Friday, August 20, 2010

The weird wonders of Grotte di Castellana

Two things strike me as really remarkable about Grotte di Castellana
– one of Italy’s seemingly endless subterranean limestone caves with pretty drapings of stalagmites – columns rising up from the cave floor - and stalactites hanging from the cave ceiling like icicles on the eaves in a Scandinavian winter. That’s the history of how the cave was discovered and the shape of one particular but not very big stalactitete.

Until 1938 the caves 2 km outside the town of Castellana in Puglia were shrouded in mystery and superstition. Local farmers were aware of a stinking hole in the earth that swallowed quite a few animals which they believed led straight to hell. In fact, the malodorous smell was gasses from the rotting cadavers of animals that had not survived a free fall of 60 metres from the surface of the earth to the bottom of the principal cave appropriately named ‘la grave’. Just before the Second World War a courageous geologist named Franco Anelli ventured down the hole, and he discovered a complex systems of enormous grottos connected by underground passages. A slippery, spooky and chilly place that has had more than 14 million visitors including the film crew of Alien 2, since it was first opened to the public some 60 years ago.

All visitors have seen – but perhaps not noticed – a small stalactite that seems to grow perpendicular on a vertical dripstone. I have heard geologists discuss the phenomenon and develop theories about a draft and physical possibility of such a formation, and I think they reached the conclusion that the horizontal stalactite had to be a fig of the imagination. So now I have to go back and do another 50 minute guided tour to confirm the sight – unless some of you have seen the same weird wonder?

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