Most people don’t know that the famous giant Sequoia trees native to California actually exist in other parts of the world. The largest specimen in Italy happens to be in a place called Sammezzano Park in Leccio (Reggello, province of Florence). Its castle is much more well-known than the trees that surround it.
I had been curious about the place known as Sammezzano and I admit, initially, it wasn’t for its giant trees or park, but for its castle. The Castle of Sammezzano is one of the most jaw-dropping castles, if not sights, in all of Italy. It is currently rated as the number one “Luoghi del Cuore” (places close to the heart) by the Italian National Trust (known as FAI). To be ranked number one in a country with the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the entire world is saying a lot!
Its beauty is almost unprecedented. Just 40 km from Florence, the land was originally owned by the Medicis and was used for hunting expeditions. In 1605, the property was sold to distant Medici relatives named Ximenes D’Aragona.
By the mid-1800s, the Marquis Ferdinando Panciatichiit began constructing the castle and is credited with its design and eclectic beauty. In fact, he was quite fascinated with Moorish architecture and this is reflected in the castle which actually resembles many of the royal palaces in Spain or even the Taj Mahal. Each of its 365 rooms is uniquely decorated in spectacular colors and details with the most famous room of all being the “Peacock Room”. The BBC actually named its ceiling as 1 of the 10 most beautiful ceilings in the world (most on the list were already UNESCO World Heritage Sites).
To my great discontent, the grandeur and mystique of the castle’s interior will have to be appreciated through high-quality photos of other visitors who were fortunate enough to get a glimpse inside. If you go today, you will see a cold, lonely castle from the outside that is fenced off in a very meager sort of way. You can stick your arms through the grates of the fence and try to get the perfect shot of a castle that once was and close your eyes and imagine how it must have been in its glory days.
Due to decades of mismanagement, Sammezzano is now completely closed and in desperate need of restoration. There is a public outpouring to “Save Sammezzano“ with a request that the FAI itself purchase the property. It is also listed as 1 of the 7 most “endangered heritage sites” in all of Europe.
As a non-native Italian, my perspective as an outsider finds this appalling and frustrating. Italians are not surprised. They realize that so many times the overwhelming beauty that lies within their own country is oftentimes overlooked and underappreciated by their government and by their own people. Sadly, Sammezzano has fallen prey to this mindset.
The “Sequoia Gemella”
Before we reached the castle, we diverted on the path following the signs for the “Sequoia Gemella” or twin Sequoia (named for its split trunk). I had read up on this prior to our visit because I xenophobically believed that these giants could only be found in California. While it is true that they are native to California, it is also true that they can be found, and even thrive, in other parts of the world providing conditions are right.
Leccio’s unique microclimate happens to be an environment that Sequoias do like. The so-called “Twin Sequoia” is actually of the species Sequoia sempervirens, also known as a Giant Redwood. The tallest tree in the entire world is a Giant Redwood found in California and in 2013, it measured 380 feet tall or 116 m! Its location is kept secret for fear of vandalism.
I didn’t really know what to expect as we hiked through the piles of fallen leaves in the cool, moist woods of the 190-hectare Sammezzano Park. I was afraid that I would be disappointed with my tainted perspective being that I have visited the “real McCoys” numerous times.
We continued to follow the signs along the path through the holm oaks. I thought if anyone should be able to recognize a Giant Sequoia (other than an arborist!) it should be me. It seemed as though we were descending and I was starting to doubt that we would even see it at all, when, low and behold, I recognized the unmistakable color and pattern of the bark. As I crooked my neck toward the sky, I knew without a shadow of a doubt, that we had found it.
Towering some 54 meters and almost 9 meters in circumference, the Twin Sequoia is the second-tallest tree in Italy (as measured in 2017 by the Giant Trees Foundation).
There are also specimens of the Sequoia giganteum which, as the name implies, are the true giants of the world. They can live up to 3,000 years and the specimen known as General Sherman in California’s Sequoia National Park owns the title of the biggest tree by volume in the entire world.
Sammezzano’s are just “babies” in comparison, but give them time. If conditions are right and with a stroke of luck, they too will reach the heavens like the distant American relatives.
Reaching Sammezzano Park is very straightforward by car as it is just off the A1 Autostrada del Sole (exit Incisa-Reggello). Our navigator easily took us to the minuscule uphill road that leads to the park and castle. We chose to park in a parking lot for the residential homes at the base of the road and were glad we did.
The hike is not too strenuous but trekking shoes are recommended as much of the path is either unpaved or covered in piles of wet leaves and can be slippery. There is no charge to enter the park or to reach the grassy area of the castle where you can snap a few photos and fantasize about the interior that hopefully, one day, will be restored to its original glory.
Article by Marie Contino