Italian and iconic, but famously fragile: that’s an apt description for some places in Italy that should be the near top of any Italy-bound traveler’s must-see list. Did you know that Italy has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other country? The wealth of culture here is truly astounding. And, because Italy’s UNESCO sites and other historical treasures tend have cultural significance that extends far beyond the borders of Italy itself, when they are in jeopardy, people around the world tend to heed the call (case in point: following the highly destructive Abruzzo earthquake in 2009, centered in L’Aquila, Madonna reached out with a $500,000 check to assist the region her ancestors come from).
And scenic Abruzzo points up something else that sets Italy apart from some of its European neighbors: it’s got its faults – mainly of the seismic variety. Much of the country is at the geological intersection of the Eurasian and African plates, making periodic earthquakes and volcanic eruptions as much a certainty as gelato is the world’s ultimate comfort food. In fact, just thinking about delicious Sicilian or Florentine gelato makes it difficult to stay on-topic…did you know, by the way, that the very name “Italy” has roots that are related to cows? Tasty and true.
But thoughts of sweet, creamy and often chocolaty gelato momentarily aside, back to geology. There are places in Italy as fragile as they are famous, so make plans to see them sooner rather than later, and you’ll be richly rewarded. Here you go:
We owe our ability to visit the ruins of Pompei to the destruction wrought by Mount Vesuvius in AD79. But one thing people tend to forget is that ruins themselves are fragile. And Pompeii, a vast site that has yet been only partially explored, is a prime example. In 2010, torrential rains caused the Schola Armaturarum, or Gladiators’ House, and the House of the Moralist, to collapse. As in, finito. Now, restoration work is in progress, but fixing up the ruins of a ruin is no easy task. And further evidence that the sooner you can set about making an inspection of Pompeii on your own, the better.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa
Between 1990 and 2008, the world’s most famous unintentionally leaning tower was closed to the public. It was not deemed stable enough to accommodate visitors. Thanks to various tricks of engineering, the tower has been deemed not only stable, but actually has stopped tilting. But despite assurances that it’s good to go for another 200 years, there’s no changing the fact that the top still sticks out more than a dozen feet from where it would it if the structure were perfectly straight. We wouldn’t wait.
Historic Assisi is a town in the Perugia province in Umbria, and is famously the birthplace of St. Francis, one of Italy’s two patron saints. Fittingly, it’s most famous attraction is the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi. Little wonder that a church built in the 13th century would succumb to the ravages of Mother Nature sooner or later, and an earthquake in 1997 did more than shake things up: it caused part of the vault to collapse, killing four, and taking a priceless medieval fresco along with it. The church has since been repaired and you can see the frescoes by Giotto and Cimabue in all their splendor. But there’s no getting around that Assisi sits on fragile ground. Go now.
Of all the sights to see in the Mediterranean Sea, there are two that could be considered positively spectacular: the island of Santorini in Greece, and a bit to the west, the Italian island of Stromboli. One of the Aeolian Islands, Stromboli is basically one giant, very active volcano. Beaches on the island come in one color: black. The craters at its summit tower more than 3,000 feet above sea level and Stromboli spits fire virtually every night. Geologists have the mad mountain under constant surveillance, but Stromboli is no nice guy when it comes to geological stability. Make friends with him while you still can.
Now for the most famously fragile Italian of them all: Venice. Is Venice sinking? Certainly, saying one can keep the sea away from Venice is like saying you can keep us away from a good scoop of gelato – never gonna happen. In point of fact, one of the chief causes of Venice’s gradual submergence in the past – the construction of artesian wells at the lagoon’s edge – is no longer, as the wells are no longer in use. However, the acqua alta, or “high water” caused by periodic low-level flooding, still threatens the city. And it’s not at all clear if the the Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico (or MOSE) project, which relies on a series of inflatable pontoons to prevent water from the Adriatic from rushing in at three entrances to the lagoon, will work.
All of which makes Venice a pretty delicate wonder, and a good reason to plan your Venetian visit now. But we also wonder, Does anyone really need a reason to visit Venice?