The Tuscan underground isn’t an alternative life-style movement or a revolutionary cell or even another rapid-transit system. It’s just a way of telling one that what one sees on the surface around here is only half (or even less than half) the story – a sort of tip of the iceberg, if you like. In particular, the karst area of the Apuan Alps has some of the largest cave systems in the world. At least two of them, the Antro Del Corchia and the Grotta Del Vento are easily accessible to non-speleologist with full tourist facilities and, in the case of the Grotta Del Vento, up to three different tours to choose from.
These labyrinths are truly spectacular with magnificent limestone features including stalagmites, stalactites, underground rivers and bottomless abysses – indeed, a quasi-Vernian journey to the centre of the earth. There are many other cave systems in this area, some still waiting to be discovered and some rather more modest in scale.
As a non-speleologist I’m wary of finding myself literally in the dark in a situation where I can’t find the exit! However, there are some caverns I love exploring. One of them is popularly called la Grotta delle Fate but more officially known as the “Buca di Castelvenere”. and can be accessed by foot, either from Cardoso or from the road between Vallico di sotto and Vallico di Sopra. The path is a pleasant, mostly woodland, walk with, above you, the soaring cliffs of Monte Penna which would, if better signposted, tempt rock-climbers or hang-gliders from all over the world.
Some of the old chestnuts along the path have quite amazing distortions
The cavern of Castelvenere, locally known also as “Capelvenere”, “Casteltendine” or “Cascaltendine”, opens, at a height of 650 m., on the south-eastern side of Mount Penna’s south-eastern side. In the Turrite Cava valley tributary on the right bank of the down flowing Serchio. Archaeological excavations have revealed artefacts dating back to at least the Etruscan age showing that the cave was once the centre of a fertility cult connected with the stream that flows out of it. Women who wished to become pregnant would take part in a ceremony involving the waters in this mysterious and evocative place.
Some of the finds from here are on display in the archaeological museum in Castelnuovo di Garfagnana’s Rocca Ariostesca – they mainly consist of amulets which the celebrants would wear and then throw into the waters to be blessed. The walk to the Buca di Castelvenere can be combined with the footpath leading to the top of Monte Penna (easily recognizable from the Serchio valley because of its almost sheer southern and northern flanks – a sort of Pietra Bismantova for these parts) where you come to a big metal cross from which there are marvellous views all along the Serchio valley. On the way up you pass through the delightful alpeggio of San Luigi – a summer alpine pasture where delicious sheep’s cheese is produced at the local farm. If one feels energetic one can also take the path to the top of Monte Palodina which starts from the same place.
Another cave that can be visited is the Tana che Urla on the path up from Fornovolasco to the Monte Forato. It’s useful to know where these are as they can make an excellent refuge and a way of avoiding being struck by lightning when a sudden summer storm rises up! PS All the above photos were taken in July 2005 – when I first discovered these beautiful places.