Turning a medieval stronghold into a four-star hotel?
By Gery de Pierpont
Welcome to the Castello Chiola (Abruzzi)
What can you do with a very old castle, an immense edifice which cannot be maintained, heated or occupied by one’s children? How can such a distinguished, aristocratic property, handed down over the generations, but with no feudal lord exercising a civic or defensive role in residence, be kept alive?
Castello Chiola lies in Loreto Aprutino, half way between the Adriatic Sea and the Apennine chain, near Pescara, roughly half-way up the Italian mainland. The site, which is remarkable, is brimming with history. The first castle was built on a rocky promontory near the end of the Carolingian empire, amid olive trees whose oil made the area famous throughout the peninsula. The archives tell us that Charlemagne’s grandson, Charles the Bald, stayed there while he was waging war against the Saracens.
The castle became a strategic platform when the Normans dominated all of south Italy. One of Count Loreto’s sons took it upon himself to supply food to the poor in secret. Found out, then forced by his father to open his leather pouch filled with incriminating food rations, out cascaded roses … History has retained the name of the young man who instigated this miracle – the future saint Thomas Aquinas.
Several lords succeeded to the castle which became a bona fide fortress in Renaissance times (the walls of the keep were 4 metres thick). Some participated in famous battles, particularly against France. Then the French took their revenge under the consulship of General Bonaparte, when they requisitioned the castle at the end of the 18th century. As it turned out, their revenge was short lived as they were all massacred soon afterwards …
Subsequently, the “castello” served as a prison, military hospital and then headquarters of the patriots hostile to Austrian domination in 1815, before being finally abandoned. The Chiola family, who bought this venerable but abandoned building in 1870, undertook important restoration work, compromised by bombardments in 1944. Today the castle interior is an elegant neo-gothic style palace.
The inner courtyard and several large reception rooms on the ground floor have retained their fine old cream and orange brick walls, laid in vertical or flat sections. One can sense the ingenuity of Roman builders behind these “ancient concrete” vaults, covered with a terra cotta mosaic. The rooms are certainly spacious as befits the rank of the Counts of Loreto. The majestic gothic-inspired stairwell is clearly a 19th (or early 20th) century development. Its gothic arches and wrought iron banister encasing wide, veined-marble steps goes right up to the third floor. Footsteps resonate on the floor tiles and reverberate from the large white walls and edges of the curved ceilings.
When the site was renovated and turned into a luxury hotel, some very modern amenities were naturally incorporated into this fabulous setting decorated with ancient crests. Probably the most visible feature is the glass ceiling of the central courtyard of the castle, converting it into a vast covered area, now used mainly for evening events and concerts. We may regret that a glass-fronted lift has been installed against one of the walls of this atrium, but this facility is a requirement in such a tall building. The traditional hotel dining room is furnished with several evocative old oil presses and other typical paraphernalia. On the other hand, the reception rooms tend to follow current hotel requirements, being furnished with run-of-the-mill furniture suitable for vast sit-down dinners.
You will need to use your imagination to visualise the original rooms before the advent of fitted carpets and the standard furniture of grand hotels. However, their exceptional size (between 30 and 100 square metres), bathrooms with 4 metre high ceilings and the reassuring thickness of their “defensive” walls are a reminder of the primary purpose of this aristocratic location. The hot-air heating system is concealed behind heavy damask curtains. Unfortunately, the original windows couldn’t be preserved. They have been replaced by rather nondescript double glazing…
The clientele of such hotels, patronised mainly by business circles, expects to find electronic equipment and the very latest facilities in terms of comfort. It is normal to find large television screens in the rooms and glass doors into the corridors, where cold and hot air once used to circulate freely. There is now a swimming pool on the terrace on the exact spot where assailants once risked their lives to expel the invaders who had commandeered the castle. Energy-saving light bulbs have replaced the gas lighting and candles of the past. Cylinder locks have made wrought iron keys redundant. Fire regulations have meant the installation of fire doors and emergency stairs… This is the price to pay to maintain and make the most of such prestigious historical sites. Not every heritage site can be converted into a museum; especially in Italy (museum admission fees would be insufficient to cover the maintenance costs of such exceptional buildings anyways)!
Let us appreciate the Castello Chiola for what it is today, an important heritage site with a neo-gothic interior totally keeping with the first of years of Italian unification under king Victor-Emmanuel II. Neither should we forget everything this 4-star hotel offers its clientele, especially its gastronomic delights – traditional Abruzzi dishes, quite specific of the region. And as for those full-bodied wines from the region, with their syrupy fruit flavours … Why not succumb to such temptation – it is, after all, a fine way to honour the local heritage!
Have YOU already sampled the hospitality of the Abruzzi?
> More information on the Castello Chiola can be found here