Italian Castles and Gelato

Castello Bufalini, San Guistino, Italy
Castello Bufalini

We have spring fever.  The Italian winter almost did us in with its damp cold and blustery winds.  We feel like moles emerging from our hiding place deep inside, our eyes squinting against that bright light that we vaguely recognize as the sun.  We’ve been reborn.  We’ve even had a couple of meals on the terrace, the sun thawing our bones.  And this past weekend Italy observed daylight saving time, giving us an extra hour of light in the evenings.  Winter is still hanging on, reminding us with random cold breezes that it’s not done with us yet.  I know there will be another cold snap that will threaten the spring plants I couldn’t resist putting out.  But for now we are living outside again and loving it.

We’ve been doing a lot of spring cleaning inside and outside the house this past week with the arrival of spring-like weather.  Throwing open all the wooden exterior shutters and opening the windows to the sun has put a spotlight on just how lax my housekeeping skills were over the winter.  Now that we’ve got the house spiffed up, we celebrated by taking a Sunday drive to see what we could find.

Castello Bufalini – A Perfectly Preserved Italian Castle

San Giustino is a small town near us that we go to often.  They have a Marino Mercato, or as we like to call it, the blue store, because it’s bright blue.  This is kind of the Italian answer to Target, but not.  They have clothes, furniture, mattresses, toiletries, home goods – kind of like Target.  It’s conveniently located just across the street from the best gelato place around, Ghignoni, so we have to plan our visits to coincide with the opening hours of the gelateria.  This brings up the one thing that we cannot get used to in this country – the riposo, or siesta.  I don’t know about you, but I want gelato in the afternoon after lunch, but not too late to interfere with dinner.  Ghignoni closes from about 1:00 to 4:30.  Prime gelato eating time.  We’ve been known to stop by at 10:00 in the morning to have one.  Hey, you have to adapt, right?

In the heart of San Giustino is a castle that we have wanted to visit, but it’s never open when we’re there.  There are no hours posted and we always forget to check online so this cycle continues to repeat itself – we go by and want to go in, it’s not open, we can’t figure out when they’re open, and forget to look online.  Well, this Sunday, fate was indeed smiling on us because we happened to be in San Giustino and saw a crowd of people lined up outside the castle.  It was open!  We joined the line and plunked down our 4 euro for the deluxe guided tour and fell in with another couple and our tour guide.  I was glad we had a small group, even though it was strictly an Italian speaking group.  We got the gist of what the guide was saying and had ample opportunity to take photos along the way.

I have this romantic notion of a castle as being the home of a noble family with little princes and princesses running around and the king and queen hosting lavish parties with guests wearing lots of velvet.  The reality is most of these castles started life as some kind of military fortress.  Castello Bufalini was built in the early 1400s by a prominent family from Sansepolcro, the next town over.  It was destroyed near the end of the 15th century by the Florentine republic.  Apparently the owners were on the wrong side of that particular altercation.

It passed to the hands of the Bufalini family in 1487.  The Bufalini’s were from Citta di Castello, another nearby town.  Mr. Bufalini had just become the Lord of San Giustino, which required a move on his part so he chose the castle as a suitable spot.  Since most of the medieval castle had been destroyed, he hired architects from Rome to rebuild the old fortress in a more family friendly way.  In 1530, another renovation was undertaken, this time led by an architect from Florence, resulting in Renaissance touches like the prominent loggia, to be added.

The castle remained in the hands of the Bufalini family for five centuries until 1989 when it was purchased by the Italian government.  It’s amazingly intact and offers a view into a world that is hard for us to imagine today.  It’s difficult to follow all the additions, renovations, improvements, and changes over the years, especially when your tour guide is speaking Italian.  But the fact that it remained in the same family for five hundred years is remarkable.  In addition to trying to imagine what life was like there in the 1500s, I wondered more about what it was like to live there in the 1980s.  Castle living was probably not that unheard of in the 1500s but in the 1980s it was something else.  When the family sold the castle to the Italian government, they included most of the furniture and artwork.

We didn’t get to go into every room, but saw quite a bit of it.  We also walked around the entire perimeter of the castle, seeing up close the gardens and where the moat used to be.  What castle is complete without a moat?  The rooms were just what you’d expect in a castle – ornate, gilded, and grand.  One of my favorites was the room with the ceiling fresco by Cristofano Gherardi, a student and close associate of Vasari.  It’s a depiction of various mythological scenes and looks like it was painted yesterday.  It’s hard to believe it was done in the 1500s.

I also loved the gardens.  Lining the gardens on one side was a boxwood hedge cut in the shape of the Bufalini family crest.  They designed the gardens with an irrigation system supplied by a nearby river so that all the lovely plants would have a ready supply of water.  The gardens are a great example of the classic Italian Renaissance garden, complete with a boxwood labyrinth.

This is a wonderfully preserved piece of history.  Now we know that it’s only open on weekends and will definitely go back to study it a little more.  I still can’t believe I live in a place so rich with art and history.  I wonder what other treasures are right under our noses that are waiting for us to discover?

Ending with Gelato

Our good fortune continued as we were driving back home.  The gelato king was open!  What a fantastic way to end this day of discovery.  Spring is definitely here and along with the blooming trees and flowers, we welcome the return of (almost) daily gelato.  Life is good.

Italian gelato


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