30 October 2016
AS a regular visitor to central Italy, Tuscany and Umbria in particular, I am constantly aware of the possibility of earthquakes. A friend’s house in the Val di Chiana, a fourteenth-century rectory, has metal straps attached to the outside walls in the belief that they will keep the venerable building intact when the ground begins to groan. On our most recent trip Rosemary and I travelled east by bus from Spoleto to Norcia, which lies in the lee of the Sibylline mountains. It was a journey of just over an hour through terrain that grew more rugged, wild and spectacular by the mile.
Unbeknownst to us our arrival in Norcia coincided with an annual religious festival that draws thousands of tourists from near and far. It was our first introduction to this heart-shaped, walled town and its quirky inhabitants. Our hotel, the Grotta Azzurra, professed to be the oldest in the region, which I do not doubt. At Sunday lunchtime, its cavernous dining-room was packed with hundreds of ravenous devotees of St Benedict. Born in Norcia in 480 A.D, Benedict was proclaimed the ‘Patron Saint of Europe’ by Pope Paul VI. Religion is thus understandably a Norcian tradition.
No less a one, however, is eating and drinking. This, as the town’s many delicatessens and restaurants attest, is a place that is as much devoted to the stomach as it is with to the soul. Black truffles, invariably described as ‘prestigious’, ‘exquisite’ and ‘famous’, are a local speciality, as are cheese, lentils and ham. The surrounding fields are densely cultivated while in the snow-dappled mountains wild boar are aplenty. Over a pre-prandial glass of wine we considered whether there was a better situation for a writing retreat.
In August, a few months after we returned home, however, came word of an earthquake in the area. The town of Amatrice, twenty miles south of Norcia, where few buildings were left unscathed, suffered most. Over 300 people died in it and nearby villages. Some reports suggested that Norcia itself had been badly damaged, indeed destroyed, but this was incorrect. When I called the Grotta Azzurra the receptionist thanked me for my concern but assured me that all was well. It was business as usual. No one had been injured. He looked forward to welcoming us again. Earthquakes, he intimated, were for Nocians a fact of life.
A couple of months on and Norcia is in the news again. It is at the epicentre of an earthquake that registered 6.6. magnitude and whose tremors have been felt eighty miles south in Rome. Photographs show a fifteenth-century church that has been reduced to rubble and the town’s wall, parts of which are at least 600 years old, have been badly damaged. Nuns are seen in Piazza San Benedetto leading the injured to safety, perhaps to the Grotta Azzurra, a safe haven in a hellish time.