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I felt rough that morning as I opened my tent and peered out at the grey light with squinting eyes. The endless rain that night had kept me awake and transformed the campsite near Assisi into muddy mayhem. It was camping misery at its finest and I was in the thick of it with a sopping tent and a puddle of water that squelched through my sodden ground sheet. Clearly, it was time to pack my motorbike and leave the Umbrian Apennines as soon as possible. The mid Spring weather had to be better further South.

I left Assisi behind and followed the busy road to Foligno, Spoleto and then on to Terni. There was just one more town in my sights before making my escape to the Adriatic coast. The infamous town of L’Aquila.

L’Aquila, the Eagle

Perched on the hills just south of the snow crested Gran Sasso massif, L’Aquila is the administrative capital of the Abruzzi region of central Italy. In the past it was a quaint medieval town with its fair share of attractive baroque and renascence architecture, a fine Spanish fort and beautiful basilicas worth a visit. L’Aquila was home to just under seventy thousand people and had a lively student community with a university known for it’s courses in engineering and science.
In the early hours of the 6th April 2009 everything in this appealing, small Italian town came to a grinding halt. An earthquake, 5.8 in magnitude (Richter scale) ripped through the squares, the alleys and architecture sowing death and destruction in one of the biggest natural disasters Italy has witnessed in recent years.

I had never been to a disaster area and held some reservations as to how appropriate a visit might be. After all, I intended to take pictures and poke my nose into people’s hardship and misfortune. Several years from the quake had passed though and I guessed visitors were now welcome to take an interest in the recovery process.

A Sky full of Crains

L’Aquila greeted me with the uncanny sight of a crane crowded horizon. There was little traffic on the roads that led to the old town, no cafes, no markets, no shops or offices either. Once I reached the “centro”, disjointed and awkwardly leaning buildings appeared. There were condominiums four to five stories high, empty and abandoned with banners advertising their imminent “special demolition”. The walls were cracked with recurring “X” shaped patterns whilst wide patches of missing masonry gave a feeling of total neglect. Doors and shutters were left purposely open and made the eerie hollowness of empty homes all the more glaring. This was just the beginning.

The closer I rode towards the heart of old centre the greater the sense of devastation. Older buildings of historical value, the ones that make up so many of Italy’s iconic architecture, were wrapped up in braces, steel armour designed to support the battered “palazzi” and stop them from crumbling to waste. Those were the lucky buildings. Many smaller ones were simply left to their sorry fate with broken walls revealing bathrooms and kitchens of ex family homes.

The majority of roads were blocked off to traffic and access even on foot. Wooden barricades didn’t permit as much as a peek at what was hidden behind.

Most jaw dropping of all to me though was the sight of the thirteenth century church of S. Maria di Paganica an iconic symbol of L’Aquila, now missing its roof and almost all its frescoed apsis reduced to a heap of chipping on the ground.

Ask the Locals

I was aghast at the scale of the damage, the ruins and the ghostly stillness around me. I plucked up some courage though and asked a couple of strolling locals what they felt about their town and how the disaster had affected their lives. Young, perhaps in their early thirties, they didn’t mind my questions and answered with a smile about life as a “teremotato” (literally an “earthquaked person”).
“It’s like putting your life on hold indefinitely” they said.
“Some can’t take it and leave for a new start elsewhere. Others stay and help in the reconstruction efforts”.
“We are all aware though that life in our hometown as we knew it, is over. The old communities have been erased for good. Many people have died.”
“What’s bothering is that L’Aquila is now known for what happened here with the earthquake more than anything else. Those who come to visit these days have little idea of what our town was like before April of 2009”.

My Tent

I left l’Aquila with a heavy heart, shaken and shocked. Images and words cannot describe the feeling of disbelief and helplessness that the old town conveys in its current state. I felt for the people of this place and their precarious sense of identity with a home town that is now a pale reminder of its former self. Livelihoods, careers, community, homes, all gone, all demolished. I thought of the over 300 fatalities of that distant April morning in 2009. Many were young students, just starting out in life.

I rode away and searched for a place to camp for the night. It didn’t matter any more if it meant more cold, rain and lack of sleep inside my wet tent and damp sleeping bag. After what I had just seen in L’Aquila, any camping hardship for the night was a very minor thing in comparison. At most, I hoped it might be a small tribute to the tenacity of the Aquilaians.

Some facts

  • Over 300 people lost their lives in the earthquake.
  • Around 60,000 were left homeless.
  • L’Aquila’s old town centre was declared off-limits for over a year as the foundations for reconstruction work were being set.
  • Reconstruction efforts have been hampered by public contracts awarded to companies with ties to the Mafia.
  • In what some have described as a Witch Hunt, six geo scientists were convicted for man slaughter in 2011 for allegedly producing “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory information” or, simply put, “unjustifiably reassuring information ” relating to tremors ahead of the earthquake of 6th April 2009.
    All the scientists were acquitted on appeal in 2015.

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