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Witches of Abruzzo

Something wicked this way comes…mystery and intrigue are imbedded in the ancient stone walls of the medieval Castel del Monte, a little village tucked into the hills of northern Abruzzo, Italy. The setting is spectacular, perched on a slope overlooking the mountains and valleys of Campo Imperatore in the Gran Sasso National Park. The village is the principal location of a 2010 suspense film, “The American” starring George Clooney, who holes up in Castel Del Monte, hoping to escape from his past.

The village has long housed residents who have made their living raising sheep and creating wool products of such quality that it captured the attention of the Medici family who came to town, built a palace and closely oversaw Italy’s premiere wool industry. The town’s massive defensive walls, largely formed by multi-story houses and its great gates were completed under the 150 years of Medici rule.

For centuries the shepherds led their flocks into fresh pastures high into the mountains, an annual migration called Transumanza. Today, tourists to this village can visit a small museum located in a former shepherd’s home that highlights the tools and attire of this forgotten practice.

One of Italy’s most beautiful villages, a unique feature that sets this one apart from most others are the narrow sporti tunnels that dip underneath the streets in several places. They served two purposes – to allow residents to enter their homes from a protected lower level when snow accumulation prevented them from accessing their front doors and it also allowed them to move from place to place when the village was under siege from invaders. Massive gates at its fortified five entrances were locked each night for protection until the 19th century.

But the mysterious sporti tunnels also had another purpose – to break the spell that witches cast on children. The residents of the village firmly believed in witches. Francesco Pasquale Giuliani (1890 – 1970) was one of the sheepherders from the village and apart from his service during WWI, spent his entire life in Castel del Monte and the nearby mountains. He also wrote about the traditions, superstitions, myths and mysteries of the village. In the early years of his youth, when a child became sick without a sound medical explanation, parents blamed witches. According to the story teller, the witches either entered the home through a keyhole or crept after a child on a shadowy lane to snatch them up and suck their blood at night.

The only way to break the spell, the residents believed, was for the parents of the sick child to walk through the village under the sporti tunnels at midnight. If that did not work, they gathered the child’s clothes on the tenth night and heaped them in a pile at a specific place in one of the sporti. The parents and other family members would then beat the clothes with brooms to arouse the spirits embedded in the clothing and then set them on fire to burn the curse. Today, those beliefs are folklore, but they are not forgotten.

Each year, the townsfolk honor their ancient beliefs in La Notte delle Streghe or Night of the Witches. Past tales come alive for the thousands who visit on this night, as costumed locals re-enact scenes in little niches around the village, telling tales in this mysterious medieval backdrop with candles and lanterns illuminating the cobblestone lanes and spooky sporti tunnels.

The Night of the Witches was performed for the first time in 1996, thanks to the initiative of Mario Basile, the village’s mayor, a great lover of the culture and popular traditions linked to Castel del Monte and of the writings that Giuliani left behind.

This event begins with a banquet at dusk and the scenes played out continue until midnight, as visitors walk the alleys and sporti, where they are accosted by the witches who tell their tales from centuries past.

Beautiful during the day, but marvelously eerie at night, one can imagine how the steep streets and mysterious tunnels of Castel del Monte added intrigue to the villagers’ lives. As one walks down the steps into the sporti, you might well be reminded that there may be other mysterious things lurking in those dark shadows…