People enjoy making lists of the ten most un-missable sights in the World – sights for which effort must definitely be made to visit before one buys it. For me one of these ten (I’m not giving away the other nine as yet) is the USA’s Grand Canyon which I visited, and descended into, the fateful year that Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison disappeared from this planet.
L’orrido (gorge) di Botri is labelled as Tuscany’s answer to the Grand Canyon. It is of course nothing like it. Where the Grand Canyon is built on an almost supernatural scale and was formed by the gradual rising of the Colorado plateau over millions of years through which the Colorado river was forced to erode its way, the Orrido di Botri is on a much smaller scale and is an almost vertical-sided gorge caused by a seismic fault through which the Pelago stream flows.
We’ve enjoyed doing various stretches of the gorge on a number of occasions and the experience is awesome, even a little scarily claustrophobic in parts. It’s not advisable to do it outside the summer season (in fact you won’t be allowed to) as the stream can flood and wash you away if you haven’t already been frozen by the waters which are pretty cold the whole year round.
There is a forestry hut near the entrance at Ponte a Gaio where you pay an entrance fee of Euros 2 and receive a hard hat – absolutely essential if your skull is not to be pranged by stones kicked down by the wild goats above you. Footwear is also a problem, as much of the trail is through water reaching sometimes to your knees. I find a pair of sneakers with very good gripping soles, and worn without socks, is best, for the problem, apart from the falling rocks is the sheer slipperiness of the trail. On one occasion we noticed a helicopter hovering above us which had been called to lift a lady to the hospital after she’d slipped from a boulder and broken her arm.
You can tackle l’orrido in various stretches. From Ponte a Gaio you go down into the torrent and start the path. You can avoid wetting your feet in the water, hopping from stone to stone, but sooner or later you’ll get them wet! After half an hour you reach the Guado (ford) which is the most well-known section of the Orrido since it is at this point that you can stretch your arms and touch both sides of the gorge. After that you come to the first waterfall which you can get round using an attached steel rope. The way now requires a little more attention: a second waterfall is more difficult to get by but another steel rope on the left side of a large boulder helps you on your swishy way.
You have to keep your hands on this rope moving sideways with caution, and above all, pressing your feet against the rock by keeping them on the same level, otherwise you could easily fall into the water, which here is five or six metres deep. Even is summer it’s not very warm!
This is the most difficult part of the normal trail open to the public. You could now splash your way in the Pelago or, alternatively, climb up to one side of it provided, of course, that you are careful not to slip into the stream as there’s plenty of moss around. Here the gorge sides are very high and steep and the sun’s rays don’t penetrate, thus leaving you in a moist gloom. You eventually (if you haven’t given up already) meet up with two large boulders, one above the other. Here you turn left and continue on the path until, at about 3 hours from the start, you get to where the Rio Ribellino and the Rio Mariana come together and become the Rio Pelago.
At this stage you have to be a disciple of Bonnington to go any further, (remember the rescue services will cost you a pretty packet if they think you have been imprudent), but the surroundings are fabulous. In front there is a magnificent waterfall which is a challenge for even experienced rock-climbers with its very wet and virtually vertical face.
Needless to say we haven’t tackled this stretch which eventually would bring one back to the top of the gorge….
The flora and fauna of the orrido is quite unique . from the golden eagles you can sometimes see above going to their nests to the myriad variety of mosses, flowers and ferns at your sides.
No wonder Dante considered the Orrido di Botri as the gates of Hell – a sublime terror but also filled with an unearthly beauty, gripping one within it and remaining long afterwards to haunt one’s dreams.
PS The photos included in this post date from 2005 and 2007.