“So, how long have you been working here?” I ask Carlo, our knowledgable guide, who has been showing us around the magical 14th century Fortress Rocca Manfrediana in Brisighella. “Today is my first day!” he laughs, “and I’m also a medical doctor in my spare time!”
It turns out that a lot of the historical sites in this tiny, picture-perfect Italian village are run by volunteers, most of whom have very demanding day jobs in the region and work here for the love of history, and preserving it.
We’re in Brisighella, a small village in Emilia Romagna just an hour from Bologna that I had never even heard of until we arrived on this sunny, Tuesday morning. Famous for the three gypsum hills that overlook it, where three ancient structures stand proud over the village: the clock tower, the fortress and Monticino Church.
“See that hill in the distance?” Carlo asks me. “There you can find the remains of a 10th century castle that was blown up by the Pope!”. The site is very slowly being excavated, for just one month a year, by more dedicated (and very passionate) volunteers who we had the pleasure to meet and visit the site with.
The village is one of those perfect days trips from Bologna, where you think a few hours will be enough to see the sites but upon arrival you realize there are far more interesting things to do in Brisighella than you ever imagined.
From enjoying a late breakfast outside Cafe Bruschette, climbing up to the clock tower and continuing on a picturesque trail to the fortress, enjoying a gelato on the town square, visiting the beautiful church and or even attending a concert in a cave (they have summer concerts underground in what used to be a gypsum quarry!) – you could easily stay here for a few days and still never want to leave.
The hike up to the clock tower and the tour of the fortress with Carlo were definite highlights, especially as he was a wealth of information on the history of the castle and the entire village and valley.
You can tell how passionate he is and how passionate other locals visiting the castle were to see the history of the area being preserved for well. Every time you would cross into a new area of the fortress, an automatic voice recording would play scaring the life out of Dan and I!
We were lucky enough to have a guided tour of the local Parco Carnè, the location of many important fossil finds (including rhinos and elephants!!) and vast cave systems you can explore. As part of the park, there’s a very cute visitor centre way up on a hill overlooking the entire valley, with views of the Alps and the sea on a very clear day.
There’s a very small restaurant in the visitor centre, mostly frequented by hikers and campers but as it has one of the best views in the region, I’d recommend everyone drive / hike up to eat here. We enjoyed a delicious lunch of local wine, Brisighella olive oil drizzled all over fresh pasta and a plate of meats and cheeses from the region. In other words? Foodie heaven.
After lunch we checked out the park and visited the archaeological site of the 10th century castle with Bianca, Francesca and Isotta – three archaeology graduates who spend a month a year volunteering on the site “for the love of it”.
It was fascinating to learn the history of the area, admiring the views this village atop the hill would have had many centuries ago, and learning about the various finds and what they all mean. This type of visit was definitely a first for me!
We drove back down to Brisighella for a little more exploring as this village, with its pastel painted walls, colourful doors complete with flower boxes and hand carved wooden signs, is a photographers dream. The magnificent church although no longer, located on Piazzetta del Monte (the town square), which was once the commercial centre of the village, is well worth a visit.
One of the must visit sites in Brisighella is “Via degli Asini”, which is a covered walk on what was once the fortified wall of the ancient town.The old wall has since being built on, and is now a two storey building, but you can walk along the top of what was the wall, as light pours in through the half dome windows and you can peek out onto the colourful (but seemingly always peaceful) street scene below. The ground is cobblestone and very uneven, but it makes for very unique photographs and in a fun place to visit, especially in the early morning and late afternoon.
Finally, one more must visit place in the village for all visitors is the local farmers cooperative where you can taste famous products made in the region. Brisighella Olive Oil (there are three varieties to taste ranging from weak to very strong) is the most famous product of all, followed by Sangiovese di Romagna wine.
There’s even an annual wine festival every February in the nearby town of Faenza to celebrate the wine of the region! I mean, who could say no to a wine festival?!
For a village I had never heard of, with a population of less than 10,000 people, Brisighella has so much to offer the curious visitor. From ancient clock towers, charming churches and important historical castles to delicious wine and award-winning olive oil, this is a true gem in Emilia Romagna that everyone NEEDS to visit.