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Soncino, the Castle of Ladyhawke

Swash my buckle and buckle my swash, this is off the beaten path! Signs come and go as you drive through the flat land of lower Lombardy, with little to see but fast growing corn. But for the many small hamlets and houses strung along the country road, this could be Iowa.

One hamlet has strong wall and a fine castle, built many centuries ago. Most of us have seen this place already, for Soncino has appeared several times in those action-packed medieval adventures movies like Ladyhawke, the fantasy with Michell Pfeiffer, Rutger Hauer and a really young Matthew Broderick.

Soncino had its own action packed life too, back when that fortress was used in deadly earnest during the battles between Milan and Venice for control of the fertile plains. Nowadays everything is tranquil, the only exciting moments being when today’s citizens celebrate harvest festivals and dress in costume to recall the traditions of the past. One place to peek into is the House of the Printers, where it is claimed that in 1488 the Torah was first printed by one Gershom Nathan.

This is Lombardy, so winter is fogbound and freezing, while the summers demand you find the nearest waterhole to jump into to stay fresh. Most of Soncino’s festivals are local affairs, centered around agriculture. There’s one in late May and another in late October. Also in October there is the historical costume festival, while in late June people do indeed jump into the nearest waterhole, in this case the river Oglio, to celebrate the “Festa del Fiume”

This place really is ‘off the road’, the fun being in the getting there and seeing the very evocative old fortress. From here it’s an easy enough road to Cremona, Pavia or Milan, the road taking you through some of the richest country in Italy.

A little bit of history

There was probably a Bronze Age settlement at Socino before the Celts came, because it has a good location on a low hill rising above what was once a marshy lake full of fish. What is rich agricultural land now, was rich land then – two extensive Roman villas give proof of this.

Sometime after the Goths, Lombards, Franks and Hungarians had finished raiding, settling and moving on, the people who were still there began to develop their little village on the hill. Before long, the growing town was fortified and a defensive wall thrown around. At the same time the streams were canalized, which allowed the people to build self cleaning drains and also gave them the power to drive watermills.

The town and its trade stagnated in the centuries when France, Spain and Austria controlled the north of Italy. The only event of consequence was the dismantling of the Sforza fortress by Napoleon’s armies. With the union of the Italian states in 1861 the town returned to its origin as the local center for the farming community. Not much has happened since, except the fortress has been the setting for a number of movies, most famously Ladyhawke.

Article, photograph and video © Carl Ottersen