Explore #6 of the Wet, with excitement Tour.
The third and final day of our wintry long weekend in Italy was a traditional pre-dawn start. Our target: an incredible disused ‘fairytale’ castle…
History (compiled and rewritten from here, here, and here)
The Castle of Sammezzano was originally built in 1605 by Spanish nobleman Ximenes of Aragon. However, the castle truly became unique in the 19th century when Ferdinand Panciatichi Ximenes inherited the property, and over the course of nearly 40 years between 1853 and 1889 remodelled it into one of the largest and most flamboyant examples of Moorish Revival Architecture.
The ‘palazzo’ has 365 rooms, one for every day of the year, and each has its own name and is unique in style and décor. Amongst the most famous rooms are the Peacock Room with stunning colours and geometries, the White Room with Moroccan mosaic tiled floors and wrought iron chandeliers, the gallery between the Hall or Mirrors and the octagon of the Smoking Room, the Hall of Lilies, the Stalactites, the Lovers and also a small chapel.
In these spaces that follow one another there are hidden niches, corners, windows, columns, labyrinthine paths, capitals, arches, vaults and domes. Above an archway are the words ‘Non Plus Ultra’, in Latin meaning ‘nothing further beyond’. In Greek Mythology this phrase was a warning that marked the edge of a flat world for explorers; perhaps communicating the architect’s vision to take visitors literally out of this world with jaw-dropping interiors. It is also a play on the national motto of Spain ‘Plus Ultra’, or ‘further beyond’ which was adopted in the 16th Century by King Charles V and used to encourage Spanish explorers.
The castle is situated on the top of a hill, and surrounded by a parkland of 450 acres, and originally included a large number of exotic tree species and added architectural elements – also in the Moorish style – such as a bridge, an artificial cave with a statute of Venus, pools and fountains. However, many of these items were looted during the Second World War. The park also still hosts the largest group of giant sequoias in Italy, with 57 trees all measuring over 35 metres in height.
Umberto I, king of Italy, visited Ximenes at Sammezzano in 1878. After the Second World War the castle was used as a luxury hotel with apartments, spa, golf and country club until its closure in 1990. It was purchased by a British company in 1999, and some urgent restoration work carried out. However, it has since sat largely abandoned and closed to the public.
In April 2012 a local non-profit committee called FPXA 1813-2013 (an acronym for Ferdinand Panciatichi Ximenes d’Aragon ) was formed to attempt to restore and preserve the palazzo.
The castle is now owned by Palmerston Hotels & Resorts, who plan to develop the property into a “luxurious sporting resort, incorporating a boutique hotel, apartments, spa and country club with golf, tennis and various sporting amenities”. They have obtained all necessary planning approvals and redevelopment finally began in 2015.
Recently, Thierry Mugler also used the Great White Rotunda and Peacock Rooms in the castle to film an advert for his ‘Alien’ perfume. The video can be seen here.
Arriving under cover of darkness, we made the ill-fated decision to avoid the main road winding up the hillside, and opt for a more direct cross-country route through the surrounding woodland. All was going well until we reached a particularly steep slope, which we began to climb. Slowly it became steeper and steeper, and more and more slippery – the clay giving way beneath our feet. We struggled to hold on to thin saplings to hold us on the hillside and stop us falling back down 20 or 30 metres below. This was still in the dark. And then the claps of thunder which had been in the distance suddenly began to draw much, much closer. And then the breeze suddenly picked up in that tell-tale manner which signals imminent torrential rain…
…we redoubled our efforts, and somehow finally made our way to the top of the slope. We immediately cut through onto the nearest curve of road leading up to the castle, and stuck to asphalt for the remainder of the way. We thought we had found a way in when we spotted a solitary broken window grille which led into a spiral stairwell in one of the corner towers. But our initial elation soon collapsed as we discovered that each door leading from the stairwell was sealed tight, and we had to climb back outside and look for another way in. Undeterred, we continued our scout around the perimeter of the castle, and eventually managed to find a way in. We were so relieved!
By then dawn was breaking, and we spent then next 4 hours with the entire castle to ourselves. Honestly, you could spend a week photographing this place, such is the variety and detail of the architecture and decoration. It was almost overwhelming, and as a result I’m not entirely happy with my shots – but they do at least give a flavour of the majesty of the place.
As always click on a photo to VIEW LARGE
… and headed to the airport and home. Getting back to our car in daylight for the first time since the previous night’s prang with a moped owner in Florence, we suddenly realised that the damage to the back of our hire car was much worse then we had thought! I felt terrible. James and I spent 15 minutes doing our best to make the damage to the bumper and rear of the car not look too bad, but we thought there would be no hiding it… but when we dropped the car off at the airport the attendant gave one glance at the car and signed it off as fine! What a result!
…and so ended an extremely rainy but highly successful three days of exploring in Italy. Six ‘wins’ out of six!