Going deeper underground

Caving in Tuscany’s Apuan Alps

Aliette Boshier
October 11, 2012

So you've traipsed around the Uffizi, eaten a gelato on the Ponte Vecchio, admired the view of the Tuscan countryside from one of San Gimignano's towers, but have you really seen everything that Italy has to offer? The bel paese may have cornered the market in artistic marvels and gastronomic delights, but it has more to offer than would first appear. Caving-known as ‘potholing' by the Brits and ‘spelunking' across the pond-is practised the length and breadth of Italy, from the warm horizontal caves of Sicily to the great cold abysses of the Veneto. The Italian peninsula is a land of majestic mountain ranges formed over millions of years of tectonic activity, making it the perfect place for the enthusiastic caver. Beneath Italy's surface are hundreds of miles of cave systems, only a fraction of which have been explored by man.


Speleology, to call it by its proper name, is the scientific study of caves. However, those first intrepid men and women who braved the dark depths and choking passages to map out the world beneath our feet have given way to an equally fearless bunch who venture underground for fun. Today, speleology and caving exist side by side. Using many of the same physical skills, cavers often assist scientists in their studies, such as attaching temperature sensors, measuring water flow and monitoring local bat colonies (I have heard of cavers having to navigate through them, Indiana Jones-style, as they fly out of a cave entrance. Most of the time, however, the bats keep to themselves and should certainly not be disturbed during their hibernation months, as to do so can be fatal-for the bat, not the caver). 


If you've ever travelled the tortuous roads of the Apuan Alps in Northern Tuscany, you have probably noticed the colourful lycra and rock-solid calf muscles of the area's cyclists as they wind their way up the mountains. What you may not have spotted, however, are the muddy four-wheel drives parked in secluded corners, a sure sign that cavers are about. Most good-sized Italian towns have a caving group, and Tuscany is no exception. Every weekend, cavers from Florence, Pisa, Lucca, Versilia, Pistoia and elsewhere make their way to the Apuan Alps or further afield to teach new students, map a cave system or explore the depths. Ask them what drives them to do it and you'll probably get something along the lines of Rutger Hauer's speech at the end of the film, Blade Runner: ‘I've seen things you people wouldn't believe ...'


Cavers are something of a rarefied bunch, and not without good reason: it takes guts, training and experience to do what they do. They're fiercely loyal to their individual groups and a certain amount of competitiveness goes with the territory. But get them all together and they'll happily head up an expedition, followed by the obligatory feast dalla Piera in Levigliani, affectionately known as ‘la madre degli speleo'. Italians to the end, the main object of finishing a day's hard caving is always the prospect of some decent grub.


So, what does it actually take to be a caver and what can you expect to see once you venture below ground and into your first cave? Well, first of all, no caving group in Italy will let you near a cave without having completed the Club Alpino Italiano (CAI) introductory course. This usually takes about a month, depending on the group, and involves up to eight theory lessons and eight practical sessions, including cave outings. The aim of the course is to understand the nature of the territory into which you're venturing (fun fact: caves have no natural odour), the equipment, what to wear (average temperatures are 8 degrees Celsius but can be cooler), what to eat, and most importantly, how to move in the cave. Cavers generally wear a sort of waterproof oversuit with thermal layers underneath. Footwear is sturdy boots, while the most important piece of equipment, aside from the climbing aids and ropes, is a safety helmet and headlamp.


What might not be obvious about caving is that it requires a firm head for heights, something which I was woefully lacking in when I started out. With the walking, crawling and scrabbling through tight spaces, one might assume that claustrophobia is the main problem, but the greater part of progression in the cave is done by rappelling and climbing. Sometimes the drops, or pozzi as they're known in Italian, are a couple of metres, sometimes hundreds, so you have to be at home with the idea of hanging around in the dark (a headlamp and a back-up are de rigeur, but turn them off and you'll experience true darkness), dropping yourself down great heights, and most importantly of all, climbing back up again. Caving is very much a group activity (for safety reasons as much as social), but at the end of the day you really do have to take your life in your own hands and be able to hold your nerve. Speleologists take safety very seriously and experienced cavers will tell you that a little fear is always a good thing, if only to help you concentrate on what you're doing.


That said, what drives them to do it? Well, apart from the fact that it is extremely fun, there are few other activities in the world that allow you to explore uncharted territory. Nevertheless, not all expeditions can be exploratory ones, but there is plenty to admire in the more well-known caves. The caves of the Apuan Alps and Monte Pisano also have fantastic names, such as Vavavuma! (exclaimed by the caver who first discovered it), Belfagor (a Machiavellian demon), and La Buca delle Fate (literally, Fairy Hole). The cave systems of the Apuan Alps are predominantly made up of marble and are truly spectacular to behold, both outside and from within: there are underground lakes as clear as a mountain stream, immense stalagmites and stalactites, strange insects, sandy beaches, and twinkling crystal walls. Believe me, this is the closest you'll get to another world without buying a ticket on Branson's space shuttle.


I will let you in on a little secret. Do you know what the best part of caving is? It's coming back up to the surface. There's nothing like emerging onto the face of the mountain on a dark winter's night, the wind whistling through the entrance, the stars above you and every smell and sound magnified a hundred times. It's like being reborn.



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