Off the Beaten Path Europe: Gradara, Italy

Have you ever been surprised by a place that you’d never even heard of before? That’s how I felt when I spent an afternoon in Gradara, Italy. I was visiting a friend who lives in the nearby resort town of Rimini, and she insisted on taking me there. Located in the Marche region in central Italy, not far from the tiny enclave of San Marino, Gradara is the quintessential medieval town.

attribution: NordNordWest

Completely enclosed by a crenellated, red brick wall with high, blocky turrets, Gradara must have been an impenetrable fortress back in its heyday. Once you pass through the main gates it’s truly like stepping back in time. Dominated by the hilltop Rocca (fortress), the town within the wall is a maze of narrow cobbled alleyways, intimate courtyards, and ancient buildings with lichen-encrusted tile roofs. For only a couple Euros, you can climb to the walkway along the battlements for spectacular views of the rolling green countryside and the sparkling Adriatic Sea in the distance. Of course, this being Italy, the surrounding landscape is striped with vineyards and tranquil olive groves.

Gradara has quite an evocative history too. Construction began around the year 1150 CE by brothers Pietro and Ridolfo de Grifo, noblemen from the region. However, over the centuries the fortified town fell into the hands of other rival families. First, by the Malatesta’s (who ruled Gradara for nearly two centuries) and then, after a forty-two-night siege, the town was captured by the Sforza family. Giovanni Sforza was the first husband of the infamous Lucrezia Borgia. Fortunately for him, she had the marriage annulled (for impotence) and he didn’t end up like the rest of her husbands. After the Sforza family’s reign, the Church took control of Gradara until the unification of Italy in the nineteenth century.

The highlight of Gradara is the formidable Rocca itself. The interior features beautifully adorned rooms with frescoed walls, wrought iron detailing, and painted timber ceilings. Also worth a peek are the castle’s armory and its dungeon–where you can try on some manacles for size.

Gradara is a perfect day trip destination; it wasn’t too large or too overrun with tourists, and it offered a glimpse into the interesting history of the region. When I went to Italy I had my itinerary pretty much planned out, but it was nice to discover an unexpected place. Sometimes those are the best ones anyway.

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