Tuscany, a true open-air museum with masterpieces for everyone to enjoy, also offers visitors looking for more several half hidden pearls of stunning beauty created by the best master of all time: Nature.
One of these is the Antro del Corchia, practically a quarry mountain whose notoriety is certainly less impressive than the disturbing fascination it can capture.
The Apuan Alps Park of the Upper Versilia
The many tourists as well as vacationers driving along the motorway that runs parallel to the sea of the Versilia must shift their gaze occasionally from the blue sea to the opposite direction and admire the splendid view of the mountains that rise up toward the sky.
The Apuan Alps, with their white marble quarries, seem to be covered in snow even in the middle of summer and are the perfect stage of tranquil majesty that exalts the enchantment of the sea, accentuating the beauty of this corner of paradise.
But there are still very few people that actually leave behind the long lines of cars along the motorway to head into the mountains.
If you have the opportunity, grab the chance to do so! Set your GPS to guide you up to the small village of Levigliani, a fraction of Stazzema located in the Upper Versilia. This is what I recently did along with several other members of Credimpex (www.credimpex.it) on a cloudy and somewhat wet day of April, a day that turned out to offer several pleasant surprises.
The route takes you along the Porvincial road toward Arni, running along the clear waters of the Vezza Torrent.
The environment then quite suddenly changes. The mountains leave peaceful view of the coast and their majesty stance to show their more suffered and true side. The valleys are narrow and steep with thick woods of green oak and chestnut trees on all sides.
Every so often along the side of the most craggy slopes, there are long roads of large white rocks that have slipped down toward the valley, reminding us that the heart of these lands are made of stone and marble.
If you can resist stopping at every curve to take photographs of the impressive views, you will reach Levigliani, sitting at 600 meters above sea level, in just a matter of short time.
Suggestions for your visit:
The temperature within the cave is constant: 7.6°C (45.7°F) year-round. It is therefore recommended to dress in layers and put several of them on when preparing to enter. Fleece sweaters, even wool, might be good as surely as shoes/boots with a good grip on the soles.
The route through the caves is about 2km long (1.24 miles), with 1500 small and larger steps to climb. The entire route is completed in about 2 hours in the company of a guide.
Adult ticket costs €13, but there are several discounts available, for example for groups. You can also visit the "Mines of the Argento Vivo" by purchasing a combined ticket that will cover both visits.
The small village has one very interesting particularity about it: it is called a comunello, or small commune, an expression that indicates that the city and surrounding lands purchased from the Grand Duke of Tuscany centuries ago by single individuals are managed and shared by all of the citizens equally.
This is nothing new, as the historical roots of this particular type of "commune" actually go all the way back to the Middle Ages. But is also true that very few examples of this type of local "government and ownership" still exist in Italy. The rights as well as responsabilities of such an agreement are inherited, and as the elders in the town explained to us, the condition of residency within the town has to be met in order for it to continue being passed down.
Levigliani offers various things to see, all tied to the mines and to its past as a mining town. Despite its small size, the town has two museums tied to its heritage: the Museum of the Argento Vivo (Live Silver) and the Museum of Pietra Piegata (Bent Rock).
Once we arrive, our group divides into two. The more sedentary ones decide to visit the interesting museum exhibits while 22 of the more adventurous types respond to the demanding call of the Antro del Corchia.
Discovering the Antro del Corchia
You can reach the Antro by catching one of the small shuttle buses that take you from the main parking lot in town to the cavern's entrance, located up at 860 meters above sea level. Groups that arrive in large tourism buses have to park here and take the shuttle as there is no way for the large buses to continue on the narrow roads.
The cavern or system of caverns in the Antro are a "recent" discovery which happened completely on accident. A local was looking for new veins of marble to exploit and was surprised by a strong rush of wind... coming from the ground (or rather from a small hole in the ground)!
This is how the fascinating story began, a story still in progress. It is believed that the network of caverns and ravines actually extend over 70 km (43 miles) underground, most of which have not yet been explored, and with an altitude difference of over 1200 meters (3940 feet).
The Antro's caverns are thus some of the most extensive in the world, due to the presence of calcareous or chalky rocks which are highly soluble and, with a good amount of rain filtering through, have created an increadible karst underground system.
The Antro presents only a few small openings to the outside world which explains why very few traces have been found of human or animal dwellings inside.
The uncontaminated environment is of significant scientific value and has attracted the attention of scientists around the world.
Scientists analyze the rocks to study Earth's climate going back up to three million years to the time of the lifting of the Apuan Alps from the seabed. The Antro is, therefore, a kind of natural archive, comparable in many positive ways to the most expensive expeditions to the depths of the Arctic ice cores.
Visiting the cave
The area that is accessible to tourists is obviously limited in comparison to the entire network of caverns but about two kilometers of trail are open and equipped with steel walkways and safety rails. The itinerary, with all of its stops, takes about two hours and is completed in the company of an expert guide that explains the specific and particular formations one is seeing.
A remarkable job has been accomplished in limiting our human impact on this special environment. The pristine nature of the cliffs has been respected, adapting and restricting the walkways to follow the natural course of the mountain. The type of lights used (cold in this case) also run on timers and only come on when needed.
The temperature inside the cavern is constant at around 8°C (46.4°F), while humidity can exceed 90%.
We end up walking over 1500 steps/small terraces. Some of us worry of our not-so-young joints and how they'll take the climb. In reality, we soon discover the itinerary is very feasible because the steps are not up and down like a staircase, and many steps allow more than one step at a time and alternate with natural, flat stretches over the route. What we do find is necessary is a woolen sweater and lightweight hiking shoes or at least with good rubber soles for traction in the humid environment.
The entrance today comes from an old mine access and harmonized so well with the exterior that when the guide calls it "artificial", you have to look it over several times to be convinced. Along the entrance ramp, three watertight doors are spaced to avoid contact between the inside atmosphere and the outside, which could create incredible rushing winds.
The path begins and right away you're left gaping in amazement at your surroundings. Beyond a massive stalagmite, called "The Gendarme" for its position guarding the cave, you start the descent.
A deep cleft in the rock leads down in the direction we're heading, but if look up, you'll see that the tormented hole starts much higher; you cannot see the beginning, and you wonder if it comes from the very top of the mountain.
The walls are smooth from the water and translucent from the moisture. Artificial lighting, very well positioned, highlights the most unusual and striking forms. Impossible to forget the great "White Eagle with Spread Wings", created by a cluster of stalactites and stalagmites.
The prevailing color within these wonders is light amber with a few inserts of white or red and sometimes even blacks depending on the minerals that dissolved by water over thousands of years.
One enters deeper and deeper. The different "galleries" are not large but rather extensions of the cracks, which as they narrow, start off with zigzag patterns of great scenic effect, showing fascinating views.
Evoking the descent into Dante's Hell seems natural and even a little obvious.
Some Tuscan, fishing between half-rememberd school days and feeling a bit "Benigni" recites aloud: "We go into the suffering city, we go"... with what follows. The source of his pain has been deliberately left unclear, whether it is his knees or feet as we all think about our own source.
As you go deeper into the mountain, the more you get used to the environment even if it is gradually changing and, as the lights and prevalence of light colors abounds, the atmosphere becomes magical. And instead of "Charon the demon with eyes of burning coal", it seems easier to meet up with the Lord of the Rings down here.
Pinnacles, projections, chopped off towers, fantastic creations, crevasses, columns and capitals of marble and rock fill both our gaze and memroy of our cameras despite the ban of their use. For the most naughty, even some giant phallic symbol rises from the ground.
Along the path, ravines and cliffs are visible only up to where the light arrives and then are lost in the darkness. These make us understand that we are only barely touching the beginning of the abyss.
At some point, you almost have a feeling of desecration: some writings appear in black, leading us to believe some uncivilized graffiti artists have come even here.
The sensation disappears when the guide explains that this place, called the "lake of Friday's Gallery", was discovered and so named by a Florentine speleological group that scored the area as a base camp for further explorations. The proximity of water and a few square meters of flat land for the camp made it necessary for the area to be marked in order to recognize the area.
This makes us reflect that while this is a pleasant and convenient walk within this wonder of nature, for some it was a difficult and daring conquest that wasn't without risks.
We also reflect on what the experience must have been like for those that set foot knowing no one else had ever been there before, and what it must feel like when the helmet lights give life to the shadows of stalagmites and stalactites, which come alive and then disappear into the darkness only to suddenly reappear a little bigger and a bit further away.
To do this type of exploration requires great inner strength and a profound passion to be able to control the only too natural anxiety and ancestral fears that come up with the dark.
With this last thought, we can also forgive the unusual lack of imagination of those Florentines that baptized the place with the day of the week in which it was discovered since, for once, they were able to let go of the witty fantasy that is generally recognized as part of their DNA.
We're nearing the final part of our itinerary as we reach the so-called "Gallery of Stalactites," where these formations, even if they are present all the way along our path, here seem to form an almost solid rain falling from above.
The landscape is decidedly quite fairy-tale like. The sound of the small waterfalls of water becomes more intense.
Here and there small pools of clear water are revealed only when a few drops of water hit them, disturbing the surface.
A hut, with the ceiling decorated with small, clear stalactites, immediately conjures up the crib (nativity barn) that was set up here last December.
We begins our return trip with a bit of regret and thought for the climb we have to face, but we also exit with the desire to return in the not too distant future.
Our friend Gabriel ends his role as guardian of the watertight bulkheads, a role assigned by the tour guide at the start of our excursion to "the last one closes the door". At the end, pleased with his professionalism and commitment to carrying out the job, the same guide adds: "passing by, can you also turn off the lights, please?" And so it is done.
Our tour ends in the planned two hours, a good time given our group includes mostly senior and pretty much sedentary bankers.
We climb back on to the shuttle bus for the return trip and once back in Levigliani, we meet back up with the group that visited the museums and head toward the next, well-earned stage of our trip: the restaurant!
Until our next adventure, have a great journey discovering the Antro della Corchia!