As part of a tour called Forever Italy, veterans of the 10th Mountain Division, along with their descendants and friends, have the opportunity to travel through Italy and visit sites where the Division fought in World War II. I am fortunate to have been invited on the tour this year by the 10th Mountain Division Foundation. While I had originally planned to blog throughout the trip, limited internet access has delayed my posting until today.
We made a few stops on our way north to the mountain towns of Italy where the 10th Mountain Division was so influential, the first being the city of Orvieto. Underneath the city of Orvieto, Italy lie over 1,200 hand-dug caves which had been lost until the late 1970s.
Construction materials are scarce in the area, so early builders learned to excavate stone from the ground for building houses. Two types of stone were found in abundance: hard tuffa, which could be carved into bricks, and softer compressed volcanic ash which could be mixed into cement. It was soon realized that by building a home directly on top of the excavated land, homeowners were provided with a private cave for their own use.
Originally dug by the Etruscans over 2500 years ago, the caves were used for food and wine storage, as access to water wells, and even as homes for breeding pigeons. During medieval times, some of the caves were expanded and used for olive oil production. Giant presses and grindstones were kept underground and powered by donkeys who were tethered to the wheels. Olives were ground with the stones inside, as the pit is where the most oil can be found.
Until World War II, the caves were not used for security or safety, but at the same time the 10th Mountain Division was making its way north through Italy in 1945, many residents of the area found they were in need of security and shelter from bombs, and so to their caves they fled.
Today, all but two of the caves are privately owned. The two that are not privately owned are the largest, and are open to the public.
Visit Denver Public Library's Western History and Genealogy website for more information about the 10th Mountain Division.
To read more about the hidden caves of Orvieto and their discovery, see Underground Orvieto.