What is a quest?
I love a good quest. I think of it as something that interests you, driven by emotional involvement. A quest takes you places that you wouldn’t otherwise go. Especially when travelling, I find that having a quest or a purpose gives you some structure and allows you to experience things, and see places, that most people miss.
Of course, you can go to the local tourist information office and get a list of the sights of the town (and you should definitely do this). Most probably, these sights are interesting and worth a look. But, those places off the beaten path of all the other tourists seem to provide the most lasting memories upon on your return home.
Today we pursued two unrelated quests. First, we sought what remains of a prisoner of war camp, the site of internment for many Australian and New Zealand soldiers during WWII. Second, we looked for an archaeological site said to contain an exhibition related to Abruzzo emigration.
Initial information gathering
On arrival in Spoleto, a relatively modest town of around 25,000 people located in the central Italian region of Abruzzo, we learned of the POW camp. Our host, after appreciating that we hailed from Australia, told us of the camp locally referred to as Campo 78. Making further enquiries at the local tourist information office, we found that it was closed up and only ever opened on special occasions.
Then followed an internet search. Quests often involve obtaining information from any source you can identify. Then one must sift the information obtained to seek that kernel of truth. Look for the hints that lead you further on your quest. Bits and pieces of information appeared, and finally a news item from an Australian media outlet yielded the most detailed description of the camp and its history.
Setting out on the quest
Gleaning the locality name of the camp’s location from our internet searches, the beautifully called Fonte d’Amore (literally the Fountain of Love), we set off. Like many quests, this path led through parts of town that would otherwise remain unseen. Perhaps many tourists wish to avoid seeing these aspects of living in a small Italian town, but for me, it provides some understanding of contemporary life.
Turning up a narrow country lane on the edge of a small cluster of houses, we stop to admire the view. A building, likely a monastery, clung precariously to the snow-capped mountain rearing up before us. Was this the famed hermitage of Celestine? Celestine, a local priest, later became a Pope with the distinction of being one of only two Popes in history to resign. He chose to become a hermit instead. Perhaps he felt closer to God in his mountain retreat. How does one access this place I wonder to myself? It seemed so remote, yet in plain sight of the people living just below. Did those Aussie prisoners look out of their prison at this same hermitage?
Continuing along the road, another cluster of houses appears beside a fence topped with barbed wire. Although there are no signs, we feel sure that this must be a hangover from the camp. A little further along we see a khaki green painted guard tower and conclude that this is indeed the camp. Proceeding on foot, we walk up an even more narrow lane and see an entrance barred by two substantial locked gates.
Peering through the bars, we look in where so many looked out hoping for their freedom. Weeds struggle through some rough concrete in front of a collection of buildings. Uniform in design and evenly spaced, these are the barracks that housed the prisoners.
The mountains loom overhead. I imagine how the Aussies and New Zealanders gazed at these foreign Apennine Mountains enclosing them in their prison. How must they have shivered when the winds blew down from the snow in wintertime.
We learned that it was only recently that the presence of Australians was discovered at this camp. What led to that discovery? The rough drawing of the iconic rising sun Australian army badge scratched on the wall of one of the huts. Several other pieces of graffiti revealed the presence of other units including soldiers from the York and Lancaster regiment.
A man walks towards us, no doubt alerted to the presence of strangers by the incessant barking of a neighbour’s dog. Just as guard dogs in the camp probably contained the prisoners all those years ago. The man is dressed as a worker and despite our motioning that we wanted to go inside; he indicated no access was permitted. Somewhat ironically, we are denied access inside the camp when all those years ago, the prisoners were denied freedom to exit the camp.
That is until Italy decided to change sides in 1943 following the invasion of their country by the USA. The Italian guards walked away from the camp, throwing open the gates. Many of the inmates were able to escape, some to freedom, some to be recaptured shortly after by German soldiers who stepped in to police the camp.
A little piece of Australia
While it is possible to walk the perimeter of the camp, beside the fence topped with barbed wire, our quest seems at an end. We see more of the guard towers looming menacingly over the site, but the secrets of the camp remain intact. Our local host told us of a party of Australians and New Zealanders who visited some years ago. They sought the location of their grandfathers’ internment, trying to uncover some of what these men experienced.
Many of us follow these quests. We try to understand, we try to feel what they felt, which is of course impossible. Trying to remember, the will to prevent anything like this ever happening again is strong. For us at least, this quest to locate a small piece of previously unknown Australian history in a foreign land provided a piece of a puzzle. Australia’s white history is brief in comparison with that of Italy for example. Yet it is important to us, visiting this land of immense history, to find that small piece of Australia behind by brave soldiers fighting a war on foreign soil.
A quick stop at a 10th Century castle
Proceeding on yet more back roads that encircle the town, we spy out next destination, a village perched precariously on a hillside, still overlooked by those same snow-capped mountains. Castle towers reach upwards towards those mountains, providing a stark contrast to the lower, uniformly coloured houses beneath.
Constructed from the 10th Century, the Caldoresco castle at Pacentro has a long history, well beyond any construction remaining in Australia. Known as the most ancient castle in Abruzzo, the remains found there date back to the 7th century. The castle is famous for its gothic, fairytale-like architecture. With its three tall towers soaring upwards toward the mountains, it looms over the surrounding village that long ago spilled out beyond the castle walls.
The name of each tower gives some indication of its use or age. The Tower of the Seige is named for a siege in 1229. The five-sided Tower of Possession or Tower of the King is named to acknowledge the visit of a King in the 13th Century. Finally, the youngest tower named the Ghost Tower dates back to the 14th Century. We can only imagine why it is named thus. We wander the castle walls, peer into the Ghost Tower and admire the colourful shield designs. But our final quest for today calls us to continue.
Chasing down a lead
Again, we have the name of the town where the ruins remain. Swooping down valleys, between the ever-present mountains we enter the Majella National Park. Warning signs remind us to slow down as bears frequently cross these roads. Arriving at the small town piazza, we gaze in wonder at the collection of surrounding houses. A sign informs us of the work of a local artist who pioneered a one-woman quest to decorate her house and immediate environment in a unique and immediately identifiable style.
Finding another sign, this time identifying points of interest in the local area, we look for evidence of the archaeological park. Unfortunately, although decipherable in the legend, the numbers on the map have faded so much that nothing remains visible. This must have been the fate of the ruins for so many years. Resorting to electronic means, we find the directions we seek.
And so, we set off down an increasingly narrow and rough country lane. The road climbs a hill, passes a farm, in fact we drive right through the middle of the farm with its various pieces of farm equipment laying around, its piles of manure raked out of the winter shelter and its mounds of hay stored for the future.
Happily we arrive
Finally, a sign confirms that we are on the right path. Then the road narrows further. Rough brambles scrape along the side of the car as we carefully negotiate deep puddles of water. Arbee informs me that there will be nothing there at the end of this road, becoming increasingly agitated at the thought of having to turn around on this dirt lane. We pass a cyclist busy removing mud from his tyres. Comfortingly, there is at least one other human being out on this road.
And then, just as the thought of giving up is entertained, we arrive. A dilapidated building, doors lying askew awaits us. I explore it to find abandoned rooms, fittings removed and the only inhabitants spiders and an occasional swallow. An interpretative board shows a path to the ruins but confuses us by referring to a non-existent parking space.
Nonetheless, we set off along an expensive all-weather walkway. In the distance, we see a modern construction. It’s a roof, protecting precious remains from the ravages of the weather that they have withstood for centuries. At this location of the ancient Roman city of Ocriticum, the remains of three temples persist. The oldest is a temple to Hercules from the 4th Century BC, and on the same level, another temple to Jupiter from the 1st Century BC.
The cult of Hercules
In ancient times, Hercules was a popular god as evidenced by the number of temples and art works we have seen in our travels. Interestingly, Hercules was associated with pastoralism and traveling, especially along the old transhumance routes of Abruzzo and Central Italy. These ancient paths were frequented by shepherds, traders, monks and friars. Many of those same paths continue to be used today, albeit by people in fast vehicles.
Goddesses get a look in
At a lower terrace, the modern roof protects a low stone, rectangular structure. Little remains but signs tell us that this is a place of worship for the female divinities of Ceres and Venus. Additionally, this site contains evidence of sacrifice, probably not human but animal, and steps that led up to the temples on the upper level.
Gazing in awe at this place of worship from long ago, my thoughts roam to the women in the background of this tableau. Naturally they would have felt closer to the goddesses, likely representing beauty, virtuousness, fertility and the like, than the more manly gods of war and victory. Did these women lurk in the background, with a few flickering oil lamps to light their steps along the path to the lower temple? Did they bring the young girls along with them to introduce them to their ways, to show them the rituals, to discuss the plans for births, deaths and marriages?
We follow the ancient road back to our car. I marvel at how the wildflowers have taken over the place of all those footsteps from long ago. Today those flowers, likely the very same ones that the women of long ago saw, lighten my mood. Flowers always bring a smile and lessen any worries. Perhaps that is why they adorn much ancient art.
Returning to the modern urban centre where we temporarily live, the bright lights shine, the traffic creeps slowly and the restaurants beckon. I’m satisfied that my dual quests for today have been achieved. Perhaps we didn’t get inside Campo 78, nor were the ruins of Ocriticum the most significant we’ve seen on this trip. Yet, both visits provide immense satisfaction for me. Another piece of knowledge is gained. My travel has purpose, and my imagination is stimulated by these stories. The vault received another bundle of memories. Tonight I sleep well with dreams of prisoners freed, goddesses being worshipped and the enduring nature of wildflowers.