After our day spent along the glorious Amalfi Coast, we spent one last night in Sorrento, then boarded the bus the next morning to begin our drive back to Rome. On the way we stopped at the hilltop abbey of Monte Cassino. This Abbey is most famous for being where the Benedictine monks originate from, but also houses many important books and manuscripts from across the centuries. It was also the stage for a very important battle in World War II, the Battle of Monte Cassino. At that time the valley which the town of Cassino is situated in was being held by German and Italian forces and the allied forces were trying to break through as the valley presented an almost direct route through to Rome. The abbey itself was left unoccupied by the Germans (despite it’s strategic position), who instead took up positions on the hillside surrounding. This was still a highly superior position to be in, as the Allied forces would be going uphill to attack, while the German and Italian troops could easily fire upon them from above. The entire battle lasted for five months, with the Allied troops gaining victory – but at a very high cost. At one point the Allied troops were under the mistaken belief that German troops were in fact in the abbey, and so they bombed it, destroying a large portion of it. But fortunately the precious books and artworks in the Abbey were transferred to the Vatican prior to the battle. In the town there are two war memorials – one for the many Polish soldiers who died in the battle and another for the soldiers of the British Empire who fought. These were largely Canadian, Indian and New Zealand troops and there are about 4000 headstones in this cemetery we visited. You can see some photos I took at the war memorial here as well as read some of my thoughts on being there. It was certainly an experience I won’t be forgetting in a hurry.
The Abbey itself is very beautiful – as most are in Italy – and has some amazing views down into the valley below and over the town of Cassino. Saint Benedict built the monastery on the hilltop in 529 and while it has been destroyed in varying degrees over the centuries, it has always been rebuilt by the faithful and is an amazing sight to behold as you approach it up the mountain side. The library holds many precious manuscripts, some of which have been invaluable in learning about how early Italians lived as they are the only record, and many of the books are the last of their name – ancient things that will never see the light of day again. Over time, many of the monks who live there have copied these precious manuscripts by hand, ensuring the survival of the manuscripts and making sure that they will never be lost to memory. It is also home to a museum holding many ancient artefacts, including work by Botticelli, which unfortunately we didn’t get to see as we didn’t have enough time. But it is a place I would definitely visit again. Despite the large number of tourists there, it was very peaceful and it was nice just to walk through and be.