The magnificent, imposing and oh so formidable "Fortezza Orsini di Sorano" - the Orsini Fortress, once the stronghold and home of the powerful and rich Aldobrandeschi and Orsini nobility in Maremma, is now the home of a single fox who has the place all to himself each night after the tourists have all gone home :)
Now the fortress castle and its palace rooms aren't his! That now houses a hotel, a museum, a chapel, as well as a theatre of Count Niccolo IV Orsini.
Nor the rooms of the private residence of the nineteenth century Palazzo Ricci Busatti.
But still he does get to roam all the parade grounds, the internal piazza's, the gardens and old moats, and kilometres of underground passageways that run fifteen metres deep, two bastions, under the keep and along the connecting curtain wall... as and when he pleases :)
All of which once housed furnace workers, gunpowder makers, millers and over 300 soldiers, he now has all to himself.
Now you may say, so what? But to me the news when we spotted his droppings inside one of the underground tunnels during the tour and when I asked the guide who they belonged to, brought a smile to my face. A massive and impregnable fortress that once was the potent symbol and powerful seat of wealthy lines of medieval nobility, is now reigned over by a solitary bushy-tailed red Maremma fox. Time changes everything.
The guide explained that when the fortress restoration works were completed, a grating was omitted on one of the access points of the eastern bastion and it is there that he has entered. He goes elsewhere during the day.
The "fortezza" that you see today was constructed over three different periods. First came the castle, then the keep and two bastions with their connecting rampart walls and internal parade ground.
And then, lastly, in the nineteenth century, a private palazzo residence.
Built by the Aldobrandeschi family and originally the "Rocca di Aldobrandesca" records go back to Sorano castle being occupied by the family in 1300. It was then inherited with the dissipation of the Aldobrandeschi fortunes and property, by Count Orsini Bertoldo in 1380.
A dry moat separates the castle and its residential palace of the Orsini counts from the military fortress.
You need to walk through the gateway tower tunnel to reach the internal courtyard, the residential palace of the Orsini family (now the museum) and the private castle chapel.
The herringbone pavement in the centre of the photograph is original: laid using the same on end technique as the flooring in the furnace room of the fortress.
The steps from the three-arched portico lead you to some fantastic views of the rooftops of the town of Sorano below and down the cliff, through the second entrance gateway into its historic heart.
The castle chapel (the first door to the left of the photograph) and the private palace rooms in Piazza Cairoli.
The steps down from the "castello" (castle) take you along and down its rampart walls to the main road through Sorano and then down in to the medieval heart of Sorano.
Whilst the Aldobrandeschi family had fortified Sorano, the Orsini family turned it into fortress city with its own military garrison.
First Niccolo III Orsini in the 14th century.
Then in 1552, Niccolo IV Orsini and his son Gian Francesco Orsini, who employed the Sienese architect Antonio Maria Lari, strengthened it further with the creation of the two bastions, a keep, curtain walls and the "piazza d'armi".
The two bastions are dedicated to the to two saints - Saint Mark and Saint Peter - representing Niccolo Orsini III's allegiance with the Venetian doges to whom he sold his mercenary skills and military strength, and the city of Rome from which the Orsini family originated.
Beneath them is the fortress dungeon and a labyrinth of tunnels and galleries dating to the Etruscan period.
The fortress wells near the Bastions were connected via an ingenious system of pipes to underground reservoir tanks.
When it was finished it could house 300 soldiers. It is without a doubt one of the most impressive displays of Italian Renaissance military architecture. And it is in Maremma :)
The large - and largely out of place - nineteenth century building on the internal western side of the fortress was once the Ilari family residence and then became the Ricci Busatti palace. Today it houses the Language Lyceum.
Medieval walls and parts of the fortress were demolished to clear the way for its construction.
This fort was impregnable and self-sufficient, and resisted sieges by the cities of Orvieto, Siena and by troops of the Papal State. One in particular by the city of Siena lasted four years! Yes, four: I checked with the guide.
At times of war and attack, Fortezza Orsini became a city fortress: it had room to house all of its soldiers, ammunition workers, prisoners in its cells and the towns people.
Water supplies weren't a problem: it had its own "pozzi" (wells), a rainwater reservoir, and a system of pipework that brought water up from the rivers below.
Windmills and millstones to grind grain into flour and produce salpetre for the production of vast supplies of gunpowder. And a gun foundry.
The ground level of the fortress housed stables for the horses as well as accommodation for livestock, such as pigs. When in need of additional supplies of food, under cover of the soldiers on the fortress walls and via secret passageways to the outside, soldiers would make sorties out into the Sorano countryside and return with animals stolen from local "contadina" peasant farmers.
The tour guide is really well informed and will tell you the symbolic meaning of each of the component parts of the Orsini family coat of arms above the fortress entrance. I don't remember them all!
But the lion represents the rich Aldobrandeschi and Sovana properties and fortune brought into the Orsini family through the marriage of Anastasia de Montfort, Countess of Nola - daughter of Margherita Aldobrandeschi, Countess of Sovana and Pitigliano - to Romano Orsini, Senator of Rome.
The rose with five petals and a heraldry bear represents the Orsini family.
And the solid ball strength.
The coat of arms below is on the external wall of the castle. If I remember correctly, the two hands at the top symbolise that it is harder to remain friends than to become enemies.
The information about the solid ball answers the question that entered my head when I saw one hanging above an arched window down a medieval alleyway in the "Little Ghetto" part of Sorano.
The tour takes an hour and apart from the long metal grid stair case down five levels that gave me the heebie geebies - I don't like being able to see through steps - the pace and route is really easy going.
KIDS If they can manage those stairs then the tour is completely fine for children.
It starts with a tour under the keep and out into the light again to the main entrance and the approach bridge that would originally have been a drawbridge over the moat. And then back and underground via the room that housed the Orsini iron-foundry.
The wind bellows aren't original, but parts of the floor are: the part with the bricks laid on end at the entrance. Floors laid in this manner were the most hard wearing and able to withstand extreme temperatures.
I have to say that it isn't as long or as a dramatic a tour as I had been expecting given that I had read that it takes you down fifteen metres and five levels underground.
But it did give me the goose bumps being the last in the line of visitors and putting my head in some of the cone-shaped shaft holes - many of which are dark and creepy - that connect the different levels. They served as communication, air and heat circulation passages.
You'll need to lift your youngsters up to enable them to see down and up the shafts, but they will love them and probably think them, "cool"!
If there is a decent sized group of people taking the tour and you hang back a little - I did to take photos - at one point you can watch them underneath as they pass down the staircase.
The same vertical circulation shafts also mean that you will sometimes hear your tour guide's voice and the information she is sharing from behind you, when she is in fact at the head of the group in front of you!
When the fort was occupied by military soldiers, there operated a strict one-way system between each bastion and the central building.
Large wood fires were lit in specially designed corners of the lowest level of the fortress - you will pass one en route during the tour - to heat the building via convection through the vertical shafts.
TIP If you plan on visiting the Parco Archeologico Citta del Tufo to see the Etruscan tombs and necropolis, then you can save some money on your entrance fee by purchasing a combined fort tour and archaeological park ticket for Euros 10,00 at the same time.
It will also entitle you access to the Museo of San Mamiliano in Sovana.
The staff in the ticket office will offer you this opportunity when you purchase your tour ticket.
The visit includes access to the small Museum of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, where the tour ends and from which point you are free to wander around its rooms and leave when you wish.
There is one particular room that holds treasures of a very unusual kind - find out more.
TIP On high days and holidays when extra tours are put on, don't rely on the tour times told you by the Sorano Comune/Tourist Office in the town (Piazza ). I would have missed visiting the fort if I hadn't walked up into the fortezza to take a look around when I arrived and to purchase my tour ticket. Which it turns out you don't need to do in advance.
There is no limit on the number of visitors per tour, they just need a minimum of two people to run it.
Tickets cost Euros 4,00. Reduced rates for children etc.
NOTE If you just want to have a wander around and not visit inside the fortress or the museum, you can do just that without needing to pay a visitors ticket.
The information notice for the tour in the entrance and visitor centre tell you to wear suitable walking shoes and take a jumper or warm layer with you.
Now, you will need shoes with some grip on them for the initial descent at the beginning of the tour into the lower levels of the fort, but unless you are wearing stilettoed - the staircase down even deeper to the very bottom is an open grill type - you will be OK with normal shoes.
As far as a jumper goes, you will notice a temperature difference immediately you enter the fort - even within the visitor and ticket room - especially if it is a warm, sunny day outside. But it isn't anything like that you will feel if you take a Maremma mine tour: then you will need a woolly jumper or fleece.
It was very sunny 1 June when I visited, with an outside feel temperature of 29 degrees C and, although I always feel the cold first before anyone else, I didn't need to put my lightweight fleece on top of my t-shirt.
If from the photos you are thinking of planning a picnic in the grounds, be aware that you are only permitted access as part of the tour. The central courtyard is fine and large for little ones to run around in whilst you eat a panino etc, but you will have to do so seated on the low wall on one side and there is no shade from the sun.
There are toilets in the grounds - they are next to the San Pietro (Saint Peter) bastion just off the internal courtyard - but you will need to ask at the visitor desk for the keys to open the wrought-iron access gate and cubicles.
As far as disabled access goes, although you won't be able to do the tour of the depths of Fortezza Orsini in a wheelchair and the ancient and main access road from the town is cobbled, you can get inside the fortress and the castle courtyards via another route.
At the very top of town is the main entrance into the fort with a wide pedestrian access path.
Once under the keep, you will need to manoeuvre two ninety degree turns on a soil floor, and then a pretty steep incline up under the fort which brings you directly out into its internal courtyard. From there you will be able to see everything.
There is only a very slight step to enter the museum.
If you fancy a night or two in a remarkable location with evening views to write home about, then there the Hotel della Fortezza can be found in the castle. It's entrance is off the internal courtyard and it is superb.
Explore some more...