Magical Monti Alburni/Castelcivita

A day-trip from the wondrous heart of a mountain to its very top

This post was originally written as a guest post for speckontheglobe.com but with different photos; enjoy.

To be honest, that headline sounds a lot more laborious than it actually was; most of the time we used a car. The Monti Alburni is a mountain range that lift themselves nearly 1.800m above the Cilento. Italians sometimes call them the Dolomites of the south. Nearly vertical cliff faces several hundreds of meters high mark their boundaries glowing in golden hues when the afternoon sun touches them. Just a couple of kilometers from the coast and the floodplains surrounding Paestum, with their buffalo farms, the land is still wild, everything feels ancient and some places can only be reached by facing some of scariest roads I’ve ever seen in western Europe.

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When you come up from the sea, the streets get ever more winding, with ever steeper falls beckoning behind flimsy “safety rails”. In May the vegetation is incredibly green and not many people are about so exploration is no problem. We kind of crawled along, staying well below the signed speed limit. At one point the road was half blocked by signs with dire warnings of rock slides, advising we turn around. The problem was, this was the only way to get where we were going without taking a 2-hour detour. While we were trying to figure out what to do, a local comes to a stop and asks what our destination is. In overwhelmingly restaurant-style Italian, we tell him and he tells us to just follow him. Honking before every switchback we fight to stay at his tail. From time to time he slows to a crawl where the tarmac bulges, looking like grey cookie-dough. Sometimes 2/3 of the road disappears down the mountain-side.

Castelcivita as seen from the valley floor

Castelcivita as seen from the valley floor

We arrive at Grotta di Castelcivita around noon. The moment we open the car doors we are assaulted by an unmistakable sound only several hundred children are able to produce. Nearly all of them are elementary school students on a day trip and other than their teachers there are very few adults about. The school groups get their own guides; everyone else has to wait. Even as well-explored and well-lit as this cave is, getting lost without a guide would still be incredibly possible. So everyone else waits until the next group is going in. In our case that is still an hour away, so we decide to do a bit of exploring by ourselves.

Millstone in the ruined foundations of a water mill near Castelcivita

Millstone in the ruined foundations of a water mill near Castelcivita

We walk down the road in the heat. It’s only May but noon temperatures rise well above 30°C . We pass a couple of old rusticos before we decide to follow a dirt track leading down, which appears to promise some shade. After a while it gets steeper and rockier. It’s very quiet, insects buzz lazily about, lizards rustle in the undergrowth. From time to time a large bird-of-prey screams high above the valley. Slowly another sound becomes apparent- the soft trickling of water, dancing over stones. Suddenly we’re standing at the banks of a shallow river inside an old mill. It’s long deserted. The mill stone still lies in a corner. The roof is mostly gone, trees and vines growing through it, creating a foliage rich wonderland that reminds us of Tolkien’s Shire. Small cataracts empty in the stream and it takes a long time until we’re able to leave this place.

A shallow river at the foot of Monti Alburni, near the cave of Castelcivita

A shallow river at the foot of Monti Alburni, near the cave of Castelcivita

Elated, we head back to the cave, our heads filled with imagery and our bags filled with stones of every colour possible. Inevitably we have missed the group we were supposed to join, but one the guides takes us on a private tour. We get a multi-language audio-guide PLUS an explanation from our guide in Italian, which is a bit exhausting, but he clearly loves both the cave and his job so we don’t dare stop him. Today over 5000m of the caves are explored making the Grotta de Castelcivita one of worlds biggest cave systems. About 1200m are accessible to the public. In the mouth of the cave, remains of human habitation dating back as far as 30.000 years have been discovered. In Roman times Spartacus probably used the cave to hide in during his slave revolt.

Grotta di Castelcivita, one of Europe's biggest cave systems, a trule magical place

Grotta di Castelcivita, one of Europe’s biggest cave systems, a trule magical place

A concrete walkway leads through the cave and there is permanent lighting installed which makes the whole experience quite safe but somewhat detracts from the Indiana-Jones-Factor I had hoped for. Nonetheless, it is breathtaking. The diversity of shapes and colours nature creates, even in the bowels of a mountain, is incredible. No architect nor designer could ever come up with what water and chemicals have created over millennia.

A lot of the formations in the cave Grotta di Castelcivita look like a computer-generated graphic and not something that nature would create.

A lot of the formations in the cave Grotta di Castelcivita look like a computer-generated graphic and not something that nature would create.

Coming out of the cave is like waking from a dream. Faced with sunlight and noise somehow doesn’t seem right. I want to shake somebody, yelling “Don’t you know there is magic inside this mountain? How can you just drink coffee? There are dragons and knights and sharks and NSFW-stuff – all made out of stone, right below our feet!!!”.

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On top of the mountain lies the town of Castelcivita with a medieval tower guarding the valley below. Narrow alleys with endless stairs crisscross this vertical community. Ancient archways connecting overhead, every house leaning on the next for support. We come upon a very small piazza with a fountain, a huge bench with half a dozen old people gossiping and the only bar, that doubles as a small shop for toothbrushes, shaving cream and the like. The proprietor used to live and work in Munich for more than 20 years until he came back to take care of his mother and take over the bar. He’s kind of happy to be able to speak German with us. Perhaps he is even a bit homesick for Bavaria. He talks of a dying community, all the young move away, while the old linger. Castelcicita lost a third of its people over the last 20 years. Even though Paestum, with its archeological highlights and endless sandy beaches, is a mere 30 minute drive away, the number of tourists finding their way to Castelcivita is low enough that he can count them (and he does- 17 it was for that day, which is a lot apparently- there was a bus with French-Canadians).

View over the valley floor from Castelcivita

View over the valley floor from Castelcivita

We end the day in an amazing Agriturismo, where we are the first guests of the year. Our welcome is accordingly heart-warming and calorie-rich, proving once again that southern hospitality is one of those clichés well-rooted in reality. The sun disappears, blood-red behind a hill, making way for unaccounted fireflies. With the taste of self-made Limoncello on our lips we sink into our beds after our full day of magic and surprises.

“When you come to the South you cry twice; Once when you arrive because it’s so beautiful and once again, when you leave”

Info
Grotta di Castelecivita (http://www.grottedicastelcivita.com/)
Open March through October
Entry fee is 10 € and includes a (audio-)guide
About 1 hour from Paestum

Agriturismo “Melograno”
Open all year, we payed 70? for a double with half board, the amazing hospitality is free.
About 6 km from Controne (there are signs pointing the way)
0828/971749 or 334/7932389

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