Italy's sleeping beauty: 400-year-old castle near Venice brought back to life

Close to Padua and less than an hour’s train ride from Venice, Castello del Catajo is an enormous newly-restored medieval fantasy with, so far, few foreign visitors

It’s amazing, given the millions who flock into Venice, that hardly any tourists venture beyond the lagoon. Just 50km from la Serenissima, on the fringes of the volcanic Euganean hills, which provided stone for the pavements of Venice a millennium ago, there’s an enormous undiscovered castle. Castello del Catajo was built by the Obizzi family in around 1570 and is one of the largest in Italy, with more than 350 rooms. Passionate about all things medieval, they chose to build a castle, rather than follow the fashion of the day by building a grand villa.

Castello del Catajo map

There are external staircases suitable for horses, so that the nobles didn’t have to dismount to reach the grand first-floor rooms, and a courtyard that could be flooded to stage miniature naval battles for the entertainment of 17th- and 18th-century aristocrats.

Backed by conical, vineyard-covered hills, the majestic, ochre-coloured castle sits on the banks of the Battaglia canal, dug in the 13th century to connect the area to Venice. Three elderly sisters from the aristocratic Dalla Francesca family had lived there for years, changing nothing. When it was put up for auction in 2015, there were initially no takers, presumably because however cheap it was (reserve price €3m) the repair bill would be at least 20 times that.

The front facade of Catajo Castle with a stone staircase leading up to a large entrance gate. Italy.

And then along came a dashing prince in the form of Sergio Cervellin, a multimillionaire inventor of cleaning appliances (arguably, the Italian equivalent of Sir James Dyson). He spotted the castle as he drove past in his silver Rolls-Royce, returned for another look and bought it, taking possession in January 2016.

The formal gardens have now been cleared and fountains rediscovered, statues cleaned and the gothic chapel restored. On the main floor, the shutters had been closed for so long that the frescoes by Zelotti (a pupil of Veronese) are stunningly well-preserved and tell the story of the Obizzi family’s military exploits.

Zelotti frescoes inside the castle
Zelotti frescoes inside the castle were well-preserved. Photograph: Alamy

So why spend millions to restore a huge dilapidated castle for no financial return? The word bellezza (beauty) crops up a lot in Cervellin’s conversation. His vision is for a complete restoration so that everyone can appreciate its former splendour. So far, visitors can explore the gardens, the first-floor frescoed rooms and the extensive terrace that overlooks the courtyard. Anyone planning a Venetian holiday this spring could do worse than be among the first foreign tourists to take the train from Venice to Battaglia Terme (€4.90 one way, 50 minutes), then a 15-minute stroll along the canal to Catajo. You’ll be blown away by La Grande Bellezza.

Castello del Catajo is open Tues, Fri and Sun 3pm-7pm (2.30pm-6.30pm in winter), admission €8 (tours in English)

The Best Mud in Italy, Myra Robinson’s book about life in a faded Italian spa town near Catajo, is available on Amazon Kindle

Myra Robinson

The GuardianTramp

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