Travelling north from Rome on the old Roman road, the Via Flaminia, now known as the SS3, as you approach the town of Rignano Flaminio a large solitary mountain increasingly dominates the horizon. This is Monte Soratte, topped by the village of Sant'oreste, and a short detour to the mountain will reveal some of the many layers of history attached to this place. In Roman times there was a temple atop the mountain to the god, Apollo, but that has long since been replaced by a chapel founded by Saint Sylvester who, according to legend, cured Constantine the Great of leprosy.
More recently, the mountain played a role in the history of the 20th century. The fascist government of Benito Mussolini chose this as the site for what was to be their bomb-proof headquarters in the event of war and so, in 1937, construction started on a network of tunnels. Originally intended to be fourteen kilometres long only four and a half were ever built but what exists is very impressive. Building work ceased in September 1943 with the capitulation of the Italian government in the face of the advancing Allied armies.
The tunnels were then taken over by the German army and became the headquarters of Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring. The bunkers housed over 1,000 German soldiers and they even had a theatre in the tunnels. On May 12th 1944 the American Air Force carried out a raid on the site but with limited success. Every year the Bunker volunteers commemorate this bombing raid and dress up in various uniforms from the war and generally have a lot of fun.
There is also a legend that in 1944 23 tons of gold from the Bank of Italy was hidden in the mountain by the Nazi SS. The gold is allegedly hidden on the south side of the mountain. There were witnesses who saw the crates being driven into the tunnels but the crates were never seen leaving again. According to the villagers, the gold is cursed. A German soldier who had been based in the bunker returned after the war to search for the gold but he was unsuccessful. Days after he returned to Germany he was found beheaded.
After the war the tunnels remained under the control of the Italian Ministry of Defense and between 1967 and 1972 NATO refurbished the tunnels for use as a nuclear bomb shelter. Abandoned in 1989, the site remained secret until 2008.
Today it is a museum run by a team of volunteers and on open days you can visit the tunnels on a guided tour - they also run special photographic tours. On the outside and always open you will see a display of militaria from the Second World War through to the 1980s which is free to enjoy and includes two Sherman tanks. This part of the Bunker Soratte is what is known as a museo difuso. If you’re interested in visiting, visit the website for the Bunker Soratte Association.
If you fancy a stroll around the village itself, pop into the Chiesa di San Biagio which has been reopened to the public again. The church has a corner which has been excavated and here you will see an ancient altar and the skeletons of villagers who died and were buried under the church floor. Tiziana will be happy to give you a guided tour.
The whole of the mountain is now a nature reserve and there are miles of walks and cycle tracks to enjoy amongst the wooded slopes with spectacular views especially over the Tiber valley towards the Sabine mountains. If after all this you need refreshment the village has a plentiful supply of bars and restaurants.
The restaurants range from the Bar Rosa dei Venti which serves a menu cucina casareccia which essentially means home-made food. The food may be simple but it is tasty and their wine selection is pretty good. There is also the option of the Cruscioff Bar which serves pizza alla romana. If you would prefer something a little more, there is Alessandro al Campanile which serves a full fixed price menu so be sure to have a healthy appetite before going. If the weather is good, ask for a table on the rooftop terrace and enjoy the fabulous panorama towards Rome whilst the sun sets over the mountain.