June 19th 2016: third day on the “#frasassitour: discover the Frasassi Caves and surrounding area”.
Early in the morning, we leave the beautiful Conero Riviera that we explored over the first two days of our itinerary, heading by car about 90 kilometers West towards the Marche inland.
We get closer to the underground heart of our journey between heavens and earth, hills and sea. Destination: the karst abysses of the Frasassi Caves, which we will visit in the afternoon.
In less than one hour, we are at the wonderful Natural Regional Park of Gola della Rossa and Frasassi, a protected area extending some 10,000 hectares in the Apennines near Ancona. Today’s first stop is in Genga.
Genga is an old medieval walled village at 300 meters above sea level, surrounded by hills and crossed by the Sentino.
The small town has merged with its rocky surroundings – a few stones even rise from the floors inside homes or from the ground between buildings – and is often remembered as the hometown of its most illustrious citizen, Annibale della Genga, who reigned as Pope Pius XII between 1823 and 1829. Known for his hostile policies against brigands, Carbonari, Masons and protestants, Pius XII proclaimed 1825 the year of a (very successful) Jubilee and removed some of Galileo Galilei’s works from the “Index of Forbidden Books”.
We quickly make our way to the never-completed Palazzo Fiumi Sermattei, which in 2015 was turned into the Museum of Art, History and Territory, which showcases the prehistory, history, traditions and culture of Genga’s surroundings, with a focus on everything “sacred” and “spiritual”.
Indeed, the full name of the museum includes the tagline, “From the Paleolithic Venus to the Madonna and Child” – according to a “religious” perspective that becomes obvious in many of the works on display in the “Memorial Gallery”, such as the “Triptych” 15th-century Antonio da Fabriano painted for the church of San Clemente; the beautiful statue of the “Madonna and Child” from Canova’s workshop, originally located in the neoclassical Temple of Valadier (which we are going to visit next); or the liturgical vestments of Pope Leo XII.
Then of course there is the Paleolithic Venus, not in real life but in an interesting 3D projection: an 8-centimeter-tall statuette, carved out of stalactite to represent the female divinity some 20,000 years ago, which was found in 2007 in the Frasassi Caves. The real piece is now kept at the National Archaeological Museum of Marche in Ancona, waiting to come back “home” to Genga.
Still along the common thread of sacredness, we visit two sanctuaries embraced by the rocks of the left-side slope of the Frasassi gorge. Under the wide arched ceilings of the Cave of the Blessed Virgin of Frasassi, there are both the Hermitage (or Sanctuary) of the Holy Mary infra Saxa and, just a few meters away, in the same cavity, the church of the Madonna of Frasassi (commonly known as Temple of Valadier).
The latter, a neoclassical octagonal structure we already highlighted in an article a few months back), was once home to the statue of Mary with Child now on display in Genga’s Museum, now replaced by a replica. It was built in 1828 in travertine, after the omnipresent Pope Leo XII had it designed by famous Roman architect Giuseppe Valadier.
We are immediately struck by the great visual contrast between the luminous regularity of its eight sides – which symbolize the Resurrection of Jesus, which took place “on the eighth day” – and the irregular shadows on the cave’s walls. This is also the grotto where, as we mentioned, you can see the ancient Hermitage of the Holy Mary “infra Saxa” (i.e. “Frasassi”), whose presence in this place was recorded as early as the beginning of the 11th century.
Then another aesthetic contrast surprises us: the one between the simplicity of the structure of the Hermitage, which has an inner section excavated in the rock, and the refined elegance of the so-called Temple of Valadier. This church houses another replica of a work of art: a small wooden statue of the Madonna, which was lost some 80 years ago…
Now on the last leg of this wonderful morning dedicated to “sacred art”, we drive a few minutes from Santa Maria infra Saxa and the Temple of Valadier to the Abbey of San Vittore alle Chiuse, which we have also already written about before.
As we approach, we see its compact limestone structure, its convex apses entwined in soaring walls, on top of which an octagonal drum and, higher still, a square tower stand.
San Vittore alle Chiuse, built between 1060 and 1080, is a Romanesque abbey belonging to a group of four Marche churches that all have the common trait of a Greek cross plan inscribed in a square nucleus. Some say this scheme derived from oriental culture – Byzantine churches in Greece and the Balkans –, others say it came from northern models, such as certain Lombard, Norman and German sacred buildings.
Little does it matter now: the beauty of this place makes us want to stop and look without too much thinking.
But more wonders await, and now we turn our focus from man-made architecture to stone pinnacles and vaults dating back to the days when man was still very far from appearing on the face of the earth: the Frasassi Caves.
But before we descend into the abyss, let’s enjoy some open-air fun at the Frasassi Adventure Park: equipped with safety harnesses, helmets and solid carabiners, we hang from suspended cables between the trees and cross over the Sentino river, walking over swinging rope bridges and testing our courage with thrilling Tyrolean traverses.
This is a special way to visit Frasassi’s karst universe – a complex of caves extending for about 40 kilometers underground – that takes us, like real speleologists, along short climbs, down narrow tunnels and bumpy and muddy chutes. An itinerary designed by professionals, but open for anyone – over the age of twelve – who doesn’t mind getting their hands dirty… like us!
The “Speleo-Adventure” is not just great fun – it’s a perfect opportunity to see the charming environments formed in these natural limestone cathedrals, thanks to nearly 200 million years of slow and continuous work by water and rock: the “Infinity Room”, the “Bivouac Room”, the “Finland Hall”, the “Wells of Lucia”, the “Four Sisters”…
The “Speleo-Adventure” also gives participants the opportunity to take photos of majestic and colorful stalactites and stalagmites, with evocative names such as “waterfalls”, “birthday candles”, “giants”, “obelisks”, and “organ pipes”. A privilege other visitors don’t have.
When we come back to the surface, the sun is still high in the sky. And our journey continues…
Accommodation: Le Grotte Hotel and Spa has a restaurant with local specialties and Marche wines. Ecolabel certified.
Restaurants: Ristorante La Scaletta, in the historical center of San Vittore alle Chiuse, along the Sentino river.
La taverna di Frasassi, in Genga.