We’ve never really done much proper sightseeing in Le Marche, Mr Blue-Shirt and I. Even our very first trip back in 2007, a tour of the region that took in places such as Urbino in the north, Ascoli Piceno in the south and Macerata in the middle, was effectively a recce to see if it was a part of Italy we could see ourselves settling in. Once we had decided that it was, we spent the next few holidays refining our search area, eventually excluding the north for being too craggy for our taste and the south for being a little too remote for our needs. Then once we had identified the middle as our Goldilocks area, subsequent holidays were spent – other than the odd day at the beach – scrambling round an endless succession of tumbledown ruins in our search for The One: the property that had the intangible something we were looking for, the place which embraced us like a long-lost friend and where the breeze seemed to whisper our names.
As a result, we were always more concerned with finding banks and supermarkets than frescoes and amphitheatres, with the quality of the roads and the altitude rather than churches and museums, with the look and feel of a place as much as with its sights and attractions. All of these cultural pursuits were put off until a later date; until we were here permanently, when we would have all the time in the world to enjoy them. But since we have been here permanently, our focus has been on the practicalities of settling in and building our new lives, so sightseeing has dropped even further down the never-ending ‘to do’ list. And in any event, who goes sightseeing on their own doorstep?
It has therefore come as an added bonus that when friends come to visit, we now have the opportunity to accompany them on their sightseeing trips and finally the visit all those places we had never got round to seeing. Take the Grotte di Frasassi: we first came across these caves the Christmas we were staying in a converted chapel in Cagli to the north of the region. On a day out somewhere further south, we drove through a narrow gorge between the towering bare crags of that section of the Apennines that lies just to the north of the Sibillini Mountains, and we caught a glimpse of the signs for the caves as we negotiated a series of tight bends, with the sheer face of the limestone cliffs on one side and on the other side an equally sheer drop into the River Sentino roaring along the distant valley floor. In the nearly ten years since, we have picked up leaflets about them and read about them in our guidebooks, always intending to visit them at some point, but never quite managing to do so. Until the other day, that is, while we were thinking of places to take the friends who were staying for a week or so and the idea of escaping the relentless August heat by spending a couple of hours amid their cool gloom seemed a very inviting prospect.
The Grotte di Frasassi were not actually discovered until 1971 when a group of teenage speleologists stumbled across a small opening in the north slope of the little-known Mount Vallemontagna. It was only the current of cold air blowing through the opening and the time it took for a pebble tossed into the hole to hit the bottom that hinted at the scale and significance of their find, which turned out to be the largest known system caves in Europe that is believed to extend for some 30km in total – although at least half this distance has yet to be explored.
The abyss into which the boys had dropped their pebble was in fact a single 200m-deep chamber that is 180m long and 120m wide. This cathedral-sized cavern – the biggest in Europe – is filled with thousands of huge stalactites and stalagmites, towers, columns, concretions and petrified waterfalls. It is the start-point of the approximately 1.5km-long tourist trail that winds through a subterranean labyrinth of half a dozen or so further caverns, chambers and passageways, revealing 1.4 million years’ worth of surreal natural sculptures, some of them rising from mirror-clear pools, others dangling like a calcite sword of Damocles from way up in the roof of the cavern. As the four of us followed our English-speaking guide along the narrow walkways, a magical landscape of crystalline frills, turrets, ripples, curtains and crenellations unfolded before us in shades of pink, grey and ice-white, each elaborate structure more other-worldly than the last. The weird and constantly shifting shadows cast by carefully placed spotlights, the gentle sound of constantly dripping water, the occasional waft of sulphur and the chilly atmosphere (that vindicated our decision to don long trousers and fleeces for the tour) only added to the distinctly alien feel of this primordial world that has only been known to humankind for a nano-second in time.
As we made our way to the exit through the 200m long man-made tunnel, its huge metal sliding doors hissing back and forth to let us pass, we compared adjectives. “Jaw-dropping” declared Elaine. “Mind-boggling” offered Nick. “Awesome in its truest sense” was Mr Blue-Shirt’s assessment. Suddenly, the August heat washed over us and we squinted against the vivid blueness of the sky. “Out of this world” I said eventually. Although people have been admiring the famed beauty of Italy’s soaring mountains and undulating hills since time immemorial, surely few would imagine that such an astonishing spectacle, that offers a whole new dimension to Italy’s natural treasures, might lie hidden within. We really must go sightseeing more often.