Montecassino Abbey and War Cemetery

Montecassino Abbey is one of the best-known abbeys in the world and also an important arena of war with a major cemetery well-known to the families of the Commonwealth servicemen buried there  (Polish servicemen have their own cemetery there too) – so does not really qualify for inclusion in a site on the hidden attractions of Lazio. My excuse for including it is that many visitors to Rome and Lazio might not be aware of its presence and it is certainly worth a visit.

The Abbey is reached up a well-signposted road leading off the A1 motorway: when you turn off the motorway you will see it, gleaming white and perched up on a hill commanding the whole surrounding plain. The building you see is not the original Abbey, but a faithful copy built after the original building dating back to 529 was flattened by bombardment in 1944. The drive up to the takes you up and up a series of breathtaking twists and turns until you finally emerge at the top.

There is plenty of parking at the Abbey. Entrance is free but parking costs €3. Separate charges are made for visits to the library and guided tours. Opening hours are 8.30 am to 7 pm in summer and 9 am to 5 pm from 2 November to 21 March. Sunday and holiday hours are 8.45 am to 5.30 pm. Detailed information on opening times and the times of masses  can be found here.

Be sensitive about clothing when entering the Abbey: sleeveless and low-cut tops and shorts are banned for women; singlets and shorts for men. While wandering round on a hot day in August, I noticed people wandering around wearing sleeveless tops unchallenged, but best to err on the side of caution and show respect for this holy place.

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The overwhelming feeling on visiting the Abbey is of huge scale, light, space and breathtaking views over the surrounding plain. No-one could fail to be impressed by the experience.

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As you clamber up the giant steps, wonderful views of the surrounding plain can be glimpsed through the arches, followed by the hazy outlines of blue hills stretching into the distance.

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Everything is on a huge scale and visitors feel dwarfed by the mighty statues and columns, as is no doubt the intention.

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Interestingly enough, the pavement of the Benedictine abbey was built by workers from Constantinople and later inspired a local style of Cosmatesque flooring based on Byzantine designs developed by a family of artisans from Lazio, the Cosmati, whose work can be seen in many buildings built later on throughout medieval Rome and Lazio.

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When visiting the abbey, you cannot fail to glimpse the war cemetery below and ponder on the scale of the bloodshed at this spot.

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The background to the cemetery is as follows: the Allies invaded Italy from the south in 1943, coinciding with the Italians re-entering the war on the Allied side. The Allies then fought their way up Italy from their landing point in Sicily, but did not succeed in breaking through the German lines until May 1944, when Cassino was finally taken. Cassino  was the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting in the Italian campaign during the Allied advance on Rome and most of those buried in the war cemeteries died in battle during that period.  The number of Commonwealth servicemen buried in the cemetery is 4,271 and 289 of the burials are unidentified. The Cassino Memorial, within the cemetery commemorates over 4000 other servicemen who took part in the Italian campaign but whose graves are unknown.

After my visit, I learned that the comedian Spike Milligan was wounded in action as a lance bombardier at the battle of Monte Cassino and  subsequently evacuated as a psychiatric casualty. His book Monty: his part in my victory is based on his experiences. He was in and out of psychiatric hospital for the rest of his life.

In a BBC interview conducted during events to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the battle of Monte Cassino, which claimed the lives of 200,000 soldiers overall,  Matthew Parker, who interviewed many veterans for his book Monte Cassino: the story of the hardest-fought battle of World War Two stated:

“It’s remembered with great bitterness by people who fought there. Not only because it was incredibly bloody and incredibly hard, but because it’s really been forgotten by a lot of people […] Either you were in the soggy valleys in a foxhole filled with water or you were up in the mountains with the snowstorms […] They can’t actually describe it without breaking down in tears. It was an absolutely ghastly place […] They [psychiatrists] found that all of the frontline soldiers were displaying symptoms, such as shaking, like the ones they were treating in the mental wards […] Effectively the whole place had gone mad. I only met one person who wasn’t wounded or didn’t have some kind of psychological damage.”