You’d think nature was nothing but kind in Abruzzo. Here is a region whose landscape shifts only from gaiety to majesty. In the east, long golden sands lie in the sun, licked by the gentle Adriatic. In the west, celestial snow-capped peaks stand in jagged lines, surveying the region like wise, silver-haired guardians. In between, a series of plunging valleys open up to the sky, and countless pretty villages artfully drape themselves across hillsides. Everywhere in clean, green Abruzzo, nature seems to be on her very best behaviour.
But as we now know, beneath its lovely surface Abruzzo is criss-crossed with geological faultlines – a network of cracks at risk of occasional tremors. Earthquakes in Italy are nothing new. Most of the country is highly seismically-active, and Italians have long learned to live with it. But bits of Abruzzo seem to be at particular geological disadvantage. An earthquake in these parts can undulate through local stretches of soft fertile soil, hit the hard rock of the surrounding mountains and rebound off it with redoubled energy.
Which is what appears to have happened in the small hours of April 6th last year. A magnitude 6.3 earthquake had its epicentre near Abruzzo’s handsome regional capital, L’Aquila. The ground shook up to 100km away, and destruction swept across a very wide area. When the dawn came up, it revealed 300 dead, 1,500 injured and 65,000 made homeless. Many whose homes were destroyed are still living in temporary shelter today, a year after the quake. At the current rate of investment and rebuilding, it’s thought it’ll take more than twenty years to get Abruzzo back to normal.
The road journey north to L’Aquila is a sobering one. Spectacle both awesome and awful spools past the window – muscular mountainscapes and lovely villages; countless shattered buildings and hastily assembled wooden homes. There is far more damage than I had expected to see. The force of the quake is writ large on the buildings, obliging you to imagine the intense violence of the event. Each passing town sports its share of crack-streaked walls desperately clamped together with braces or bound with steel cables. Piles of fallen rubble still sit on the ground.
Collapsed roofs are the most upsetting sight. You can only imagine the hell experienced within. On the edge of an old hilltop village, Castelnuovo, a large lodging house stands beside the main road – its roof completely collapsed, its broken rooms open to the skies, cheery wallpapers jarring in the unexpected daylight. The heart of the village is still closed off. Up a little hill, the people in emergency wooden houses can look out across the shattered remains of their former homes.
L’Aquila, perched like its eagle namesake in a mountain-ringed eyrie, is a proud medieval city stuffed with fine buildings. The breeze blowing through it is fresh and unsullied. Especially now, in the silent, car-free ghost town of the city centre. Much of it is still roped off, the buildings too dangerous for the public to approach. Cracked and crumbling, chunks of them might drop off at any moment. The only people allowed near are construction workers in hard yellow hats, working furiously to repair the damage. Military guards stand at the end of barricaded streets and shepherd anyone else away.
I make a slow, astonished circuit around the perimeter of all that is cordoned off. Appalling cracks streak for many feet down walls. Lintels are smashed, windows blocked off. Huge chunks of coloured plaster have been shattered off the side of many buildings, exposing the bricks and rough stone underneath. A pretty Neoclassical theatre stands girdled with straps, the capital coils of its Ionic columns broken off. A tall church stands riddled with fissures, the top of its belltower now a pile of rubble. The iron cross atop its dome stands askew, eloquently suggesting the godlessness of the event. Divine order thrust aside.
Dumbfounded, I progress past buildings hidden behind supportive exoskeletons of steel scaffolding. A Modernist palazzo rests uneasily on cracked and buckled front columns desperately held up with planks and belts. In another grand piazza a lovely Baroque church has been very badly hit. It is a desperate mess of girdles, with wooden frames holding up window-spaces and a complicated cage framing a shattered spire. Or maybe it was once a dome. The damage is so bad it’s impossible to know which. Perhaps more starkly than any other single building, this church silently intones the word Disaster. What has happened to this city is an outright disaster.
Peering deeper in, into the streets one can’t go, I get glimpses of the more serious damage – the gaping holes in walls, the irrecoverably rubbled homes, the places where people died. God knows how bad it gets at its absolute worst. You can’t help wondering what can possibly be done with destruction on this scale. So many historic buildings – how can all of them be repaired? It’s hard not to despair at the prospect of the city’s recovery. And yet those busy builders and engineers look nothing if not determined.
Shaken by what I’ve seen in L’Aquila, I meander thirty miles south to Navelli, a pretty little town clinging to a low hill beside a fertile plain. They grow top-quality saffron and other crops here, and live a peaceful life in centuries-old homes with views of surrounding mountains. In a charming B&B called Sotto Le Volte (‘Under the Vaults’), I listen to one woman’s story of the night of 6th April. Proprietor Christel Jasperse is a polyglot Belgian who’s lived in Italy for thirty years. She thought she might not live to see another day here when her house started shaking.
“I was woken by the bed swaying,” she recalls. “Swaying so violently that I couldn’t even sit up. My partner Massimiliano grumbled drowsily for me to lie still, and I had to keep saying ‘E un terremoto! Un terremoto!’ He tried to turn on the light, but there was no electricity. For twenty-nine seconds we endured the room shaking, every moment thinking ‘Now is when the house collapses, now is when we die.’ Twenty-nine seconds is a long time when you’re waiting to be killed.”
For a moment Christel is silent, and all we can hear is the crackling of the wood fire in her warm, cavernous kitchen. Then she smiles and confides “You know, memory is an amazing thing. When the house was shaking, my mind went straight back to a long-forgotten sound from childhood. My brother and I used to store our wooden building blocks in cardboard boxes, and sometimes we would shake those boxes as hard as we could to thrill at the deafening noise it made. I hadn’t thought about that noise for forty years. Then suddenly, with the house shaking, the exact same sound was all around me.”
Several houses in Navelli were destroyed that night, and many damaged. But Christel’s house survived largely unscathed, because of its position and construction. Built in 1606 into the solid rock of the hillside, almost every room has a barrel-vaulted ceiling. An earthquake’s energy moves much less violently through solid rock than softer earth, and Christel’s rounded ceilings allowed most of the remaining energy to arc overhead and safely away. She confesses, with obvious emotion, “I was lucky, that’s all. So lucky it makes me ashamed. My neighbours lost houses. I didn’t, not because I was good or because I spent more money, but just because I was lucky.”
Immediately after the earthquake, in the small hours of the morning, everyone in Navelli met out on the streets and instinctively went to the heart of town – the little café run by Christel’s partner Massimiliano. In the first days after the quake, forbidden by the authorities to re-enter their houses until their risk of collapse was assessed, people slept in their cars. Then tents were erected outside town. Thankfully it was springtime, with all of summer ahead. When autumn arrived, the whole area sprouted colonies of little wooden cabins – hastily-built, temporary structures that would at least keep out the cold. They’re still there, and people are still living in them.
As you’d expect, the scars of the earthquake aren’t limited to the cracks across buildings or the wooden huts dotting the landscape. Christel confesses she now has something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. If a truck rumbles by, or her boyfriend bounces his leg with nervous energy beneath the table, she panics, recalling the vibration of the quake, and thinking it’s happening again. An earthquake cuts deep, betraying our most fundamental sense of stability. If you can’t trust the earth to stay fixed beneath your feet, what can you trust?
Time heals, of course. And lessons are learnt from every bad event. For Abruzzo, there is now a much greater understanding of the region’s geology, and of how earthquakes move here. The absolute necessity of building quake-proof, and of strengthening old structures, has been powerfully reaffirmed. No more short cuts, no more defying legal standards of construction. If and when another earthquake hits Abruzzo, the place will be much better prepared. The chief lesson is one that’s relevant for us all: in order to enjoy the very best of nature, you’ve first got to understand her, then work with her not against her.