciudad de Rey Don Felipe starved to death within a matter of months, the victims of extreme weather and the lack of food and water.

The remains of the encampment were discovered some time later by Sir Thomas Cavendish, the English privateer, on his way to circumnavigate the world. He renamed the spot Puerto del Hambre (Famine Port). By 1843 the President of Chile, Manuel Bulnes Prieto, realized that if his country was going to maintain control of its southern borders, it would have to command the Straits of Magellan. He ordered Captain Juan Williams of the Chilean Navy to “take possession of the Strait of Magellan for Chile” and prevent the French or British from establishing a presence on the continent.

The cannons, Fort Bulnes, Patagonia

The cannons, Fort Bulnes, Patagonia

An expedition was organized from Chiloé on the schooner ‘Ancoud’ (the first warship built in Chile). Learning from previous failures, the 21 men and two women included provisions of dried food as well as live chickens and pigs to last until they had established their own means of survival.

Fort Bulnes was established on Santa Ana Point, about a mile south of Puerto del Hambre. (Ironically, the day after Williams landed at Santa Ana, a French frigate arrived of the coast with the intention of establishing a French port on the same site.) The fort was built by hand with tree trunks and peat bricks, surrounded by a log fence.

Although the original intention had been to build a town around the fort, within six years the inhospitable conditions forced the inhabitants to abandon Fort Bulnes, which was burned to the ground, and to move to Punta Arenas, 40 miles to the north. Nature had won again! In 1943 the Fort was restored and today provides a realistic glimpse of what life might have been like during the age of exploration and conquest.

Along the Straits of Magellan, Patagonia

Along the Straits of Magellan, Patagonia

As you drive along the Straits of Magellan from Punta Arenas, skeletons of old ships that have fallen victim to the treachery of the currents litter the shores. They sit silently on their sides, encrusted with the guano of cormorants, gulls and other seabirds that nest in the nooks and crannies.

Near the spot where Puerto del Hambre once stood is a monument marking the ‘geographical center of Chile.’ A map on the white stele outlines the long, thin ribbon of land from the Peruvian border to the tip of the continent, separated from the area of Antarctica that Chile claims as its own.

The port of Bahia Mansa at the base of the hill is home to the wooden fishing boats which ply these waters in search of Patagonian hake, Chilean sea bass and eel. We visit on a holiday when the “fleet” is at anchor, a collection of small wooden boats, painted blue, white and red, with fanciful names like ‘Beagle.’

Fishing boats at Bahia Mansa, Patagonia

Fishing boats at Bahia Mansa, Patagonia

A short drive up the hill takes you to the reconstructed fort. Surrounded by the same type of log wall, a watch tower looks out over the ocean, facing the Brunswick Peninsula on one side and the Straits of Magellan and Tierra del Fuego Island on the other. Climb up for a panoramic view through the exposed window where the winds howl, even on the warmest summer day. Cannons line the two sides of the bluff, protecting the church, chaplain’s quarters, jail, powder magazine and stables.

Walk down the hill past the Santa Ana Lighthouse (1944) to the edge of the Straits. Enormous tree trunks lie mangled on the rocks as waves pound around them. If you are lucky, you might see a seal bobbing around the waters offshore, periodically diving after food, then quizzically popping up to see if you are still there.

Standing on this once coveted spit of land, Fort Bulnes is a silent reminder of the extremes that nations would go to reign supreme even over inhospitable lands such as these.

Views along the Straits of Magellan, Patagonia

Views along the Straits of Magellan, Patagonia

IF YOU GO
Fort Bulnes is about 40 miles south of Punta Arenas on a partially paved road that skirts the edge of the Straits of Magellan. The fort is open form 0900 to 1800. Your hotel can arrange transportation to the fort which can be visited on a self-guided tour.

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