There’s a feral cat watching the birds. Sparrows mainly. The birds remain oblivious, searching for crumbs which the tourists scatter unheedingly in their tracks. There are a great many tourists. It’s hard to understand why this place should appeal to the average visitor. I should know, I’m there against everything I’ve practised in my life. And, I’ve been a sinner – if sinners remain a recognised species. But I had to come. Something inexplicable drew me. Even so, the vast numbers are off putting and I’m wondering if there’s something else. Something I haven’t yet understood. Is it a bank holiday, or is there going to be a local football derby?
The cat has moved into the shade, joined by a companion. Their tails twitch spitefully. They’d like to annihilate each other, the way wild creatures do, but this place has already seen its share of massacre. Getting out of the car, I seek the shade, allowing the larger groups of tourists to proceed ahead of me. Let them see and become enlightened, whatever purpose there is in either experience. Some of the young kids are laughing and messing about, the way teenagers do. I can see they aren’t taking it seriously. They’ve been told to come. It’s good for their education. I wonder if I’d have thought that way, at their age? Perhaps I’ll have a better idea when I reach the top.
Yes, the top. The car park is situated at the base of a steep hill and looking up all I can see are trees fringing the summit. There’s nothing else for it but to climb, and, following the herd, I begin to mount the steps. The steps have been built wide, to allow both an upward and a downward flow. Concrete steps constructed many years after the events we’ve come here to review. Is ‘review’ the right expression. Perhaps it’s an experience for some, and no more than a visit for others. Something to cross off a list. Do we review the Mona Lisa when we visit? Or do we ogle something held up to us as magnificent. Plebs that we are. Something, beyond words or comparison? I’m considering all this as I climb, plodding in the wake of so many others. The wide steps rising uniformly, planned with precision and built with sufficient sweep for an army of Cardinals to descend upon those below bearing some kind of fateful truism. This may have been the intention of the original architect, but now the leisure industry has taken charge and the site has been taken under the wing of commerce as an inclusive part of the itinerary tourists are expected to pursue.
I am not a tourist, I tell myself fruitlessly. I am not a part of the herd, with their camera’s, guide books and drinks bottles clutched firmly in hand. Despite my chosen singularity I am unable to separate myself, following the backsides of all those who have gone before. Not an edifying spectacle. It was Chrissie who convinced me to come. Recommending a trip that has taken me along the inland routes of Italy, charting as it does ancient towns and cities. Places the average tourist rarely sets foot. I hadn’t been to Italy in decades, and back then it had been with a woman I wanted to spend my life with. That too had failed to work out, and those memories along with many others of a similar kind were firmly locked into a drawer marked ‘not to be opened’. My problem is, like Pandora I don’t obey the rules, with the result I suffer. Ah poor me. Chrissie had the answer. ‘Go to Italy’.
Chrissie is my daughter in law and in the absence of a mature female role model has taken on the role of matriarch, advising and directing the men of the family through one crisis after another. Hers is the cool clear head and eternal wisdom which the males appear to lack, and by consensus her decision has become the final voice in family debates. Not that I want to argue. It’s true, I’ve lost my way these last few years and no longer know what I want from life. It’s made me cynical and the experience has emptied me of the hope I once possessed. This doesn’t make me entirely hopeless, simply rudderless. I think Chrissie believes in the old adage, give a man a task and it will provide the purpose he lacks. Perhaps she’s got it nailed down, but I remain a sceptic. Even so, I was willing to give it a try, and here I am. But where is here?
There had been a leaflet in the hotel, and the tiny village was on the road about eighty kilometres beyond Rome. To get here required a two-hour drive along the autostrada, a wide black slick of tarmac built with EU money and cut through the hills and across the valleys by teams of mainly foreign workers. The blood sweat and toil of the task clear for any to see, among those who might care to consider such things. The road surface retained that ‘new’ appeal, making the heart race as I gunned the engine up to 120 in the longer stretches. It wasn’t meant to be a race, and I soon slowed down, thinking about the workers and presumably their painstakingly slow pace during construction. I made a few pit-stops along the way; it was supposed to be a vacation after all.
The sun was blazing down as I reached the top step, standing for a moment to one side where there was a view out over the plains. It was possible to see for miles, but my attention was taken by the masses assembling in the car park below. Whatever drove them to come appeared to be an unstoppable force of nature, and here I was in its sinister clutches. I turned to face the crowds before me, people milling about and attempting to find purpose in their presence. It was getting close to midday and the little shade available had been taken by the weary, or those overcome with emotion. Nuns were praying in small groups, but my understanding was that it wasn’t a place for religious zealots or for any kind of devotion. And if, over the years, it had become a place of pilgrimage, its virtue was now in the hands of commerce. Souvenir stands had been pitched everywhere, selling their share of memorabilia and what I took to be junk. Alongside them were other merchants, dispensing snacks, drinks cans and bottles of mineral water, all at inflated prices.
Breathlessly, I took a sip from my own water bottle before seating myself on an outcrop of the rocky rubble at the perimeter. I knew the terrible story of this place and possibly what it had become in the minds of many of the visitors. But I felt little emotion, watching the crowds mill about and wondering once again what they hoped to get out of their presence there. Groups of nuns were scattered everywhere, and some pairings of priests. Smiling, they posed obligingly for the camera, as between the black costumes, brighter groups roved freely, together with individuals like me, creating a strange kind of melange. Mostly there were tourists, couples and singletons with a number of families covering the generations. Outside of the visitors, and the vendors what else was there to see? Standing raggedly against the brilliant skyline was the one remaining wall of the church of St Antonio.
In examination, this famous remnant was a roughly built construction dating back several hundred years. Its stone façade appeared to be slowly crumbling, bolstered now by heavy wooden braces on both sides to prevent a complete collapse. All around the exterior, the broken brick and rubble remained to complete the picture of one of the travesties of the second world war. The story was probably already known to most visitors there, but if not, there were glass fronted display boards for them to examine, with posters written in a variety of languages recounting the horrific tale.
During the latter part of the war, after the Nazi’s had taken control in this part of Italy, they set up an observation post on the hill beside the church. The site proved excellent, providing a line of sight in every direction – something I’d observed for myself. What the Nazi’s were unaware of was that the Priest – Father Xavier – had been hiding about a dozen Jewish families beneath the church, in tunnels which ran deep into the hillside. An informant gave away this information, and when the Nazi’s attempted to enter the church to search, the Priest refused to allow them entry. This, in itself, was a brave but ultimately foolish action given that the Nazi’s were in total control of the region. The Priest was attempting to play for time, as the Allies had already landed in the south and the Germans were being steadily pushed back. Already, there were columns heading towards the border. The German Commandant for the region had other ideas however and brought up an 88mm cannon to blow the doors off their hinges. The weapon was so powerful and the church so old, one shell managed to destroy practically everything, bringing down the roof and three of the walls. Whoever was inside the church at the time was buried beneath the rubble. Three days later, the Germans evacuated their position, leaving behind their devastation. The supposition being that everyone, including the Priest, had been killed. But afterwards, stories continued to circulate that a few of the families had managed to get out through a tunnel. No one could be sure, because a comprehensive search was never carried out.
After the war, the area inside the church perimeter was concreted over, allowing the story to be built into myth. Now it had become what it was and formed a part of the tourist exploration of the region. The leaflet I’d read in the hotel had explained the detail, though why I’d come to see all this I had no idea. I’m not religious and I don’t always enjoy the ‘sights’, particularly when they’re as busy as this one and what was more, there was very little to see. And yet, there I was. I took a photograph, examining it afterwards framed in the camera. It wasn’t somewhere I’d recognise if I came upon the picture unexpectantly so I wondered if maybe I should take another photo with a sign naming the place. As I considered this, I spotted the brick, low down on the wall. It was different to the others and a burnt-orange colour, singed maybe by the action of the cannon. I widened the frame until I had a full close-up. It was a singular piece of colour in what otherwise was simply a sun faded white washed wall. It had to mean something in the context of place, but what I couldn’t possibly explain.
I moved closer to the wall, putting my head down to investigate. The wall was shaded in that area, as the sun had started to move around to the other side. Perhaps it was nothing and I was simply in pursuit of something elusive as a meaningful symbol for myself. Nearby was a rough altar, built out of the shattered stone. People were placing lit candles on its surface, some of which expired almost immediately as a random breeze flowed up from the plain. Other people relit the candles allowing the circle to flow. The futility of the gesture caused me to smile, as I wondered if I should join in the game. There was a crowd before the altar and I had to wait until my chance came after a space opened up, but another’s hand was there before me. A woman placed a lit candle among the others, shielded by her hand.
“Scusi.” She apologised, noticing my attempt to do the same. I spotted the flicker of a smile in her eyes and looked away. I quickly lit a candle from the one she had placed there, stepping out of the way of those behind. There had been nothing in my heart as I’d performed the task. I’d lit a candle simply to feel a part of place, and possibly of time. In my mind it had been a trifle, but it allowed me to overcome the anonymity I’d employed to shield myself. It made me feel real for a short period. Afterwards, I returned to the place I’d been sitting previously to observe the crowd and take regular sips from my water bottle. Close by, I noticed a woman had fainted in the heat. People were caring for her by splashing her face and fanning her with magazines. Strange, I thought, strange this world of human beings. How primitive we are, and how compulsive. To care for one another in a place where one set of humans had attempted to destroy another. It made no sense. I looked away, analysing my own state of mind. I have never believed in a singular concept and never wanted to be a follower. But, in comparing myself with those around me I realised I was no different. I was attempting to remain impartial, and yet I had participated in events, by placing a lit candle on the altar. What did that make me – was I follower too?
When I looked back, I noticed that people were leaving. The students had already departed. Perhaps, it was time for me to leave too? Glancing at the sun, I saw how hot it would be down on the plain. There was a small medieval town on the road ahead I had planned to visit. It too was on the itinerary, but I could change direction if I chose. Did I have it in me to change direction, I wondered. Wasn’t it easier simply to remain as I was and be the man I’d become? Glancing back at the stone wall I saw how it represented something solid and significant. Perhaps it stood for the things I’d forgotten or let go in my own life. And here they were, once again, brought to life in bewildering detail. I smiled to recall, once more fixating on the burnt-orange stone. What did it represent in the scheme of things I wondered? I was still pondering as I began to descend the wide steps, passed by others heading to the top.
At the bottom I remained watching the crowd disperse. Everyone heading somewhere. It felt odd to be standing there, as if I’d gained something unknown from the experience, but left behind nothing of my own. Maybe I was wrong, and maybe whatever had gone from me had been plucked out. For a moment I caught a fleeting glimpse of a young nun smiling, and it reminded me of someone I’d known many years before. Not a nun, I should confess. How odd I pondered, heading to the car. I opened all the doors and windows before sliding inside, glad to take the weight off my feet. The air freshener smelled of pine, a curious choice for a dry country. I shoved it into the glove box, watching as the coaches nearby began to fill up. I was still debating if I should stop off at the hilltop town or drive on. The town was fifteenth century, a place of towers and battlements. There would be picture-postcard views, but what I really wanted was a couple of glasses of a decent Chianti and a chance to breathe.
As I cruised the slow lane, I was overtaken by coaches carrying the faithful. Had I become one of them I wondered? A coach carrying nuns passed at speed. They were singing something rowdy, which I hoped was also rude. If I’d understood better Italian, I might have joined them in the same song. As it was, I smiled, allowing whatever I’d gained from the day to settle into me. I felt calm; calm and collected, as the old saying went. I was wondering what I’d tell Chrissie when I got home. She’d laugh and smile and tell me ‘I told you so’. That’s the problem with family, you can’t pick them, and neither can you protect yourself against them. I was feeling thirsty and thinking about the Chianti as I turned off the autostrada heading towards the hilltop town. Setting out, I hadn’t realised I was embarking on a pilgrimage. Perhaps I was a seeker after all. The town ahead glinted in the afternoon sun, creating a kind of halo effect around the dusty walls. It reminded me of something from long ago, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on just what it was. I knew the Chianti would help, after which I’d think some more about the burnt orange stone.
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