A town high in the mountains between Florence and Bologna has not forgotten how South African soldiers saved its citizens from murderous Gestapo troops.
First published in Business Day, 21 September 2017.
South Africans get a special welcome in Castiglione dei Pepoli, a town high in the Apennine mountains half-way between Bologna and Florence. There is probably nowhere else in Italy where payment for coffee is acknowledged with “Dankie”.
The reason for the special link between South Africa and Castiglione dei Pepoli is a very sad one. In the last week of September 1944, the soldiers of Germany’s Waffen SS began a programme of systematic killing of the women and children of the small villages of the Monte Sole region. The idea was to deny support to the partisans operating out of the forests. Most of those villages are now empty and silent because of those terrifying few days in 1944.
Soldiers of the South African 6th Armoured Division were among the first Allied troops to come across these massacres and are credited with saving many lives. At least 770 civilians were killed in what became known as the Marzabotto massacre, after one of the villages.
Nearby Castiglione dei Pepoli became the base for the South African forces and a military cemetery was established in the town in the winter of 1944. Neil Orpen, in his regimental history of the Prince Alfred’s Guard, describes the massed mountains on which the town sits as “part of a giant wall forming a barrier before Bologna”, a formidable obstacle to the Allied armies trying to fight their way north.
The town’s military museum and the immaculately maintained Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery overlooking the Brasimone Valley are the focus of annual remembrance ceremonies. There is still a palpable sense of gratitude in the town for the sacrifice of the Allied soldiers, seven decades on.
When a new road was built in 2007 to connect Castiglione dei Pepoli to a regional highway, it was named Via 6^ Divisione Sudafricana and a memorial was erected at the entrance to the town. A soldier’s helmet juts out of a simple piece of local stone which records the citizens’ “profound gratitude” for bringing “freedom to our town”.
My visit to Castiglione de Pepoli coincided with a much happier event, the four-day Montagne in Fiera (Mountain Fair) during the last weekend of August. Hundreds of stall-holders and exhibitors were selling everything from raisins to garage-doors. The three vacuum cleaners hanging from the huge awning of one of the trucks pulled up on the Piazza della Libertá were dwarfed by chainsaws and other very varied merchandise. The town’s best English-speaker was selling floor tiles and there was lots of clothing, leather work and jewellery. Ham and cheeses were on display, and pancakes, waffles and ice-cream were big sellers.
At night, Liberty Square – the place where the 6th Division celebrated its second anniversary – was transformed into a music venue. On my first night I heard The Hangover, led by an athletic lady in a red dress, hammer out a rocking version of Johnny Be Good while the second night’s musical fare reminded me more of ‘sakkie-sakkie’. Both were very popular.
Having been to the cemetery in the morning of my first full day in the town and the museum in the late afternoon, I couldn’t help noticing the number of young men pushing prams and enjoying the company of their wives and girlfriends. I kept seeing in my head the ages on the headstones in the cemetery: 24, 22, 19. One private, C.C. Brassler, was just 18 when he was laid to rest.
The freedom we enjoy today was won at a high price.
Of the 502 white headstones arranged between sloping manicured lawns and red and white roses in the cemetery, 401 pay tribute to South Africans who lost their lives in the final stages of World War II. Italy had surrendered in September 1943 but Germany continued fighting on Italian soil until May 1945, just days before the war in Europe officially ended.
SS Major Walter Reder, who directed the massacres, was tried in 1951 and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was released in 1985 and died in 1991. The man who gave Reder the licence to go “beyond the normal limits of warfare”, Field Marshall Kesselring, was sentenced to death after the war, but this was changed to life imprisonment. He was released on health grounds in 1952 and died in 1960.
FLIGHTS: I flew with Qatar Airways to Rome and then took a train to northern Italy, but you can fly to Florence from Cape Town and Johannesburg with Swiss Air (via Zurich), Lufthansa (via Frankfurt) and KLM (via Amsterdam). Air France connects through Paris out of Johannesburg. South Africans need a Schengen visa to visit Italy.
LOCAL TRAVEL: If you want to visit more than one site on Monte Sole, you should hire a car. There is a regional train service linking Bologna and Prato (north of Florence) with a stop at San Benedetto. A local bus takes you up the mountain. The two-hour bus trip from Bologna shows off the countryside very well, and illustrates why Italian cyclists are good at hill climbing, but busses are infrequent. Castiglione dei Pepoli is about 60km from both Bologna and Florence.
ACCOMMODATION: The Albergo Il Ponte is excellent value for money and serves wonderful food. My room was small but it had a good-sized bathroom and a superb four-course dinner with two glasses of wine cost about the same as an ice-cream and two cups of coffee in Florence. Telephone +39 053491092 and www.albergo-ilponte.it
MORE INFORMATION: The late South African opposition politician Colin Eglin wrote about Castiglione dei Pepoli in his memoir, Crossing the borders of power. His war medals are on display in the town’s museum, together with some text and a photograph of Eglin with Nelson Mandela. Jack Olsen’s book on the massacre, Silence on Monte Sole, tells the story from the viewpoint of the villagers. Italy’s Sorrow: A Year of War; 1944-45 (James Holland) describes the grim Italian Campaign in which more than a million Italians died, as did 536 000 Germans and 313 000 Allied soldiers. He draws on a wide variety of sources on both sides of the conflict.
Italian Tourism: www.italia.it
Emilia-Romagna Tourism Board: www.emiliaromagnaturismo.com