Castello di Sassoforte

Maremma castles

The Castello di Sassoforte - the castle on the hill behind the village of Sassofortino in Maremma's wooded metalliferous hills - was built with an uncommon in these parts particularly refined craftsmanship and would, in its heyday, have commanded some of the most magnificent views in this part of Tuscany.

And it was the home of one of the most daring and brave knights of his time.

Today it's ruins will require a trek to reach them and will still offer you memorable panoramic views all the way to the Maremma's coastline with the Tyrrhenian Sea. That is if you can find them!

 

Sassoforte: a little of a lot of history

The hill - Monte di Sassoforte - upon which the ruins of Castello di Sassoforte reside was inhabited in Etruscan and Roman times and in the middle ages marked the limit of the territory of opposing nearby cities. The first castle was constructed by the end of the 11th century and at its height of importance would have dominated the landscape in the north-west of the territory of Roccastrada.

It belonged to the influential medieval Aldobrandeschi family, who leased it to their vassals until the 27 February 1330. On which date, having led in chains to Santa Fiora one of the most fearless and courageous knights of his time, the last Earl of Sassoforte, Ghinozzo di Pepone, they sold it to the city of Siena for 5,500 gold florins.

The city of Siena, fearful of the potential future use of the castle against them - for it held an immensely strategic and strong position - ordered its walls and keep destroyed. In September 1339, the castle's lands were granted in perpetual lease to its many inhabitants for an annual fee of 600 lire a year.

Castello di Sassoforte: a middle ages castle in Maremma Italy

Many of its inhabitants before its destruction continued to live within its walls. But, with the loss of its military power came also a corresponding serious decline in economic prosperity, and chronic poverty. Then the Black Death struck and from a population of 160 men and their families, in 1353 there remained only fifty people in all.

On 1 February 1369, the state of misery of those remaining was such that Siena reduced the annual 600 lire tax to half.

In 1368 the castle became the property of Sienese nobility; that of the powerful Salimbeni family. But the family's fortunes dramatically changed and in 1404 they were forced to hand over this and their other castles in Maremma to the Republic of Siena.

The impoverished existence for those still living within the castle walls continued to worsen - to the extent that subsidies were sought from the city of Siena on the price of bushels of wheat and salt - and a further turning point came in March 1438, when the status of Sassoforte as a village was downgraded. Most of the remaining residents abandoned it in favour of the new town which had begun to be built below, that of current day Sassofortino.

The last records of inhabitants of Sassoforte is that of a tax collection in 1444.

During the remaining course of the 15th century, the castle fell into rack and ruin to the extent that, in 1465, shepherds from Roccastrada sought permission to graze their animals in what had once been the castles central court.

 

Today its remains sit on the top of a hill within a Maremman forest of beech and chestnut trees dominating the plain of the River Bruna and make for a great trekking exploration to find them with the reward of a magnificent panoramic view of the metalliferous hills of Maremma, Siena, the Tyrrhenian sea, and the islands of Giglio, Elba and Corsica.

The castle walls circumnavigate the entire rhyolitic platform at the top of Monte di Sassoforte.

The quality and aspects of the architecture of this fortification are particularly impressive for a Maremma middle ages castle, with fine architectural details, the likes of which are found only again in the castles of Montemassi and Roccatederighi.

 

What to expect

OK, now for the hard bit. A local photographer, Tommaso Zannerini, kindly gave me permission ages ago to use his photograph above of the castle, but until this summer I hadn't ventured to find it myself.

But in September a girlfriend came to stay and we were looking at my map of Maremma to plan a day out looking for places to visit that none of us had already been to. Well that wasn't easy, as either on my own, with my young daughter, or with husband in tow too, my map is covered in highlighter pen denoting all the places I have walked, explored and even found by chance.

But there was a gap in the spot where the village of Sassofortino sits and I remembered that there was a castle in the woods... Always up for exploring an ancient castle - it begs from childhood days running around ruins in England and Wales - and with the girls agreement, we set off to explore.

Mmmm. Well, the village of Sassofortino is tiny and I'll add the page link here soon, but the trip to the castle was all but simple.

Along the main road through the village there are signs indicating the direction to the castle - the "castello" - which take you into the historic centre. But once you reach the top of the village, the signs disappear. There is one road heading uphill, which logic has it will be where the castle is located, but just to be sure, I checked with a local old lady. She assured me that it was easily reachable by foot - you could even drive part of the way up - but no too far. So, having only just parked and not afraid of a good walk, we set off. In the heat of the full sun.

TIP. If you have youngsters with you and are doing the trek, drive the first part!

That would have been alright if the rest of the track had been straightforward. But it isn't.

When you get midway up the hill, past a large detached house on your right, to where the wood tree line starts, the narrow tarmac road curves to your left. Don't follow it, as that only takes you to a tennis pitch.

It is at this point that, if you have walked up the road, your little ones will start to ask whether it is much further. It is!

It is the turning to your right, onto a gravel, soil track that you want. This takes you up and up into chestnut woods: you can't miss the spiny shells holding their fruits on the floor.

Castello di Sassoforte route through the woods

Not too far up on your left you will see a track into the woods that looks promising: it is a false start taking you into the woods, but abruptly ending in a chained, no permitted access, track.

The other exits on your left into the wood are similarly private, albeit marked at the trackside.

It is when you reach what appears to be the summit - there is a sign on your right to a "Poggio" with a private driveway - that the doubts that you are in the right place will probably set in and they should! There are no castle signs and going downhill is contrary to logic as castles are usually built on the highest ground...

You do not want to continue along the road anymore, but take the first left into the wood just after the "Poggio" sign on your right. It takes you up and up and up the hill along a dwindling track - passable at first, if there isn't too much fallen debris by a jeep, and fizzling out into a footpath.

It is as you enter the wood that the horrible, big black attacking unrelentless trip destroying flies appear.

TIP: Take insect repellent: a good one.

My girlfriend - having already been bitten badly by mosquitoes earlier in the week - decided to sit it out and wait for us. Sophia and I went into the wood and trekked uphill. Courageous as she is and venturing all over with me in Maremma, she became very tired and scared. The flies made me swear, which added to the tension. But I kept pushing us on up hoping to catch a glimpse of the summit and the castle. Past signs warning of archers in the woods and along an ever increasingly overgrown and blatantly clear unfrequented by any human, footpath.

A little way into the wood on your right you will see an overgrown ruin: this isn't the castle!

Castello Sassoforte: ruin on route in the woods Not Castello Sassoforte!

Within probably just feet of the summit - we could see sunshine - I gave up and decided to turn back. It was the flies that did it: entering my ears and trying to do so in my nose and eyes. I did say horrible didn't I.

So actually seeing the castle is going to have to wait till another day.

Back down in Sassofortino I asked a passing local if it had all been for nothing. I am pleased to report - on very good authority - that the castle does exist. That it is a large one, albeit ruined and with the remains scattered in corners of the site.

And that we had been within a cat's whiskers of seeing it!

The trek in the woods is about a kilometre long and we had all but done it :(

TIP. As the wood is a chestnut one, if you are doing the trek in the autumn and have the permission (or are visiting with a local) and the necessary open basket, you will might be lucky and find porcini mushrooms along the way :)

 

Returning to Castello Sassoforte

I have already asked my daughter if she is up to returning to find the castle. Although she wouldn't normally hesitate in exploring with me, she has politely refused!

So, take it from a nine year old, if you have children of a similar age, this isn't a trip out in Maremma that she would recommend!

On a positive note, I have seen photographs of the castle and it is worthy of visiting if you love exploring ruins, touching their walls and wondering what they have witnessed like I do.

 

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