The Lombards moved south from modern-day Hungary in the 7th century A.D. to set up their kingdoms of Benevento and Spoleto. They passed by the Etruscan and later Roman hilltop city of Cortona to rule from a network of castles. Suspicious of cities, they chose to surround them with castles on lower hills jutting out into the mountain valleys where the Romans had built their roads. Peasants lived inside these castle walls, leaving them to cultivate the fields lower down the valleys in times of peace. These Lombard lords became the first aristocracy of the Middle Ages.

The cart track has been metalled and when cars arrived, so did tourists seeking the picturesque. It was – and is – a wild area of chestnut trees, evergreen oak and every kind of scrub. A paradise for porcupines and wild boars.

We chanced upon one of these Lombard castle settlements when exploring a road that winds over the mountains separating us from the Tiber valley. Two decades ago it was uninhabited – an abandoned castle with deserted houses inside and outside the walls. Then some a few young people came to stay there in the summer and started repairing some of the houses. It became a centre for trekkers.

Hunters followed the long-distance walkers. Logging started in earnest. Now the castle tower is under scaffolding. Children play outside some restored houses and women sit on upright wooden chairs by their front doors, as they used to years ago in Italy, and watch whoever from the outside world happens to pass by. Caper plants with large white flowers and dark stamens hang from walls, the capers still small and green. Do the women gather the berries, I wonder? They could start a small cottage industry or gather and sell them on.

I asked a woman minding a small child whether she lived there all year round. She does. There is snow in winter, but they have plenty of wood. The yellow ‘scuolabus’ takes the children to school. As I imagined, some drive to work in the small town a few kilometres down the valley. There are financial advantages, I was told, to living in a landmark building and bringing it back to life again, but without the soldiers.

I have tried, unsuccessfully, to get caper plants to grow on my stone walls. They settle to grow on walls where birds leave stones after eating the berries. Or so I was told. How much has chance rather than design brought inhabitants back to this ancient Lombard castle?

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