If you put a pin right in the middle of a map of Italy, you’re likely to hit Amatrice. A small, historic city known as “the town of the hundred churches,” it lies two hours from Rome and 3,280 feet above sea level, in the scenic Gran Sasso National Park, on the watershed between the Adriatic and the Tyrrhenian Seas. The area straddles four of our most famous regions: Lazio, Abruzzo, Marche and Umbria. Amatrice is the centerpiece of picture-postcard Italy, for those who find Tuscany too obvious, Rome too noisy and Venice too crowded.
And in the space of just one summer’s night, Amatrice is all but gone.
So are the nearby villages of Accumoli and Pescara del Tronto, wiped out by a 6.2 magnitude earthquake that struck central Italy early Wednesday, killing at least 160 people, including children, trapping scores more under debris, leaving thousands homeless and setting off tremors that were felt from Bologna to Naples.
Today, according to one witness, “The area looks like Dante’s Inferno.” But until yesterday it looked like paradise. A lovely corner of the country. Ancient, unspoiled hilltop villages — for many foreigners, the quintessence of their Italian fantasies. For us Italians, a source of pride.
The quake struck Amatrice and the surrounding area at 3:36 a.m. — amazingly, almost the exact same time as the one that devastated L’Aquila and Abruzzi in 2009, which killed over 300. Some of the dead, this time, were tourists. Travelers go to Amatrice in August for the mild climate, an evening stroll and spaghetti all’amatriciana — a dish famous all over the world, invented by local shepherds in the Middle Ages.
This week, the town was getting ready for the 50th annual festival dedicated to the celebrated sauce. Luckily, most visitors had left for the night. But the Hotel Roma had 70 guests, and at the time of writing they are unaccounted for.
We all forget — visitors and residents alike — that Italy is a stunning but shaky land. Since 1861, when the country was unified, there have been 35 major earthquakes and 86 smaller ones. Every region has been hit. Over 70,000 people lost their lives in an earthquake that struck Messina, Sicily, in 1908. The island was hit again in 1968; Friuli in 1976, Campania in 1980, Abruzzo in 2009, Emilia in 2012. The Apennine mountain range, the geological spine of Italy, has been repeatedly battered.