Something amazing happens when you start to write about a region like Umbria. A region, that is, populated by warm, welcoming people who have a long history and deep roots in their land. This amazing thing is that these people contact you and are like, “Hey, I’ve got something really special in my neighborhood I want to share with you!” Not because they have something to sell, or something to promote, or something to gain in any way. Just because they genuinely love their region, and want others to love it, as well.
Take, for example, the sweetest couple ever: Paolo and his wife Anna Lisa. Out of the blue, Paolo got in contact and invited us to hike an area near his home on the outskirts of Foligno. Just because, you know, there were a couple of pretty sites there he thought we should know about. And we decided that we would take the risk that Paolo was a crazy axe-murderer and meet up with him on a Sunday last fall.
Paolo was not an axe-murderer, but one of the friendliest, kindest people you’d ever want to meet. He enthusiastically led us along an itinerary in a little-known area of Umbria, introducing us to couple of places that I’d honestly never heard of with the shy pride of a kid unveiling his latest art project.
Paolo. Not an axe murderer.
We began at Belfiore, a hamlet outside of Foligno in the Altolina valley, leaving our car parked in a gravel lot and beginning our walk among the ubiquitous olive groves that cover these mountain slopes. Paolo was playing his cards close to his chest about what awaited us during our outing, and the first stretch of the trail was a pretty, but typical, olive grove hike. The kind you get inured to after twenty years of living here. Bucolic, schmucolic.
Then we arrived at our first lovely surprise of the day: the Menotre Falls. The climb began to skirt the Menotre River, and we came across a series of small, charming waterfalls, pretty wooden bridges, and wooded overlooks that had us gushing and snapping pictures. Paolo told us that the Cascate del Menotre (also known locally as the Cascatelle di Pale) are an oasis for families on hot, summer afternoons, and I could see why.
We continued uphill through the remains of a villa garden with traces of stone grottoes and carvings, passing the tiny village of Pale (and its poignant abandoned paper mill and canal system, with manual valves and weirs). Here the climb got tougher, and Paolo pointed out our destination perched high above us on the rocky cliff of Mount Pale: the Santa Maria Giacobbe Hermitage.
We puffed up the trail, stopping to place our heels in the indentation left by the Saint’s foot in the stone steps (according to legend) and the our fingers in the handhold worn in the rock wall by centuries of pilgrims climbing the same route. Our labors were rewarded by a visit to the hermitage, including its chapel covered in frescoes dating from the 14th to 17th centuries, the cistern holding waters said to have healing powers, and a moving collection of ex votos spanning more than a century.
We had caught our breath and were ready to head back down the hill, but Paolo had one more surprise for us on the cliffside. We climbed a few hundred more meters above the hermitage to a heart-stopping, palm-sweating perch in the rock, and he pointed out a number of small paleolithic markings (easily missed if you don’t know were to look) under the shelf, protected from the elements for thousands of years. I found myself almost more moved by these rough red lines than by the rich frescoes in the hermitage below. From the beginning of time, humans have felt the urge to leave some sign of their passage on this earth…from the earliest cave paintings through the history of art.
Our day didn’t finish here, but to discover what else Paolo had up his sleeve, stop back on Thursday! There are more surprises in store…
I’m competitive. It’s not a trait I’m particularly proud of, but that’s how it is. I like to be the strongest, fastest, brightest. I like my kids to be the strongest, fastest, brightest. I like my dogs to be the strongest, fastest, brightest. I like everything around me to sport bright blue ribbons and shiny trophies. Like I said, I have a bit of a competitive streak.
I’ve always been borderline smug in my conviction that Umbria is pretty much the best in everything: the art, the culture, the food, the scenery. It’s a winner of a region, which makes it easy to enthuse about and even more easy to live in. There have been two massive flies in my Chardonnay (or, more fittingly, Grechetto) over the years, however: the first is that Umbria is landlocked. No coastline, no sea air, no pristine beaches stretching for miles. That’s assumingly not going to resolve itself until the Big One comes to change the global topography, and I’ve settled with falling in love with Lake Trasimeno.
The second was that Umbria had no fantastic caves to visit (unlike our neighbor the Marches, who have the spectacular Frasassi caves), but I am happy to report that I can bump up my smug just a notch because I discovered that Umbria does, in fact, have fantastic caves to visit and they are just as spectacular as Frasassi. Take that, Marche.
The Grotta di Monte Cucco is located in the Monte Cucco Park, near the medieval town of Gubbio in the north of Umbria. The cave isn’t a new discovery (historic sources and graffiti inside the caverns date as far back as the 1500s), but has only been open to the public for the past few years.
Monte Cucco is perforated with numerous caves—the name “cucco” derives from an ancient word for pumpkin or something hollow—which together add up to more than 20 kilometers of natural cavities, passages, and drops. Some of these descend almost 1,000 meters to end in undergound waterways and springs, and most require expert spelunking skills. Fortunately, the biggest and most breathtaking caverns and passages—at an altitude of 1,400 above sea level near the crest of Mount Cucco and stretching for 800 meters into the mountains bowels—are also the most accessible and can be easily visited by anyone in decent physical shape.
I finally had a chance to visit the Grotta di Monte Cucco this week, and had been looking forward to it with such muppet-like enthusiasm that I was worried I would be somehow disappointed when we finally got there. That was not the case; Monte Cucco itself is a beautiful park—one of Umbria’s most lovely—and the climbing drive up to the mountain’s crest from Sigillo is an exercise in rubbernecking gorgeous rolling scenery and beech groves so bucolic you find yourself expecting fairies or elves to come popping out.
The road ends in a small parking lot at Pian di Monte, and from here you hike about half a kilometer to the Valcella meeting point for the cave visit. We met our guide, were given our hard hats, and continued the rest of the way down the trail (another 500 meters) together to the cave entrance. The grotta has a number of entrances, but the east entrance is used for the basic visit, for the more rigorous adventure course (which involves following along rope lines fixed to the sides of the cave with climbing gear and a spelunking guide—something I hope to do in the near future), and for the “traversata”, or crossing, course, which follows the cave through the mountain and exits through the north entrance.
The visit begins with a baptism by fire: a 27 meter drop navigated in a series of near-vertical staircases. If you can make it through that stretch, you’re good. It’s by far the most head-spinning point of the visit, which winds itself for the next hour or so through three massive caverns and a series of twisting connecting passages, all lit with floodlights so you get a sense of the soaring height and nooks and crannies along the way. The esthetics inside the caves are slightly different than what you may be used to; these caves are primarily hypogenic (formed by water rising up from below and dissolving the rock) rather than epigenic (formed by the action of surface waters descending into the ground and dissolving rock), which means that the cave-scape is much heavier on the stalagmites than the stalactites, and at times you get the feeling that you are touring a planet made of mounds of whipped cream and meringue.
Of course, there are the familiar charming names for calcium formations (don’t miss the turtle) and cathedral-like caverns, but I’ll leave those to you to discover. And I recommend that you stop by and discover the Grotta di Monte Cucco, surely the best cave around. Not that I’m being competitive or anything.
Though the visit doesn’t require any special spelunking skills (most of it is along metal walkways and staircases), you need to be in good shape and not suffer from fear of heights or claustrofobia. There’s a minimum age of ten years, and make sure you wear a jacket (the inside temperature is 6° year round) and sturdy hiking boots. For tour descriptions, prices, and times, see their website.