Friday, February 27, 2009

The Underworld

Last week we journeyed into the underworld. I know what you're thinking. I'm now ensconced in southern Italy. The rampant rumors of crime, chaos and (shh) mafiosi must be true and evident. Truth is, I have no idea. I've never encountered anyone that seemed particularly sleazy or underhanded, unless you count the Guardia di Finanza officers, who are loathed by all.

No, no. I'm talking about a different underworld. As in, underground. We paid a visit to the Grotte di Castelcivita and entered into the belly of the mountain. When you marry a guy with a degree in Geology you just know that caves and rocks are going to be a part of your life. So when Bryan saw mentions of a cavern system in the nearby mountains, it was quickly put on his must-see list.

We passed beautiful villages sunning on the hillsides and followed a river gorge bursting with pastel almond and vibrant mimosa blossoms. The sign, once we actually reached the entry point, was so obscure we missed it and had to turn around.

We arrived to find the ticket booth vacant, but I figured the guy standing over by the roadside must be an employee and walked over to ask about seeing the caves. "Shi, shi...aperta." Yes, it's open...wait a few minutes and I'll be right with you. We sauntered up the road to a coffee bar for another shot of caffeine, because we have found that the old saying is correct: the further south you go, the better the coffee gets.

No one else showed up and the man pulled out his keys and unlocked the gate. We walked into a hole in the mountain and found ourselves in an intricate network of fantasy-like natural sculptures. The ceiling was dripping liquid minerals, still creating the formations. Little ponds were full of delicate, shimmering crystals. "Guarda i diamanti," look at the little diamonds, he pointed out. Of course, if they were real diamonds I wouldn't be working as a guide, he said laughingly. He let me dip my finger into one of the natural cup-shaped pools and gently touch the crystals.

The cavern was long and descended into the earth. It was not grand and awe-striking like Frasassi, with enormous rooms large enough to house a cathedral inside. Instead, it was more intimate feeling, more mysterious. It was dimly lit which made it feel otherworldly. Since we were the only visitors, we felt like we were exploring it ourselves, the first to uncover this 'new' underworld. We were able to get up close and personal with the varied colors and shapes of the creations, sculpted by the subterranean river and amassed by trickling mineral deposits. The guide explained how new channels continue to be discovered and existing formations continue to grow. He tapped on one ribbon-like stalactite that emitted a resonant bell tone. Bryan was in heaven. It was the most interesting cave tour I've ever experienced, and believe me, I've been through my share.

The guide was obviously passionate about the area in general and the cavern in particular. As we exited back to the upper world and the light of day, he directed us to a trail down to the river and a restaurant for lunch.

Up above was the ancient town of Castelcivita, clutching desperately at the rock massif. Narrow pedestrian alleys made up the street system, climbing, bending, and descending. A huge dog befriended us and motioned for us to follow him. His owner called out from his shop doorway that "lui e` il guida turistica" (he's the local tour guide). "Dai! Vai a lavoro!" Go on, get to work, he told the dog. Our new pal lopped along, stopping and leaning against us for a pat on the head now and then, and guided us to the church of San Niccolo` (St. Nicholas) and then sat down outside the door. We went inside for a look-see while he waited for us.

When we came out he scrambled to his feet, let out a little bark, and bounded down the street, then down an uneven narrow stone staircase to an alley-street below. He took us past once-glorious palazzi, and we peeked into courtyards; when we stopped to look at the view, our guide-dog sat down and waited for us. After about 20 minutes he showed us back to the little piazza where we had started out and laid down, his work-day done. We thanked his owner for the great guide, patted him affectionately (the dog, not the owner), and headed on our way.

In one day trip we visited the underworld, as well as a lofty ancient town, with fantastic guided visits of both.

1 comment:

Laura said...

Ciao Valerie! Thanks for the comment and for telling me about your blog. I look forward to reading it! Grazie! Thanks for your great list of Italy blogs, too. I have been wanting to drive down and explore the Cilento coast. How long have you been there? It looks lovely!