Northern Italy is pretty much all jaw-dropping beautiful. We had been driving through green alpine valleys, stopping often to stand and look in awe at the craggy mountains above and the ice-blue river we were following. Leaving the stunning River Cellina valley we followed the Torrente Cimoliana to the pretty village of Cimolais, all the time making a note to come this way again. We drove over the Passo di Sant’Osvaldo coming down to the village of Erto. Ahead I could see a scoured hillside, devoid of trees or vegetation, this certainly looked out of place. We stopped the ‘van to take it in, at first wondering if this was a quarry but quickly realising the mountainside was too steep for such activity. The scale of the ‘M-shaped’ scar on the hillside was hard to take in but we realised we were looking at a landslide. What we didn’t realise at that moment was how devastating the landslide had been. We had stumbled upon the Vajont Dam and the legacy of the disaster that occurred here on the night of 9 October 1963.
The Vajont Dam, a 265-meter high arch dam was in 1963 considered an amazing construction that created a large reservoir in the mountain valley. The dam was well built and still stands as it withstood the unprecedented destructive power of that night. On the 9 October 1963 a huge slice of the mountain slid in to the reservoir behind the dam. Around 260 million cubic metres of rock hit the water and this created a massive wave that breached the Vajont Dam, the displaced water rising high and pouring with unimaginable force in to the Piave valley below, gaining speed all the while.
We stopped below the Alpine village of Casso that clings to the mountainside. From here we could see the scar on the flank of Monte Toc and look down on the Vajont Dam that stands as a memorial to the thousands who lost their life. We walked below Monte Toc trying to take in the scale of this avoidable disaster. As the dam was planned and built many people warned about the geological instability of the area and the risk from the dam but corrupt and powerful institutions failed to listen.
We drove down the mountainside to the town of Longarone. This lovely town is below the dam and in 1963 it was flattened by the tsunami of water that poured over the dam. In the moving museum in the basement of the modern church there are photographs showing the aftermath and the names of people who died. It is estimated that around 2,000 people were killed that night and I thought about all those lives cut short.
Although I left feeling somber, I was glad we had stopped to learn about this disaster that has left its mark on this beautiful landscape.
For photographs of the reservoir and the destruction of the landslide take a look here. Today the Parco Naturale Dolomiti Friulane has been created to bring tourism back to this incredible and beautiful area.