It’s October 30. One year ago today, at precisely 7:41 in the morning the little medieval Italian hill-town in which I live began to shudder as a terrible roaring rose from the rock on which it was built more than 700 years ago.
The central Italian region of Le Marche was being hit by a 6.5 magnitude earthquake centred on the town of Norcia some 25 kilometres away.
For a frightening minute or two, people out in the town square for breakfast expected the bell tower of the church of San Francesco to come crashing down. It swayed violently but stood the test, as it had withstood other shocks over the centuries in this seismically active country.
Today, my neighbours' faces are lined with anxiety. Many of them have lost their homes. Me included
You probably haven’t heard of this earthquake. It was the third to hit the area in a week, and the biggest. Two months earlier, another quake, almost as strong, had struck the town of Amatrice a little further south – killing more than 300 people. That was the beginning of a swarm of quakes which are still going on. They have changed our lives forever.
When all this began I was just completing work on my book – A Recipe for Disaster. It’s about the roller-coaster ride we’d been through to make a self-funded online TV cookery series, Cookucina. Both book and series are celebrations of the local food, the wonderful countryside and the warmth of its people. They are fun and entertaining, with a genuine “feel-good” atmosphere. But the earthquakes have thrown all that into jeopardy. Today, my neighbours’ faces are lined with anxiety. Many of them have lost their homes. Including me.
‘The lentil plains will recover quickly. The built environment will not’
We had an earthquake just the other day, at 9:58am. There’s something strange about being woken by your bedroom (and everything in it) beginning to shake. For a split second, it feels like someone is trying to shake you awake. Then the conscious mind kicks in and you snap wide awake, not knowing if this is all it is, or if it’s the start of a big one.
Last October, when the big one did come, it caused major structural damage to 1,000 towns, villages, churches, cathedrals – the wonderful medieval buildings that, together with its beautiful rolling hills, make the Le Marche region one of Italy’s hidden gems. Norcia is famous for its lovely Basilica, now badly damaged. North of Norcia the faultline runs along the valley of the River Nera, a line which runs through exquisite little towns like Visso and Ussita, Castel Sant’Angelo sul Nera and Castelluccio. Tourists come to Norcia, but few people outside the region have been to Castel Sant’Angelo, which is a shame because if it were in Tuscany it would be as famous as San Gimignano.
Except that now it’s virtually destroyed. Visso is deserted. It’s a military zone these days, and you need a special permit to enter. Castelluccio is built on top of the only hill on a four-kilometre-wide plain high up in the Apennines. It’s where they grow the best lentils in Italy, and in the height of summer, it’s a riot of wildflowers growing in vivid strips of pink, purple, yellow, blue and red. This year, though, even the lentil farmers have to travel up in special convoys to tend their crop.
The lentil plains will recover quickly. The built environment will not. The Norcia earthquake was not only powerful, it was shallow – which meant that the astonishing release of energy was dissipated across a wide area. Le Marche and its adjacent regions were, for many centuries, part of the Papal Lands, and the local residents built their towns as hilltop fortresses, hundreds of small walled towns each with several churches, palaces, a museum and an art gallery.
Most have an exquisite little theatre, too. There are hundreds, thousands of these buildings and right now many, possibly most, of them are closed pending expensive and lengthy repairs.
Just a couple of kilometres outside my little town, nestling in a secluded valley under the lee of the mountains, there’s the Abbey of San Biagio. It has stood on that spot for 1,000 years. It survived the Amatrice earthquake, but at 7:41am on October 30 last year, the tower bell collapsed onto the nave damaging priceless frescoes as it fell. If this were the only thing that had been damaged, its repair would be a five-year project with experts brought in from all over the world. But it’s not the only damaged building. One year on, no one can yet tell you how many San Biagio Abbeys there are.
Who will pay?
And who will pay? Historically the government pays. But this time, the damage is so widespread and the damaged buildings so valuable that the cost is beyond the scope of a single country whose resources are – according to authorities – stretched by the swell of refugee arrivals. And just as that is, in reality, a European challenge, so should this reconstruction be. Yet, few people outside the region have any idea of the scope of this problem. And those within are beginning to feel abandoned.
Yet, there is a glimmer of hope. Last week, the University of Cambridge held a two-day conference examining the problems of reconstruction in one Le Marche town. Amandola is just 15 minutes down the road from us, and its problems are typical. The conference set out to gather engineering, earth sciences, sociology, architecture, history and history of art experts “to address holistically an issue that is frequently only looked at with a narrow focus”.
In Le Marche, we can only hope that this is the beginning of a new, global, awareness of the damage to an important part of the cultural heritage of the western world. Then maybe, just maybe, the smiling and the laughter that permeate A Recipe for Disaster and Cookucina will return.