According to Greek mythology, souls of the newly dead arrived at the underground River Styx, which separates this world from the world of the dead, where the old ferryman, Charon, transferred them to the underworld on his boat for one coin. Yesterday, we floated along this underground river…. All right, maybe not the exact river, but if the River Styx ever existed, it might have looked like the one in Grotte dell’Angelo, a cave about 70 km from the city of Pertosa, in the province of Campania, Italy.
After buying tickets to the cave—there are three variants of excursions of different duration—the whole company of “newly dead” take their seats in the big boat, and a ferryman, Charon (in this case a tour guide), navigates it along the silent and grim underground river to its waterfall. Dead silence on the way is disturbed only by the occasional splash of drops falling from the ceiling of the cave and by echo that they produce. Charon doesn’t paddle the boat. He pulls it along by hand, almost soundlessly, using ropes stretched along the whole route.
Charon doesn’t speak any language except Italian—apparently, only Italian tourists reach this place—but he knows several English words, and periodically addresses us with short cues about the age of the cave (it is near 35 million years) and how stalactites grow downward and stalagmites rise from the opposite direction, upward. When he lacks English words (which happened in 90% of cases) he substitutes them with Italian ones, but we nod in agreement because we catch some familiar words and know the subject in general after visiting the New Athos Cave in Abkhazia, Russia.
However, we were much more interested in taking pictures. Any photographing—with or without flash—is prohibited in Grotte dell’Angelo, but has that ever stopped us? We switched our cameras into silent mode and took about two hundred photos, hiding ourselves behind the backs of Italian tourists, to provide you with the evidence of our underground trip.
The water part of the route ends after visiting the waterfall. Then you go along a tidy concrete path admiring different “halls” of the cave. That’s where the most interesting part begins. Stalactites (icicle-shaped formations that hang from the ceiling of the cave) can’t be compared to anything on the surface of the earth (they seem to belong to another world), while stalagmites (upward-growing mounds of mineral deposits) have taken really bizarre forms that resemble other shapes. You can find “Italian medieval town” with eternal bell tower in the center, huge sinewy “dinosaur’s leg,” “frozen Arctic lake,” “human profile,” or “medieval castle colonnade.” Images are limited only by your fantasy, and mysterious illumination intensifies them.
Ancestors of the modern Italians used Grotte dell’Angelo for different religious ceremonies since the dawn of time, and from the moment you arrive, you understand why. The cave has a mystic, unreal atmosphere created by nature. Moreover, there is a ready-to-use “Catholic cathedral” in the depths of the cave: a huge hall, 24 meters in height with “flowing down” ceilings and walls. It is called the Hall of Wonders. The early Christians used it as a place of refuge. It seems as if the great Catalan architect, Antonio Gaudi, also visited this place and started to create his Sagrada Familia in Barcelona using this kind of “flowing” style. Just compare:
The modern Italians did not miss an opportunity to use this natural decoration for theatrical performances such as, for example, “Dante Symphony” by Franz Liszt about circles of hell. “Hell” hosts photographs of notorious murderers/tyrants whose final resting place must be in hell. Theres no picture of Napoleon Bonaparte, but you will find a photograph of Slobodan Milosevic, the President of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (although it is not clear why and by whom he was “sentenced”), right between images of Hitler and Stalin.
It is rather cold in the cave, about 16 degrees. You should take a warm sweater and probably even a cap. The cave continues to live and form, as the water drips from the ceiling all the time. The concrete paths are always wet, so dont forget to change your sandals for closed footwear.
Opening hours (2013)
January-February-November-December: 10.00-12.00, 14:00-16:00
October 10:00-17: 00
From April to May: 9:00-19:00
Closed: Mondays from September 1 to March 31
How to get to Grotte dell’Angelo
From Highway A3 Salerno-Reggio Calabria, exit to Petina (if you come from the north) or to Polla (if you come from the south), then go onto the national road S.S.19 following the signs to the “Grotte dell’Angelo Pertosa.”
GPS: 40.5372607, 15.4527518
Up to 16 Euro depending on the route, age, etc.
If Grotte dell’Angelo has impressed you, then 200 km to the east, you can find other famous Italian caves, Grotte Di Castellana, located not far from Putignano.
Grotte Di Castellana
Grotte Di Castellana is a huge complex of caves with fancy stalactites and stalagmites similar to an underground fairy world of gnomes. Nobody knew about these caves for a long time. The peasants called a deep hole in the earth the gates of hell. Livestock often fell down into this hole and nothing could save their life. The remains stank so strongly that people stayed away from this place.
The first attempts to explore the caves were made in the 18th century, but only in 1938, a group of speleologists led by Franco Anelli evaluated the real scale of the underground complex. A sculpture of Franco Anelli is erected in the first cave, the one with the deep hole in the ceiling. Several caves are open for visiting.
The longest route is 3 km and goes down for 72 meters. An amazing trip around the underground world passes through several caves covered with crystalline growths and illuminated with dimmed light, which creates the illusion of monsters, fairies, angels, and other fantastic beings. The Empty Corridor, a long and narrow gorge with walls up to 450 meters, has a really stately appearance.
The culmination of the whole trip is the so-called White Cave, a stunning grotto bursting with its whiteness. The International Congress of Speleology recognized this cave as one of the most beautiful in the world. Because of its color, White Cave is unique and the only one open for visiting. We did not visit it, and postponed the trip for the next time, so you can get ahead of us.
The official website of Grotte Di Castellana
15 Euro for a complete route of 3 km.
10 Euro for a short route of 1 km (it does not reach White Cave).
No matter how mysterious the underworld was, we came back up to the hot Italian sun again and the endlessly hospitable roads of Campania.