Montecassino: monks and soldiers

by Alexandra


When I was about 14 or 15, I went on a school trip to Rome and Pompeii. I was studying Latin, so I spent a few days being shepherded around ruins with about 30 other teenage girls. My memories of the trip are disconcertingly vague, considering that it was only ten years ago, but I remember a few things. Being forbidden from crossing the street on our own in Rome. Our teacher’s cries of “Look, girls – wisteria!”. Befriending a stray dog at Paestum. Drinking gallons of fruit juice on the hotel balcony in Sorrento. Suffering from the heat and period pains in Pompeii, and hallucinating that the grass was talking to me.

Montecassino is another memory. On the way to Sorrento we stopped off at Montecassino, a monastery on top of a hill. I admired the views and bought a bracelet from the monastery gift shop, which later broke.

It was a brief visit, and I had pretty much forgotten Montecassino’s existence until I met Valeriano, who grew up in Cassino – the modern town at the base of the hill. Then I started to get sentimental about Montecassino, imagining that at the very moment my teenage self was looking out across the landscape, my future boyfriend was somewhere in the town below.

I spent a long weekend in Cassino with Valeriano and his father, and I had a nostalgic urge to return to Montecassino. On the drive up, Valeriano told me about the scandals at the monastery, such as the story of the married, Catholic TV presenter at RAI, who was having an affair with a transsexual, and who was sent to Montecassino to reflect on his sins. The abate of Montecassino was also involved in a major gay scandal – details here and here. Let’s just say that taking cocaine, splurging on 700 euro dinners and cercando cazzi is not really acceptable behaviour for an abbot. Apparently locals curse by exclaiming “mannaggia l’abate” (“damn the abbot”).

On our visit to Montecassino we didn’t get to see any priests/monks/abbots, or catch a glimpse of any bad behaviour. Hardly anyone lives at the monastery, even though it’s a palatial building that could probably house the majority of immigrants in Lazio. When he was a social worker, Valeriano used to work with some African immigrants in Cassino who kept chickens inside the house. “You could probably keep quite a few chickens in there,” I said, looking at the monastery.

Aside from the beautiful views of the surrounding countryside, the highlight of Montecassino is the basilica which, along with the monastery, was rebuilt after the bombings of 1944. It’s beautifully over the top, and has a crypt decorated with mosaics so shiny that in the right light, they could probably blind you.

The monastery shop sells the usual Catholic stuff – rosaries, prayer books, pictures of Jesus – as well as some products produced by the monks themselves. We settled for some monk-brewed beer and slightly overpowering soap.

In 1944, Montecassino and Cassino were completely destroyed. There are several cemeteries in Cassino, the most striking of which is the Polish Cemetery, which is visible from Montecassino. A thousand Polish soldiers are buried on the hillside, overlooked by a vast, sloping cross. Walking through the orderly rows of graves is very moving, as you see that most of the soldiers were in their early twenties. Many of them have the same date of death.

Montecassino is a strange place. A few monks living in a mostly empty monastery the size of a castle, and a thousand dead soldiers. The decadent abbot living a life of luxury and vice, and the young Polish men who never got a chance to live at all.

Visit if you get the chance. You’ll have to pay for the parking, the toilet and the museum – and there are the usual donation boxes – but the abbot’s got to pay for his cocaine somehow.

(I’m joking, and the abbot in question is no longer there. But it does make you think…)