Modena: Italy’s Hidden Fairytale Retreat

We turned off the highway by Modena and followed the river through the forest. Switchback roads led up into the remote Apennine mountains. This range runs the length of Italy—a jagged zipper on the boot-shaped country that cuts it in half—from Piemonte to Sicily.

My husband and I were on a three-day vacation. The mercury in Tuscany was up over 104 F, sending what seemed like the entire population towards the beach. We looked the other way, wanting peace and space and fresh air.

Tower House Gombola, tucked away in the Apennines in the Province of Modena, fit the bill perfectly.

The Apennines create some of the most dramatic vistas to be found in Italy.

I called the owner, Raffaele, on the number he had sent us before we got to the meeting point. As we rounded the corner, his big Land Rover sat expectantly on the shoulder of the road.

We got out and said our hellos, threw our bags into the trunk, and hopped in. As we turned up the dirt road, I understood why we couldn’t drive ourselves. The ruts were deep—made during the mud season of the spring, or maybe even the last rainstorm. Then the trees started to thin and a meadow opened up in front of us. The patch of sunflowers downhill by the tree line first caught my eye, but when I looked up, I gasped. Down at the end of the field, placed perfectly upon the next hilltop, the medieval tower stood stoically against the panorama of the mountains beyond. Raffaele chuckled at my astonishment as we drove toward our fairytale accommodation.

“There’s another way down to the cars, right there.” He pointed next to the tower. “But I just like this road for the…” And he gestured broadly. I completely understood. This man loved what he had built, and he loved sharing it even more.

I climbed out of the Land Rover and stood in the sun, breathing the fresh air and listening to the cicadas and the birds and the quiet. It was perfect.

Tower House Gombola used to be an old watchtower, built over 500 years ago to keep watch for the castle nearby. It set my mind racing. What had happened within these walls so long ago? What had the people who lived here been like?

The front doors were wooden, studded with metal. The skeleton key was the size of my hand. The floor was rough stone, the walls stuccoed ever so slightly to make it strong. A little wood stove in the corner, a desk, two chairs, a table, and a green cabinet on the wall. The shelves held pots and pans, plates and cups, lanterns, and a pair of binoculars. A pan for chestnuts hung from the rafters. There was a two-burner gas stove for minimal cooking and a gas refrigerator tucked under the table. Raffaele explained how to use the solar-panel-powered charger for phones, lamps, and other electronics. Underneath the stairs, it was the only thing that looked out of place against the rustic aesthetic.

Up another floor, and we stepped into a writer’s dream. A dark, heavy wooden table dominated the center of the room. If I didn’t have my husband and didn’t love the outdoors just as much as the inside, this is where I would’ve stayed for all three days. I felt like I’d need a quill to write instead of a pen.

The bedroom was in the loft up under the wooden beams. Once it was the colombaia, where the watchmen would have kept their messenger birds. That night as we got into bed, I dreamt of ravens flying off with little scrolls of paper, their black bodies lit by torches glowing below them.

After we got the rest of the tour and the safety precautions Raffaele opened the fridge and offered us a beer. We walked around the tower and learned how to use the outdoor shower and bathroom, the sink on the side of the house, the barbeque area, and where the hammocks were hidden in the woods. Every detail of the estate had been given extra love and care.

After the tour, Raffaele jumped back into his car. “See you in a few days!” And then he was gone, and it felt like the rest of the world went with him.

As the sun started to set, my husband set up a fire in the outdoor fireplace. As the flames licked at the golden light of the setting sun, a deer crossed the meadow. We got out the binoculars, opened another beer, and watched the stars come out.

We were alone in our little paradise, and it couldn’t have been more perfect.

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