Ciociaria’s new St Benedict’s Way (Il Cammino delle Abbazie – Via Benedicti) is a wonderful journey for those heading to Rome from Abruzzo by way of Monte Cassino, or for those who are loving their days in Rome but need a break as its speed is melting their mind and cobbles are playing havoc with their knees. After more than a decade of using the Benedictine Abbey at Monte Cassino as my final staging post when driving south to Naples from Abruzzo, a kind invite to re-trace St Benedict’s journey from Rome provided a welcome history lesson to this most famous elevated monastery and an opportunity to explore ‘Ciociaria’.
Launched in 2015, the Via Benedicti allows you to follow in the footprints of Saint Benedict and explore the Lazio provinces of Latina and Frosinone which make up ‘Ciociaria’. The Benedictines created the blueprint for Western monasticism and are often recognised for establishing Europe’s first slow food movement, being the originators of the many delectable cheeses, wines, beers, liqueurs and digestifs which are recognised as unique and protected with a DOP status today.
Beauty Ever Ancient Ever New
Ciociaria, a name unknown by many outside Italy, is a fresh, fertile area of Lazio that stretches out below Rome from the Med across to Abruzzo. It was officially recognised first by the Papacy and propagated by Mussolini, although today this southerly ‘space’ is considerably reduced. It’s named after an ancient local shoe whose upward or downward facing toes subtly announced whether you were available for marriage, and is famed for including the birthplace of Cicero and being where Italy’s noble families looked to employ a ‘perfect’ wet nurse (balie ciociare/baliatura). Alatri and its fellow towns were such a former trading pull to the Ancient Greeks they shared key skills, namely their monumental cyclopean building skills to the local pre-Roman tribe, the Ernici.
Worth a Stop in Ciociaria
The 150 km of the San Benedict way is divided into 9 easy stages which can be accomplished on foot, bike, horse, by car or coach allowing you to peek up in and at giddy mountain monasteries and cathedrals whilst marvelling and unwinding at its glorious countryside made famous by so many artists of the Grand Tour. Worth a stop is:
- Alatri – A small fortified town famous for its use of those monumental Greek building skills, a superb Romanesque fountain and an important the gothic fresco, Christ in the Labyrinth in the former S. Francesco Convent.
- Fiuggi – A picturesque spa town, whose famed waters were drunk by the likes of Michelangelo for their healing properties of his gallstones. A break at an art nouveau palace here formerly built for the last king of Italy, The Grand Hotel Palazzo is really worth a stay and nowhere near as expensive as you would think!
- Anagni – The birthplace of 4 popes and papal seat before the temporary move to Avignon. The ceiling and wall frescoes in the crypt of the romanesque cathedral are astounding and are regarded as the best example of Byzantine/Romanesque frescos that display not just religious scenes but the politics of the time. You’ll find Thomas Becket’s Oratory here too, older than the rest of the building and formerly dedicated to Mithra the Iranian-Indian god of light.
- Arpino – The pretty homeplace to Cicero and an interesting lute museum.
- Isola di Liri – A cute little town divided by a scenic urban waterfall as the Liri River runs through the town, creating one of the best small-town views to take an early morning ice-cream in Italy.
Along the route you can get to try some incredible dishes that are reminiscent of Abruzzo and Campania but whose fusion of flavours has created something unique. Due to the area having a number of thermal spas, farmers grow organically to ensure pesticides don’t taint the famous waters. Get ready for the small but delicious DOP bean, the Cannellino di Atina. I was silenced by tasting the extraordinary buffalo cheeses of Amaseno, treccia di bufala (braids), ricotta and their mature hard cheese cousins, La Lola dell’Agro Pontino’s cave matured cheeses and stracciatella made from cows that graze on mountain herbs. Ciociaria provides the chance to discover fruity wines from ancient less well-known grapes like Cesanese that are perfect to accompany wild al fresco eating, perfumed by a mountain breeze carrying the scent of jasmine, rosemary, wild mint and tobacco to create the perfect June picnic or alternatively get loosened up for a spot of tarantella in the evening.
San Benedict – the Man, the Saint and the Order
San Benedict was born in Umbria the son of a nobleman and educated in Rome. He left his studies as a teenager for a grotto in the Subiaco Valley, just north of Rome, where he created independent hermitages, but his popularity brought persecution and by 592 AD he had left for Monte Cassino on the border of Abruzzo. On arrival he smashed the statue of Apollo previously held in its lofty 520 masl Roman mountain temple and dedicated his new church on the site to St John the Baptist and its oratory to St Martin Tours.
Prayer, Work, Study, Hospitality and Renewal
Members of The Benedictine Order take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and pledge stability to the monastery and its way of life. They have as part of their rules ‘conservatio’ which translates as letting go of preoccupations of the self and token attachments and rather re-engaging in a dependable lifestyle, something we’d all love to practice in our own way whether religious or not! Their customary clothing is recognisable as a black habit that symbolises humility.
A Priceless Library
Benedict founded what was to become one of the world’s greatest libraries at Monte Cassino and encouraged the monks to read all works that it contained, including those of Virgil, Horace and Ovid. The copying of texts was essential to providing not just the material for his monastic communities but for keeping minds and hands active to in turn produce high-end marketable products. In the earliest Benedictine monasteries, the writing room (scriptorium) was open to the elements less a wall behind and vaulting above, however by the Middle Ages the writing rooms were placed inside, next to the kitchen and the calefactory which housed a fireplace and where monks would warm up after prayer. This warm environment by Benedictine standards proved transcription’s biggest workhorse as less than enthusiastic monks would take on allotted tasks in a bid to keep warm.
By the time of the 2nd World War the monastery archives held “800 papal documents, 20,500 volumes in the Old Library, 60,000 in the New Library, 500 incunabula, 200 manuscripts on parchment plus 100,000 prints. Its gallery included Titian, Goya, El Greco and other famous artists.
I love the British Library for digitalising of this ninth century version of the Exultet, the Easter Prayer, which unlike art of the time shows daily life, bees busy collecting nectar and the beekeeper collecting wax for the Easter Candle.
“A Colossal Blunder . . . a Piece of a Gross Stupidity”
The secular world will recognise the name of Monte Cassino, but not many post-war babies know the details of the 5-month horrific battle undertaken during the 2nd World War. Incompetence at command saw 15 allied nations fight 4 torturous battles to capture this vantage point with starving soldiers suffering from severe dysentery and made to fight the deadly close quarter style warfare from World War 1 in shallow grave slit trenches. A third of all casualties at the battle were from friendly fire, the total estimate of losses on the mountain from both sides some 75,000 in those few months aided by the shards of rock that splintered on impact from bombs and bullets and resulted in horrific head, face and eye injuries.
A mistranslation by an officer mistaking the German for abbot to a similar word meaning battalion meant that the allies believed that the Germans were using the actual monastery as a command and artillery post and the order was given to bomb the monastery on the 15th February 1943 where nuns, orphans and refugees were all living. Within 6 hours the iconic monastery had been obliterated, the dropping of 1,150 tons of high explosives and incendiary bombs, whereupon German para-troopers did then enter the ruined abbey and take up positions. Miscommunication with the artillery on the ground meant troops were not prepared to counter with a full attack for a further 2 days and the position only finally taken by the Polish on the 18th May 1944.
Thankfully a German doctor and the German Commander who was a Benedictine had persuaded the Abbot in November in 1943 to remove the monastery’s priceless library. Local labourers were paid in food rations and 20 cigarettes a day to help create the crates that would be escorted by the monks in over a 100 conveys to the Vatican & Castel San Angelo for safe-keeping.
“Where it Stood and Like it Was”
The monastery was lovingly restored by hand by the monks after the Abbot rejected the help of the allies, dangerous work when the site was littered with unexploded shells, and blessed by Pope Paul at its reopening in 1964.
Enjoy the Abbey’s silence less the whispery gusty winds as you catch your breath to look out through the loggia di paradise onto the surrounding mountains in the company of the 10 monks and white doves that live there if you are lucky. With such a landscape it’s understandable why this position has been such been such a spiritual high point throughout history. Bronze doors lead you into the stuccoed basilica and inside triangular frames within the copula are depicted the vows taken by the monks, although the highly colourful marbled floors vie for the eye as much as the copula. The remains of San Benedict and his twin sister are held in an urn within their tomb at the high altar.
Click here for the official Via Benedicti website