To escape sizzling summer temperatures seek shelter… underground. There are many spectacular caves to visit in Abruzzo: some of them offer easy short itineraries; others, less accessible, appeal to thrill seekers.
There are more than 500 explored caves in Abruzzo and each has something unique to offer. “The Grotta Nera in Pennapiedimonte, in the Parco Nazionale della Majella, is one of very few in the world made of Moonmilk, a type of white creamy calcite substance,” explained to me Ezio Burri, professor from L’Aquila University and a former president of the Speleological Association of Abruzzo when I talked to him two years ago. “There are also many smaller caverns which served as shelters for prehistoric tribes, as well as caves used for centuries as hermitages by monks. New caves, big and small, are found in Abruzzo regularly, with many of them are still waiting to be discovered.”
Part of a large natural reserve which covers over 100 hectares, this underground system is among the most beautiful caves to visit in Abruzzo that will make you feel like a real explorer-speleologist. Two caves, Grotta del Cervo and Grotta dell’Ovito can be visited on guided tours. Both are a fascinating labyrinth of stalactites and stalagmites, lakes, streams and narrow corridors. The Grotta del Cervo is 2.5km long and was discovered only in the 1980s. Scientists were delighted to find here a treasure-trove of materials to study: ancient Roman coins from the 4th century, as well as bones of a bear, lynx, cave lion and deer, all dating back to the Pleistocene, the geological epoch that lasted from about 2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago.
You can choose from three types of itineraries: a basic tourist one (suitable for children and adults), which lasts one hour; a longer, more adventurous one which will take you deeper in the cave and require walking in straight corridors and knee-deep water; and, the ultimate adventure itinerary lasting eight hours, that requires some mental and physical fitness. On longer routes you will be able to see 11 colonies of resident bats. All necessary equipment is provided.
Address: Carsoli (AQ), Via del Popolo. Enter “Riserva Naturale Grotte di Pietrasecca” in Google Maps to get there.
Opening hours: vary depending on the month. In summer, there are four entrance slots: 9am, 11.30am, 3pm and 5pm. Check the opening times for each cave on the website. Booking is required. Tickets from €12 to €90 depending on the itinerary. See the tours descriptions (in Italian) here.
One of the region’s main tourist attractions, the Grotte di Stiffe, registers up to 600 visitors per day in summer months. Even the current pandemic has not dampened people’s curiosity and, since the lockdown finished two months ago, more than 6000 tourists visited the cave.
The length of the cave is 2.6km but most of it remains unexplored, with the tourist itinerary running for 700 metres through caverns along the underground stream. In the Sala della Cascata you’ll see a magnificent waterfall dropping from a height of 20 metres, at its best and fullest in spring. In the oldest part of the cave glistens the 5-metres-deep Black Lake. Here the guide can show you bat fossils uncastrated in calcareous formations. The visit lasts about one hour and is suitable for both children and adults. The temperature in the cave is always around +10C, so bring a warm jacket.
Make sure you have a face mask and gloves (you’ll have to wear them during your tour as the rails in the cave cannot be cleaned with disinfectants).
Address: San Demetrio Nè Vestini (AQ). The location is well signposted. Enter “Grotte di Stiffe” in your Google Maps for directions.
Opening hours: April 1 – October 15 from 10am to 6pm, October 16 – March 31 from 10am to 5pm. Some guides speak basic English. Booking is required by calling at 333 7851582, 0862 810834 or online. Tickets: €10.
Grotta del Cavallone
Like many caves in Abruzzo, the Grotta del Cavallone provided shelter to men in pre-historic times and, later, to many shepherds. First explored in the mid-17th century, it became the second cave in Italy to be turned into a tourist attraction, in 1893. The Grotta del Cavallone extends for more than two kilometres and is divided into a main gallery and several smaller caverns with lakes, tunnels, underground pools and magnificent stalactites and stalagmites. The itinerary is about an hour long.
Located near Lama dei Peligni at an altitude of 1300 metres, the cave is accessed via cable car, which is an adventure in itself. They are more like cable “baskets” that were more common in the old days, so the ride is certainly not for the faint-hearted. If you are lucky, you might spot a pair of golden eagles that live in this part of the Valle di Taranta.
The cave is re-opening after a major rehaul of the cableway on August 6. Book your tickets online.
Reached by an easy trail from the small village of Bolognano, the Grotta Scura is small but fascinating, with breath-taking panoramic views over the Orta Valley. Archaeologists have found evidence of a Neolithic Age settlement in the cave. The main part of the Grotta Scura is gated, so you would need to hire a guide or visit it with an organised group. Once you get deeper into the cave, the guide will show you microbial colonies that glow silver in the dark and can only be seen if you have an LED lamp on your helmet. To book a visit, contact Majambiente at 0039 085922343 or send a WhatsApp message to 0039 347 0367084. For organised group visits, check their online calendar.
Aspiring speleologists and adventurous types can visit many other fascinating caves accompanied by expert guides. Speleologist Valerio Natarelli has visited a good deal of them. “As a speleologist specialising in archaeology, I love the Grotta dei Callarelli, Grotta del Mortaio and Grotta Riparo,” he admits. “They are all located in the Orta Valley and used to be frequented by prehistoric men.” He says one of the latest discoveries, the Grotta della Lupa in Roccamorice, is also magnificent but is still being explored and only speleologists with experience can tackle it. To arrange a private caving adventure, contact one of the registered speleological guides listed here. Based on your level of fitness and experience, the knowledgeable guides will suggest the most suitable caves and plan your visit.
By Anna Lebedeva