By Albert Oetgen, Managing editor, NBC News Washington
L'AQUILA, ITALY -- You first see this city from up high as you wind around a mountain highway and this is what you think: It's a city in a bowl.
It's name means "The Eagle," and there is plenty of room for eagles to soar here. L'Aquila is encircled by enormous ridges that are part of the Appenines, that "spine" of mountains that grade-schoolers learn runs down the middle of the boot of Italy.
It's a lovely place, this bowl, set in a fertile valley and protected by those mountains -- a safe and secure place that played a strategically important role in the medieval struggle for control of central Italy.
L'Aquila is not big and famous like Milan, or Venice, or Florence. It is not even a small but famous place like Assisi. But it is Italy. The real Italy. There is a university here, not a world-famous one, but one where Italian families confidently send their children for a good education. There is a ski resort in the distance, one frequented not by deep-pocketed Americans or Europeans, but by ordinary Italians who live within an hour or two.
We are here because of an earthquake, and we are here because of Italian politics. But we are really here because of history.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi decided this was the place where he would host a meeting of the leaders of the G8 -- the successors to the leading industrial powers that assigned themselves the task of coordinating the world economy about 25 years ago and find themselves struggling for control today, as the rest of the world catches up and begins to pass them by -- so they could see the strength and resilience of the people of L'Aquila, and perhaps agree to lend them a hand.
Some of the people here for the meeting have complained about the location. They say Berlusconi is grandstanding (as if that's unusual among politicians), it's too isolated (as if economies only matter in big, international banking centers), the hotels are inadequate (oh, please).
And they've worried about aftershocks.
Now THAT is something they ought to worry about.
The bowl that contains L'Aquila is actually an ancient lakebed. From a remote past recorded in the layers of rock and soil that remain, the lake dictates what this place is today. The biology of it -- the detritus of thousands of years of aquatic plants and animals -- explains the fertile valley. Its geology -- the inherent instability that water brings to these mountain ranges -- accounts for the earthquakes.
The earthquake that led to holding this meeting here happened in April. It was a 6.3 on the Richter scale and killed more than 300 people. An aftershock on Friday measured 4.1.
At least a dozen tremors have shaken the town since the G8 leaders, their sprawling entourages, and the yawping maw of world media began to arrive in earnest on Tuesday. Magnitudes ranged from 2.0 to 2.8, big enough for a mention on the local news in Los Angeles if it had happened in Tehachapi.
The G8 traffics in ponderous statements and lengthy papers. Reporters here say the earthquake evacuation plan for the presidents and prime ministers dwarfs those documents and rivals them in complexity and detail.
It should. Earthquakes have defined this town. A short list of big quake years here includes 1315, 1349 (when Europe was being slaughtered by plague, L'Aquila suffered earthquakes for good measure), 1452, 1461, 1501, 1646, 1703, 1706, 1786, 1958 and 2009.
Some of the older churches have been destroyed and rebuilt two and three times over. The 1703 quake destroyed a structure called Rocca Calascio, said to be the highest fortress in Europe. Three-thousand people died. The pope, Clement XI, ordered the town repopulated. Just 80 years later, another quake killed 6,000 people. L'Aquila rebuilt again. The pope didn't need to issue an order.
On a hillside above town, a huge message looms in white letters: Yes We Camp, a reference to the fact that some of the residents are living in tents three months after the earthquake of 2009. The message captures the spirit of the people here. It's meant as an appeal to the Americans, a twist on Barack Obama's "Yes We Can" campaign slogan. But it's also a message that resonates through the centuries. L'Aquila will do what it has to do. L'Aquila will survive. The history of L'Aquila is one of persistence and renewal.
Italian politics notwithstanding, by bringing world leaders here for this meeting, Mr. Berlusconi has paid honor to a place that has earned it.