Genga is a charming little medieval town located at the heart of Marche, Eastern Italy. Situated 60km from Ancona, the capital of Marche, the town isn’t perhaps the first place one would visit in the popular Mediterranean country but, it is definitely worth the trip.
Why, you ask? Because it is home to Grotte di Frasassi or the Frasassi caves. One of the largest and complex karst cave systems; not only in Europe but in the world.
Today we explore the caves, their formation, their discovery and what to expect while visiting them. Lastly, we will look at what else the town of Genga has to offer.
Introduction to Grotte di Frasassi
The massive subterranean caves in Genga are part of the Natural Regional Park of Gola della Rossa and Frasassi.
At first glance, the cavern may look like the entrance to a secret ice palace because of the white ‘icicles’, white floors and other strange structures in the colour of snow. But, upon close observation, one will realize that they are simply stalactites and stalagmites made of calcite over thousands of years. In reality, there is nothing simple about this place.
Stalactites are the shapes that hang from the ceiling like icicles and stalagmites are perpendicular structures protruding from the ground. The walls and floors of the caves are thickly lined with these mineral deposits. In addition to these structures, the floors of some of the caves have depressions that hold pools of water as deep as 25m. The caves also contain several chambers that are connected with an elaborate network of passages and tunnels, seemingly for 30km. Out of these 30km, only about 18km has been explored so far and only 1.5km of the caves are currently open for public viewing.
Though most of the cave is dark and the floors are slippery, the portion for the public is fairly easy to navigate through. There are stairs and ramps built for ease of walking and, coloured and white lights are cleverly placed around the chambers to dramatize and highlight the breathtaking structures sculpted by nature and time.
A pathway leading to the entrance of the cave, where the journey would begin. The first and the largest chamber within this cave is the Abyss of Ancona.
The Abyss of Ancona is so huge that it could easily fit in the Milan Cathedral, one of the largest cathedral churches in the world. This was the first place to be discovered and it contains stalagmites that are at least 20m in height.
After that comes Room 200, a chamber containing strange yet interesting reddish crystalline structures. Next, is the Gran Canyon, a room where the stalactite hangings resemble pipe organs. Upon touching them, they even produce low sounds. The floors of the Gran Canyon are filled with stalagmites that look like candles eternally melting away. As this portion of the caves is so close to the Sentino river, the depressions of the floor hold the water slowly seeping in from the river around it.
Following the Gran Canyon is Ursa’s Hall, which has wells with ducts to collect sulphurous water. The blue lighting in the wells makes the waters look pure and as if reflecting the blue sky.
Finally, there is the Infinity Room, where there is a multitude of calcite structures in various shapes and sizes. Their placement and thickness make them look like long shark teeth.
Many of the crystalline structures resemble the shapes of animals, mystical creatures and natural landscapes. Some of the most popular stalagmites and stalactites are:
1. Niagara Falls in the Abyss of Ancona, resembles tiered layers of ice curtains, kind of like a frozen waterfall falling into a crystal lake.
2. The Castle of Witches in Room 200 has a structure that looks like a castle made of reddish columns.
3. The Pipe Organs in the Gran Canyon looks like a floor full of molten candles.
Formation of the caves
Karst caves form when rocks like limestone dissolve.
But how do they dissolve?
This happens because of the river water and rain. Rivers flowing through hilly terrain are already naturally acidic. In addition to that, acid rain formed due to compounds like sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere further acidifying the river water. The Sentino river flowing through the Frasassi valley is sulphurous in nature.
As these waters seep into the Earth’s crust, either through the river beds or through rainwater falling on the ground, rocks such as limestone, erode as they dissolve because of the acidic liquid. This chemical reaction forms hollow spaces. Over time, the spaces grow to allow water to completely flow through them, allowing the water to flow into sub-terrain. The spaces keep growing and over thousands of years, it becomes deep enough for a human to fit in. It is also important to note that the waters contain carbon dioxide as well. Hence, when it reacts with rocks like limestone, calcium carbonate is deposited. Over the course of time, these deposits form concretions (the collective name for stalagmites and stalactites, crystalline lakes, etc.).
Therefore, these caves and the art in them was formed over 180 million years ago by Mother Nature.
The caves were discovered in 1971 by a team of climbers and speleologists of the Italian Alpine Club Speleological Group of Ancona. One of the members found a mysterious hole from which strong gushes of air were coming out from one of the slopes of Mount Vallemontagna. They spent the next couple of years unravelling the rest of the cave and in 1974, it was opened for the public to see.
What to expect in Grotte di Frasassi?
Seeing the interior of the caves will surely be overwhelming because of its grandeur. It is easy to be absorbed in comprehending and admiring the concretions; their sizes, their various shapes, the many shades of white; the limited lighting in the caves, darkness and the network of tunnels. The experience is fascinating and simply majestic.
There are three routes that visitors can take to explore the caves. The first, and the most common choice, is the Tourist Pathway. This is the route that most tourists take. It includes the Abyss of Ancona, Room 200, Gran Canyon, Ursa’s Hall and the Infinity Room. This tour is completed in 75 minutes.
The next two tours are part of the Speleo-Adventure. The second route, also known as the blue path, is slightly longer than usual and covers five more chambers. The Four Sister’s Hall, the Finland room, the Camping Out Hall, the Hall of Gentile da Fabriano and finally, the Wells of Lucia. As it is more difficult than the usual route, children have to be of at least 12 years to be able to go on this tour. For this tour the clothes will get dirty because of the muddy path and, special equipment will have to be used, for the tour involves trekking and climbing.
Lastly, there is the Red Route, which lasts for 3 hours and, like the Blue Route, requires special attire and equipment. This route is more difficult than the last and it isn’t for the faint-hearted. It involves climbing, trekking, crawling, passing through narrow and slippery passages and more. This tour adds the exploration of another set of chambers, namely the Neverend Hall, the Falconara Well, the Low Drift, the Splits Slope, the Halls of Stage, Molar Tooth and Elephant and finally, the Catacombs.
Going to Grotte di Frasassi
One can reach Grotte di Frasassi by road, rail or air.
By road, from the A14 motorway take the Acona Nord exit, then take the SS76 Ancona-Rome motorway. From there, take the Genga-Sassoferrato exit to reach the ticket counter and the parking at La Cuna. It is also where the journey to the caves begins.
The nearest railway station to the ticket office is the Genga-San Vittore Tereme, which is 10 minutes by foot.
By air, the nearest airport is the Marche Airport, from where it would be best to take a taxi or train.
From the parking and ticketing area, the caves are 1.3km away. It is possible to hike there or take the free shuttle bus to the caves from La Cuna.
The ticket office is next to the La Cuna parking area. Alternatively, the tickets can be purchased online. If the tickets are purchased online, they must be printed out or downloaded on a portable device prior to entrance. The tickets must be purchased at least 30 min before the tour.
Tickets for the Tourist Pathway are priced at €18 for adults or €15 for people over the age of 65, university students, speleologists, etc. Tickets for children between ages 6-14 are priced at € 12.
The prices may be updated in the future, so, it is advisable to check their updated costs before going there. Here is the link to the official website of Grotte di Frasassi for updated information and ticket booking.
The red and the blue tours are priced differently. Click on the link above to check out the prices for those tours.
At the ticket counter, guided tours are available in English and other European languages.
Tours and Timings
It takes 1 hour and 15 minutes to complete a tour of the Tourist Pathway. The red route takes 2 hours and the blue route takes 3 hours to complete.
The caves are open every day, except 4th December, 25th December and from 10-30th January. On the days that are open, there are frequent time slots available to visit the caves. However, their frequency and time slots vary depending on the season. It is advisable to check the timetable on their website, prior to the visit.
Attire and Photography
The humidity inside the caves is at 100% plus, it maintains a temperature of 14°C throughout the year. Hence, it is best to wear or carry warm clothes during the visit. Though most of the Tourist Pathway has stairs and ramps, some of the areas may be slippery, so, wearing shoes with a good grip would also be a good idea.
It is also important to note that photography inside the caves has started only recently. There are therefore some restrictions. For example, photography is prohibited in some areas; usually, it isn’t allowed everywhere except in the Abyss of Ancona. It would be best to ask the tour guide or the personnel at the ticketing counter. Photography is only permitted in these areas without the use of flash.
The caves are open for visiting even during the coronavirus pandemic. However, there are strict safety measures put in place. Firstly, visitors are encouraged to book their tickets online to avoid queues at the ticket counter. Secondly, there are more frequent time slots for visiting and the groups going in at a time are a lot smaller. Thirdly, wearing masks is mandatory at all times and so is maintaining social distance. And lastly, the body temperature is screened prior to entry. People with over a temperature of 37.5°C, will not be permitted to enter.
Places to Visit around Genga
In case you happen to have spare time before or after your visit to Grotte di Frasassi, you can explore the following sites around Genga:
Abbazia di San Vittore delle Chiuse: Located a couple of kilometres away from the caves sits this Romanesque abbey and Catholic Church from the 11th century. The way the building is constructed makes it look more like a fortress, especially because of its tall towers. It hides among the green hills in the small village of San Vittore, where there are restaurants, spas and lodging facilities. Today it has become a structure for architecture enthusiasts to admire.
Just behind the church, there is the Speleo-Paleontological and Archaeological Museum, which is best known for displaying the fossils of an ichthyosaur, an extinct aquatic reptile from millions of years ago.
The shuttle bus that goes back to La Cuna from the caves stops at this place, so it would be a great sight to see before ending the trip.
Temple of Valadier: This temple or church was built in 1828 by Guiseppe Valadier. The building has a typical neo-classical design, with an octagonal base. Earlier, it used to be a pilgrimage site for those repenting for their sins. Due to its close proximity to the Frasassi caves, it has become a popular tourist site where visitors hike when they have spare time.
What is so special about it?
To answer that question, I’d say everything is special about it. This place is a wonderful example to prove how powerful and beautiful nature really is. The reason people visit is that the human connection with caves is primal. We always expect to find something unexpected in mysterious places. Overall, the caves incite curiosity and fascination.
What makes them even more special is that trips to such places are one of the rarest forms of tourism, called cave tourism. It involves travelling solely for the purpose of seeing and learning about caves and karsts. A subset of geo-tourism, it is one of the most sustainable forms of tourism as the tourism product here is a natural resource, particularly a geographical feature.
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