The South Tyrol region of Italy is full of medieval castles – more than 800 of them! Often perched on hilltops, with commanding views of the countryside, they were ideal for defence in the turbulent Middle Ages. But many were really grand country houses, the homes of wealthy families who wanted to rival the nobility. One of the most impressive is Castel Roncolo, also known as Runkelstein Castle (this is a dual language Italian/ German area). Overlooking the town of Bolzano, this castle is best known for its magnificent 14th century frescoes.

The Building and Restoration of Roncolo Castle

Situated on a tall hill just outside Bolzano, Roncolo Castle was first built for the Lords of Wangen in 1237. It was later damanged in a siege, but restored in the 14th century, when the merchant brothers Frank and Nicklaus Vintler purchased it. They extended and restructured the building, adding extra defences and a “summer house” (rather larger than its name would suggest). It was the Vintlers who commissioned the frescoes for which the castle is now famous.

Courtyard of Castel Roncolo, Bolzano
The medieval courtyard of Castel Roncolo

The castle later changed hands, eventually falling into the ownership of the powerful Hapsburg family. In the 16th century the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I restored the building and renovated the frescoes. The building subsequently suffered fire damage and decay, but was rediscovered and renewed once again in the 19th century. The frescoes were restored in the 1990s.

Frescoes in Castel Roncolo, Bolzano
The Castle is full of frescoes

The Frescoes of Castel Roncolo

Sometimes known as “the painted castle”, Castel Roncolo has the largest cycle of secular medieval frescoes in the world. Starting in the western palace, with its knights’ hall, the walls are covered with scenes of courtly life. Knights are hunting, jousting, or engaging in romantic interludes with their ladies. And there are pictures of great heroes, both real and literary.

Fresco illustrating the story of Tristan and Isolde
A fresco illustrates the story of Tristan and Isolde

When you cross into the Summer House you will find pictures illustrating stories from King Arthur and his Round Table. There are adventures and battles, and the abduction of Queen Guinevere. And there is a whole room devoted to the story of Tristan and Isolde.

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Even without the frescoes, the castle would be worth a visit. It is a well preserved medieval structure, with a tall tower that is now used as an exhibition area. And the hilltop location, once valuable for defensive purposes, now rewards the visitor with stunning views.

Castel Roncolo and its frescoes
Pinnable image of Castel Roncolo and its frescoes

How to Get to Castel Roncolo from Bolzano

Theoretically you could walk to the castle from the centre of Bolzano (it is a little under 3 km). However it is a steep uphill climb – I saw people walking down the hill but not up!

You could also take the No 12 bus from Piazza Walther. But the easiest option is probably to take the free minibus shuttle that also leaves from Piazza Walther (opposite the cathedral). Note that, whichever way you go, there is a 5-10 minute climb on rough ground from the bus stop to the castle.

Another possibility is the Old City and Roncolo Castle Walking Tour from Get Your Guide. This takes around 3 hours and, as the name suggests, includes the old town of Bolzano as well as the castle. A great way to soak up some of the local history…

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