The castles of the Tyrol region are among the most spectacular and historical in Italy. Located on the frontier between the German north and the Italian south, the Tyrol has been a fluid region since early medieval times, and it has changed hands on numerous occassions. At the height of the Middle Ages the Tyrol boasted scores of castles. The crumbling ruins of many still dot the mountainsides of the Italian Alps. There are a few impressive survivors, however. Among the best are the Castel Roncolo, also known as Runkelstein Castle, near Bolzano; the Castello Sabbionara in Trentino; and the Castel Tirolo near Meran, after which the Tyrol region is named.
The Alpine region known as the Tyrol is part of the ancient border region between civilized southern Europe and barbarian northern Europe. A long-time part of the Roman Empire, the region was particularly devastated by the invasions of Germanic tribes during the early Middle Ages. After passing under the control of the Ostrogoths, Lombards, Bavarians and other Germanic tribes, the Tyrol was ultimately incorporated into the Holy Roman Empire.
Imperial control here was, as it was elsewhere in Central Europe, nominal at best, and by the 11th century the region began to devolve into a series of petty states and fiefdoms. In 1027 a territory in the Alps was broken off from Italy and placed under the jurisdiction of the Counts of Tyrol, who ruled from Tirolo Castle, one of the oldest and largest fortresses in the region. Because several of Europe’s most important trade and pilgrimage routes passed through the area, the Tyrol region was heavily fortified with ever more and stronger fortresses throughout the Middle Ages.
Over the centuries the Tyrol changed hands numerous times, between the Holy Roman Emperors, the Wittelsbachs of Bavaria, the Hapsburgs of Austria and various merchant states of Northern Italy. On occasion it even managed to achieve a nominal independence, though this was usually short lived. Interestingly, while the region did witness the occasional war, the transfers of power were almost always the result of treaties, political marriages or territorial sales.
Major conflict did not come to the Tyrol until the Napoleanic Wars and World War I, by which time the region’s castles were more or less superfluous. In 1919, the Tyrol was permanently divided, the northern half incorporated into Austria and the southern half incorporated into Italy. By this time most of the region’s castles, at least those that were still standing, were generally dilapidated and abandoned. A few, notably Castel Tirolo, have been saved and restored for the enjoyment of modern-day visitors who pass through the region along the ancient trade roads.
Roncolo Castle is the most medieval and sinister looking of the Tyrol’s castles. Precariously perched on top of a sheer rocky cliff, it is reminiscent of the monasteries of Meteora in Greece. Roncolo is compact, consisting only of the main keep and a few interconnected buildings enclosed by a wall with a single tower. After centuries of neglect, the castle was restored in the late 19th century during Europe’s romantic age. Roncolo Castle is famous for housing one of the best collections of tapestries in central Europe, in particular a cycle depicting the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
Sabbionara Castle, with its brilliant white walls and square towers, appears less medieval and more like a relic of the Roman or Byzantine eras. This was due to the influence of the Venetians, who controlled the castle throughout much of the 15th century and who substantially renovated it. Sabbionara marked the northernmost extent ofr Venetian power for well over a century. Nevertheless Sabbionara only dates back to the 1100s. One of the highlights of the castle is the Chapel of St. George, which was built during the Venetian occupancy.
Tirolo Castle is the oldest and most historic fortress of the region. For centuries the home of one of the most important ruling families in the Alps, Tirolo was expanded renovated numerous times until the family moved out in the 15th century. Because of its isolated position on a rocky outcrop halfway up a lush green mountainside, Tirolo appears smaller than it actually is. The castle consists mainly of a large main keep which once served as the royal residence, and an imposing watchtower. The two main structures are interconnected by a cluster of buildings and fortifications. Over the centuries, parts of the castle collapsed into the gorge below, while other parts were pilfered for stone. Much of what stands today actually dates from a turn-of-the-century reconstruction. Tirolo is also known for the beautiful frescoes in its chapel.
The Italian Tyrol and its castles are located approximately 300 miles north of Rome. Roncolo Castle and Tirolo Castle are outside of the cities of Bolzano and Merano, respectively, and are relatively close to each other. Sabbionara Castle is located outside of Avio, somewhat further south in the province of Trentino. Tirolo Castle is generally open from mid-March to mid-December everyday except Mondays, from 10:00am-5:00pm. Admission is E7.00. Roncolo Castle is open daily except Mondays from 10:00am-6:00pm. Admission is E8.00. No visitor information was available for Sabbionara Castle as of this writing. Web: www.schlosstirol.it (official website of Tirolo Castle); www.runkelstein.info (official website of Roncolo Castle); www.suedtirol.info (official tourism website of South Tyrol)
In addition to the above-mentioned castles, Tyrol also boasts the small but well-preserved Reifenstein Castle, which is known locally for the decorations in its Green Hall. Two other excellent surviving fortresses in the area include Brunnenburg Castle and Sigmundskron Castle. Fenis Castle, located further to the west close to the borders of Switzerland and France, is arguably the best fortress in Northern Italy outside of the Tyrol region.