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 traveled on their way south to Rome.
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 the 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.
Taking 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.
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.
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. 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 Fortress 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!!!