Castell’ Arquato, Emilia-Romagna – ideal day getaway from Milan.
A hilltop wonder, you approach the town through a grand archway, looking up at the towers and spires that define the skyline. Just inside the gateway we witnessed a scene worthy of a Fellini film. A window banged open above us and grandmother’s head popped out. ‘Filippo!’, she called down to the floor below. A second later the window below opened. The grandmother produced a basket covered with a flowery cloth, attached to a crudely constructed pulley system. She lowered the basket down to her son below, bellowed ‘buon appetito’, and withdrew. This brief scene of daily life is representative of a village frozen in time and its enduring culture of family life.
While there are many hilltop villages with quaint cobbled streets and stray cats, Castell’Arquato is impressive for the sheer size and integrity of the historic village. Often borghi are merely a piazza and a couple of streets trapped inside a sprawling city, but here modern construction is relegated to outside the town walls. In fact, since the Medieval period there have not been any notable changes to the village.
Aside from losing yourself in the winding streets and admiring the well-kept gardens overlooking infinite views of the hills beyond, there is even some serious history and architecture here.
The town sits on a terrace of fossil shells, deriving from prehistoric times when the sea covered the Po valley. As you reach the summit of the hill, a grand piazza opens up before you, a surprise in a little town like this. The piazza hosts la rocca Viscontea, erected by Luchino Visconti between 1342 and 1349, which is considered one of the most important military workshops in Northern Italy. You can also find a religious complex of buildings called the collegiata which is one of the oldest in the area, dating from 1117. The most attractive part of the structure is the volumetric play of the four apses set against the roof of the church and bell tower.
In terms of food, have an antipasto fit for a king with local coppa, pancetta and salame piacentino.
Castell’Arquato is 45 minutes from Parma, 1hr 15 from Milan and 1hr 30 from Verona.