There are no old buildings in the medieval town of Cassino, an hour south of Rome. No historic relics. No sign of its great antiquity.
Cassino today is a modern town. Thriving, bustling and prosperous.
The Abbey too is modern. Once again a Benedictine monastery, rebuilt to its exact original plans and re-consecrated in 1964, with an air of peace and timeless tranquillity untroubled by its past.
Enter the Abbey through a small and unassuming door cut into the stonework.
A cool, shaded path leads you past a small, cloistered garden onto a broad terrace, where statues of St Benedict and his twin sister St Scholastica, flank the steps leading up to the Basilica.
The views out over the Liri Valley from the terrace and, particularly, from the top of the steps, are spectacular.
But it’s this same commanding aspect, 520m/1700ft, above the surrounding countryside, that made the Abbey such a key strategic vantage point and provided for its destruction.
In the five months leading up to the eventual capture of Monte Cassino, a campaign that resulted in some 75,000 Allied and German casualties, the Abbey was reduced to rubble.
That its treasures survived owes much to the courage and foresight of two German airforce officers who arranged for these – and most of the Abbey’s Benedictine monks – to be transported out of harm’s way to the safety of the Vatican in late 1943.
On the mountain’s slopes, just beneath its summit and facing the Abbey, is a Polish War Cemetery, where over a thousand soldiers who died during the campaign are buried.
The inscription on the cemetery gates reads:
We Polish soldiers have given our bodies to Italy; our hearts to Poland; and our souls to God for our own, and other peoples’ freedom.
Touchingly, rosaries have been placed on most of the crosses marking each grave. Not identical, mass-produced and thoughtlessly mass-distributed, but each an individual recognition from a family; or a friend; or a comrade; or, most simply, from someone grateful for the ultimate sacrifice made by each of these fallen soldiers.
The Abbey is open daily – though closed between 1230 and 1530. The rebuilt Basilica lacks only some of the rich decorations of its ruined predecessor, but untouched by war is the Crypt, at the far end of the Basilica and underneath the Altar, with stunning original frescoes, carvings and mosaics.
While entry to the Abbey is free, there’s a €7 charge (2011 price) to go round the Museum. Well worth-while for the opportunity to see breathtakingly fragile and beautiful illustrated manuscripts dating from the 10th century, and extraordinary treasures like the personal prayer book of Pope Urban V.
There’s also a small book and souvenir shop which commendably keeps prices at reasonable levels. Especially good is the well-written and profusely illustrated guide and history of the Abbey, available in a choice of languages.
On the other side of the coin, give the ‘Historiale di Cassino‘ multi-media display in Cassino Town a wide berth for its charmless staff and the inescapable feeling that the enterprise is less about remembrance and more about turning a fast buck.
But let’s not end on a negative note. For the iconic status it has achieved for both religious and historical reasons, Monte Cassino Abbey is one of Italy’s absolute five-star, must-visit sights.