Once Roman fortress, now luxury hotel.
On a Dolomite outcrop overlooking the Prosecco hills stands an impressive structure. It's grand white battlements and red draperies lend to a lavish style developed throughout the years when once Castrum Costae boasted a strategic spot and housed a garrison to guard an ancient Roman road leading through the Alps to Austria - Via Claudia Augusta.
We're talking 2 millennia ago.
When you visit Castel Brando the only Roman aspect seems the spa but excavations inside the original castrum have uncovered an impressive 3 metre-wide bread oven from 46 AD as well as original baths beneath the castle. Wherever there's a Roman bath, there are aqueducts. Piped from nearby natural mountain spring, they use the very same water to this day.
Over time the castle has undergone numerous improvements and enlargements but only since the13th century did it's current stately style begin to emerge under the ownership of the Da Camino Family. Between 1233 and 1335 they added battlements and a central tower before the castle exchanged hands with the Venetians, belonging to the Republic of Venice until the fall of La Serenissima in 1797. It subsequently passed down through the Brandolino family to the counts from Forlì in Emilia-Romagna. They commissioned various aesthetic works to turn the fortress into a fairy-tale, adding Venetian Gothic windows and romantic detailing to the central part in true Venetian glory drawing inspiration from the ornate palazzi of Piazza San Marco.
Sparing no expense, a chapel named the Church of San Martino was commissioned to be decorated with glorious affreschi. In World War I, the castle was abandoned by the family to escape an Imperial Austrian invasion. The invading forces used Castel Brando (named after the family) as a military hospital leaving it in disarray until they reopened their home after 10 years of restoration and then sold it on to the Salesian monks who converted it to a monastery.
Recently declated UNESCO site, this intricate tale ends in a rather hefty investment, bought by local tycoon in 1997 for 5 million euros with the intent to open a hotel and museum. As most epic restoration projects go, this one went way over budget and timescale but in the end we believe it was worth it, although locals say he's not too sure.
Enter Castel Brando via funicular railway from the quaint village of Cison di Valmarino. As you scale the steep face, Prosecco hills open up below you with dwellings dotted amongst them. Entering the base of the battlements is something from a film - you're suddenly encapsulated in stone. There's a decidedly medieval feel to the iron railings and armored vaults as you make your way into the heart of the castle. From the valley Castel Brando seems regal and ostentatious, from inside the battlements it's lush and serene. Faded affreschi soften the grand façades with the sound of gently splashing water from a renaissance fountain under a 200 year old Atlas Cedar tree strewn in twinkly lights. The lawns are clipped and paths cobbled as you're guided towards the main lobby past tables set to admire the view and waiters silently serving.
Besides the hotel, Castel Brando hosts a theatre, pizzeria, gelateria, spa, medieval/terrace bars and a decadent Venetian banquet room to hire.
It's a hedonistic mix of bygone eras from Roman to Venetian, brought together beautifully in a timelessly, romantic setting. One can wander the layout and feel completely detached from the world - perhaps leaving the castle along the statue-lined forest path taking you into the mountains or sitting quietly in one of the ornate terraces with a glass of Veneto wine, gazing at the view.
A medieval bar in stone with dark wood seating showcases ancient features exposed under glass flooring with an attention to detail, seamlessly bringing the past to the present which to me makes Castel Brando so special. The grand hotel lobby offers a 3-floored staircase up to the private banquet hall and 16th and 18th century expansions where 5 luxury suites and a small collection of rooms make up the castle's sumptuous accommodation.
You can see why the place is often used as a wedding venue.
Princess Gaia Spa reflects the original Roman character of the structure - mosaics, saunas, steam rooms and spring water, along with all the wellness treatments your heart may desire, put the cherry on top of a relaxing stay but non-hotel guests are welcome here too and that's where we'd often spend our time at Castel Brando, or on the terrace bars, or in the Pizzeria Fucina.
With an impressive menu, this decadent 'pizzeria' features all kinds of delicious cuisine; think Tuna Carpaccio with apple, Pappardelle with Hare Ragù, 'Sansovino' Pizza with Colonnata lard, porcini mushrooms, walnuts, DOP burrata and honey… and those are merely three dishes.
Stay, dine, come up for a Gospel concert or an Aperol or Campari Spritz at the bar or catch the 'funicolare' for gelato with a panorama. This charming area is only an hour's drive from Venice and Castel Brando makes a the perfect memorable lunch spot for a day-trip of Prosecco tasting, amongst many other glorious things.
See the castle website for events, banquets and themed dinners and if you can, catch the Artigianato Vivo mid-August when the small village of Cison di Valmarino fills with crafts and international traders in a week-long festa.