Montefirore Conca. Source: Wikipedia/Toni Pecoraro

Medieval Italian Hilltop Villages 2017

Medieval hilltop villages offer delightful opportunities for slow, more authentic, and sustainable, tourism. In 2017 Italy intends to focus on them.

Italian villages are of course not all medieval. Nevertheless, we tend to imagine them as such – perched on hilltops, sometimes protected by walls and with access allowed only along a narrow street. Winding our way up to the central piazza with the city hall to one side, the church to the other, and a more or less ruined castle further up, they exist in our imagination the ideal type of small medieval rural villages; not quite a town, but neither like a rural village as we know them from northern Europe.  If Florence is the epiphenomena of an Italian city, the “Borgo” on a hill-top is the equivalent of an Italian village; and, yet, an Italian “Borgo” is so much more.

Castles or Villages?

San Leo. Source: Wikipedia/Toni Pecoraro
San Leo. Source: Wikipedia/Toni Pecoraro

Historically, “Borgo” is the Italian word for an early medieval “castella”, a small castle (with catrum indicating a larger).

However, the root of the word “Borgo” is unmistakably German: Proto-Germanic *burgz (“stronghold, city”), from Proto-Indo-European *bʰerǵʰ- (“fort”). Related to berg (“mountain”) it designated a pre-Roman settlement perched on top of a hill. No wonder, Italian historians from the 19th century believed the roots of the phenomenon should be found in Antiquity and/or among the Longobards.

Studies in the 20th century, however, found that the small walled and fortified settlements, with their tower or castle perched on a hill and surrounded by a small settlement, seemed to represent an invention from the 10th century. Not a “castrum” as such, the castle of a magnate, the small “borgo” was the result of the so-called “incastellamento” in the 10th – 12th centuries, which was a movement to find and build protection on hilltops against the invasions of Saracens, Hungarians and local robber barons.

Some historians regarded the erection of fortified villages on tops of hills or small mountains as the result of a communal effort to provide protection. Nowadays, though, the construction of these hill-top castles and villages are regarded more as the result of local barons and their wish to protect and control their peasants and beasts from marauders and feuding neighbours in the 10th to 12th centuries.

Indeed, we know that some of these hilltop villages represented new constructions; but others were built on top of earlier settlements. Thus, although a new feature of the high medieval Italian landscape, the movement of incastellamento took many forms in the different regions of Italy representing diverse types of fortifications and the techniques applied in the building. These different approaches to fortification were at the root of the diverse words used to describe the phenomena: Castrum, castellum, oppidum, rocca, receptum, castellare, reductum, recinctum, bastita – and of course the ubiquitous “borgo”. Borgo, hence, is the bland encompassing term applied.

In the later Middle Ages, many or these villages were deserted, and archaeologists have for some time invested energy and resources in uncovering the particular history and development of these villages. Nowadays, though, more are being abandoned because of lack of rural jobs and because people have moved to the new and more accessible villages down below in the valleys. Here we find the people, the less romantic alberghi and the petrol stations.

Although alluring, many Italian Borghi have thus inadvertently been turned into virtual ghost towns. With winding streets, no cars and small restaurants serving typical Italian food of local origin, they seem to offer an exceptional opportunity for medieval time travelling. Come night, though, and they may feel empty of real people. Thus, a famous world heritage site as San Gimignano has already been reduced to a theatrical shell (as personally experienced in 2014).

Terre dei Malatesta e del Montefeltro

Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta. Portrait in Louvre. Source: Wikipedia
Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta. Portrait in Louvre. Source: Wikipedia

Where to experience the “best” medieval Borghi? One option is of course to explore the guidebook, which is published each year by the association, I Borghi Piú Belli d’Italia, the Most Beautiful Villages of Italy. Founded in 2001, this organisation has 271 members. Each member must satisfy the following criteria: no more than 2000 inhabitants may live in the village proper, and it must be able to demonstrate a certified heritage, cultural and/or natural; further, the built heritage should present itself as an aesthetically homogenous whole. The focus is not so much upon the “magnificent” castle, church or palace, but the constructed mass of the total village; walls seem to be a near prerequisite, but not ubiquitous!

Another option, though, is to explore the Terre dei Malatesta e del Montefeltro between Urbino and Rimini in the valleys between the rivers Conca and Marrechia

During the 15th century, this landscape was fought over by Sigismondi Malatesta (1417 – 1468), Lord of Rimini, and Federico da Montefeltro, duke of Urbino. Both represent the archetypal “Renaissance man”: condottieri, feared military leaders, brilliant soldiers, scholars and poets, patrons of art – and tyrants. Over the course of their life, the two men were locked in an epic feud. Fighting as mercenaries for and against just about every Italian ruler of note, they carefully positioned themselves on the opposing sides.

The valleys, where they roamed, hunted and feuded, are spotted with delightful hilltop villages, of which several are known as some of the most beautiful in Italy: Montefiore Conca, Montegridolfo, Verucchio, and San Leo. Here it is possible to drive from one to the other enjoying the beautiful hinterland of the destroyed Adriatic coast around Rimini.


This little town was first mentioned in 1148 when it belonged to the Abbey of St. Peter in Rimini. During the next centuries, it was repeatedly besieged and attacked until Galeotto Malatesta repaired the castle in 1338. However, in 1445 it passed to the Montefeltri, after which it went, back and forth. The castle is diminutive and gives an indication of how a more down-to-earth borgo belonging to the Malatestas would have looked.


With the imposing Rocca Malatesta, this place is believed to derive its name from “Vero Occhio”, meaning the “true eyes”. The name thus indicates the important vista, which might be derived from the ramparts of the local castle. Here Malatesta da Verucchio, founder of the famous family, was born at the beginning of the 13th century. The castle in Verucchio is known as the Castel del Sasso  (or Rocca Maletestiana) and was one of the largest Malatestian fortifications. It consists of parts from the 13th to the 16th century. With its walls, towers, prisons and large palatial rooms it houses conferences, exhibitions, weddings, and other events. The small town also hosts one of the oldest Franciscan convents from 1215 with an ancient cyprus in the cloister, allegedly planted by St. Francis of Assisi.

Montefiore Conca

Monetefiore Conca. Exhibition in the castle. Source: Wikipedia
Monetefiore Conca. Exhibition in the castle. Source: Wikipedia

This walled town holds one of Malatesta’s main residential castles, which the family of the Malatesta used as their summer residence. The village is surrounded by woodland and chestnut groves, one of the specialities of the locality. Settled since Iron Age, its history began in 1322 when the Malatesta family acquired the village and the surrounding countryside from the Pope. Soon after, the Malatestas began to reinforce the castle as well as turning it into a luxurious and habitable city palace. Recently restored, visitors are invited to enjoy the frescoes of Jacopo Avanzi in the Emperor’s room as well as the permanent exhibition featuring the archaeological finds from the castle and its surroundings. Series of Majolica and glassware, as well as coins, tools and weapons, helps to get a sense of life in the private castle of a Renaissance condottiere. Afterwards, a tour around the walled village leads to another remarkable sight, the ancient pottery workshop, with its original wood-fired kiln.

San Leo

If Montefiore Conca was the main borgo of the Malatestas, San Leo was the stronghold of the Montefeltri. One of the main sights in the small town is nevertheless not the castle, but the Carolingian church from the 7th – 10th centuries. The story is that St. Leo de Montefeltro (c. 275 – 366) founded the small town here after 301 and built the first church. Today, it contains two works of particular importance: the ciborium, which was donated by Duke Orso (882), who was governor of the city, and the so-called “Sacello” (Chapel), built by Saint Leo in the 4th century. This chapel housed the remains of Saint Leo until Henry II ordered them to be taken to Germany, where they were ultimately lost. Next to the ancient church stands the cathedral from 1173. Both churches witness to the early settlement at this hilltop.

Distanced from the town itself, is the castle which balances precipitously on an elevated rock. The core of the castle dates to the 10th century, but it was enlarged in the following centuries until it was stolen by the Malatestas in the 14th century. However, in the 15th century, it was back in the hands of the Montefeltri, who turned it into a superb defensive structure. Considered invincible, it lost its military function in the 17th century and was turned into a prison.

San Leo is in many ways the epiphenomena of an Italian Borgo. Mentioned in Dante Alighieris Purgatory, we are reminded of how he stayed there and how the steep climb up to heaven is not for the fainthearted. In the spirit therof, don’t miss out on the small chapels and hermitages dotted around in the landscape outside the medieval hilltop villages, when staying there for a night or two. Lovely opportunity to organise a picnic.

Description from Dante Alghieri of San leo


Montefirore Conca. Source: Wikipedia/Toni Pecoraro


Malatesta & Montefeltro. A Jouney through the Hills of Rimini. Ed. by Marino Campano.
Publ. by province of Rimini, Tourism Council, and Culture Council of the province of Rimini 2011


I Borghi d'Italia 2017 Cover