How to Visit Sammezzano Castle + Tuscany
I am not one to try my luck. I don't buy scratch cards, or enter contests and almost never gamble. Though maybe I should. The one time I played a slot machine it was with a quarter I found on a Las Vegas casino floor. I popped it into the the first slot machine I saw and hit a $200 jackpot! I didn't press my luck though. I walked right off the casino floor and bought a cashmere shawl that I still wear today. Improbably, I recently hit a different kind of jackpot. This particular win was more cultural than monetary, but I will take my luck in whatever it's form. Even better when that form is a rare visit to an abandoned castle in the Tuscan countryside.
Just outside of Florence there is this mysterious castle filled with fantastical, colorful rooms. I am pretty sure I first learned about it from a picture on Pinterest. I had done a little research, figured out where it was, liked the Facebook page and forgotten about it. Until a few weeks ago when a notice popped up in my feed. The Sammezzano Castle would be open for one day in October and there would be a signup form posted online at exactly 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon. The whole process was a little ridiculous and drawn out, like snagging a table at Noma or Septime. I held out little hope I would actually get a spot, no less the four that I wanted. I set an alarm in my calendar and hoped for the best. Lady luck and good internet were on my side and a few days later I found out our visit was a go. The 750 places were booked in 55 seconds and my name was near the top of the list.
The day of our visit our slot was at 11:30 am so it was an early start from Rome. We had a quick cappuccino (and maybe a quick stop at Prada to try on shoes)at The Mall and started the adventure with a thirty minute walk up to the castle grounds. We checked our names off the list and waited our turn in the back of the castle where there were tables set up, sausages on the grill and cold beer on tap. Groups of 75 people were guided through the castle rooms for about an hour. Our guide had a thick Tuscan accent and I was too bewitched by the light and colors that I have to admit I paid little attention to what I am sure was lots of really interesting information about this curious place.
Castello Sammezzano was created by Ferdinando Panciatichi Ximenes d'Aragona over forty plus years on an existing structure that dated back to the Roman era. This Florentine born Spanish nobleman was quite an interesting character. He was very involved in local area politics and quite outspoken about his views on the church. He resigned from his elected post deputy of the Italian kingdom in 1867 over his dissatisfaction with Italian unification and how the new government dealt with church property. He poured his energies into creating his Moorish style whimsy in the Tuscan countryside.
A passionate botanist as well as designer, architect, and engineer, Ximenes d'Argona brought California sequoia trees to Italy. Now 150 years later they still thrive. We took a different path back to the car so that we could see the most famous of these special trees The Gemella which soars 50 meter tall and with a trunk circumference of 8 1/2 meters.
There are 365 rooms in the castle, one created for every day of the year. Some are richly decorated in a rainbow of colors and some are almost entirely white with intricate plaster work. There is stained glass, glazed tiles, fresco style painting and carved wooden detail. Virtually nothing is left undecorated. All of it remarkably intact. The whole place appeals to my sense of style; a little bit ramshackle and slightly overdone.
The castle has stood abandoned and empty since the late 1990's.