|Am I in Italy, or am I in California?|
I wasn't planning on seeing a medieval castle when I awoke that summer morning. On a rare vacation without the rest of my family, I spent a few days in the heart of California wine country visiting my friend, Julia. She and I are similar in that we both love food, are especially fascinated by chocolate, and can't hold our liquor due to a bad case of Asian glow. The day's itinerary included a trip to the Farmers Market and then heading to the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone for a casual lunch and a little browsing. As we sped down the St. Helena Highway, Julia's daughter exclaimed, "The castle gates are open!" All we could see from the road was the sign for Castello di Amorosa and a long driveway leading through the gates and up to who knows where. In a snap, we changed our plans and turned in. As we made our way up the driveway, it suddenly came into view. A 12th-13th century Tuscan castle surrounded by vineyards rose up spectacularly before us. This was definitely worth delaying our lunch.
|Do we dare approach?|
As we waited in line for tickets, Julia's girl (the type of preternaturally mature, 9-year-old child that every non-parent expects all children on airplanes to behave like) looked around and commented that it reminded her of Italy. Indeed, this was no molded-concrete-over-steel-supports, modern building masquerading as a medieval castle like you may see in certain mouse-themed amusement parks. Castello di Amorosa was built with the materials and construction methods authentic to the Middle Ages.
|Drawbridge over the moat|
Over 8,000 tons of stone were chiseled by hand in order to remain true to the medieval times. They shipped almost 200 containers of salvaged materials from Europe to build the castle. Iron pieces, ceiling beams, wooden railings and leaded glass windows were all created by hand. Of course, adaptations were necessary to ensure it complied with modern codes (hello, flush toilets and handicap accessibility), but this place is as close as you can get to real medieval castle in the USA. Its 107 rooms are spread over 8 levels extending above and below ground, totaling a grand 121,000 square feet (11,200 square meters). I was somewhat amazed that nobody lives here.
|Wrought-iron dragon dating back to Napoleon times|
With General Admission, guests can roam the two main levels of the castle before heading down to the Main Tasting Bar to try five or six wines. The Guided Tour involves an hour-long walk through areas not accessible with General Admission including
- Wine Caves
- Old Vintage rooms
- Torture Chamber complete with 300-year-old iron maiden
- Grand Barrel Room
The guided tour is followed by a 45-minute tasting session of five or six wines in the Private Tasting Room. With either ticket option, kids are offered grape juice and coloring pages while the adults try the wines. While Julia's daughter was older than the 5 year old minimum age to go on the guided tour, we opted to explore the castle on our own since we wanted to get to lunch... and the girl really didn't want to see the torture chamber. We joked that the "torture" was trying glasses of bad wine, but she didn't fall for it.
|Entrance to the ticket room|
We had fun going up to the watch towers and walking along the ramparts. As I peered out through the crenelations and slit windows, I could almost imagine myself wielding a bow and arrow to defend the castle against tribes of marauding rival vintners.
|Walking along the ramparts|
The interior of the castle was beautiful. If the exterior walls were all about fortification, the inside felt protected and safe.
|Loggia next to the interior courtyard|
Numerous folding chairs were set up in rows in the courtyard facing a stage. While they have occasional shows and special events here, weddings and receptions are prohibited by Napa Valley ordinance. Too bad, as I bet many brides-to-be imagine this place as the perfect site for their fairytale wedding.
|This is a chapel, but not a Wedding Chapel|
|These are NOT wedding bells|
I thought the frescoes created with Old World techniques were stunning. I also thought I sure am glad people don't have to dress this way anymore. It looks hot... and heavy... and like maybe it's really hard to see out of that iron mask.
Did I mention that I took a Middle Ages class at university? To the utter chagrin of my parents, I changed my major midway through from Pre-Med to English and then took totally useless classes like Middle Ages Studies. But aha, years later, I am able to walk through this medieval era castle with a rumbling stomach while nodding sagely at how absolutely authentic it all is. On the other hand, Julia who has a Ph. D. in Biochemistry probably had just as good a time here... as did her little girl. So there you have it, all ages and educational backgrounds like this Castello di Amorosa.
|In the Great Room, pretending that I'm the baroness of the castle.|
The Great Room was my favorite place in the entire castle. Look at that table! I could really host an awesome dinner party here. It seems like the type of place that calls for roasted peacock. That fireplace in the back is over 500 years old. It's huge enough for a peacock, but maybe too small for spit roasting a stag. Even the ceilings were decorated.
|Coffered ceiling of the Great Room|
Eventually, we made our way downstairs to the tasting room and shop. This below ground level was huge. The store sells so much more than wine and trinkets. There's clothing, hats, housewares, chocolates and toiletries. Because neither Julia nor myself can drink wine without flushing bright red and feeling a tad ill thanks to our Asian genetic predisposition to improperly metabolize alcohol, we skipped the wine tasting. The other guests doing it looked like they were having a grand time.
So, off we went to explore the castle grounds. Do you know what makes Castello di Amorosa a great winery to visit with kids? The fact that it's a castle and this...
|Silkie chickens, emus, goats and turkeys|
There are all sorts of barnyard animals on the grounds. There's not just a regular chicken. There's a fluffy, white, Silkie chicken (which I hear are quite restorative when stewed with Chinese herbs). I think there may have even been a pig stall if I read the Italian sign correctly. You should note that I understand zero Italian. It may have been a unicorn stall for all I know since the animal was hiding.
|Water well on the outskirts of the castle|
This amazing piece of architecture is a worthwhile stop on any Napa Valley tour, but especially if you're like my little group of non-drinking adults and underage children.
|Looking beyond the moat|
IF YOU GO:
- See the Castello di Amorosa website for current General Admission and Tour prices with options for chocolate, cheese or food and wine pairings.
- Operates daily year-round except for Christmas; opens at 9:30AM; closes at 5PM November-February and 6PM March to October
- Allott 1-2 hours for your General Admission visit; at least 2 hours for a Guided Tour (reservations recommended)
- Bring a light jacket if you're doing the Guided Tour as the wine caves are kept at 58°F.
- No picnics or outside food allowed due to Napa Valley ordinances. I recommend a meal — casual or fancy — at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone just a few minutes down the highway
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