What does silence sound like? Have you ever heard it? I remember pondering about this sound of silence, as I stood all alone several metres below the surface of Earth - in the Frasassi Caves in Le Marche, Italy.
Of course I had a few, totally paranoid moments with my hyperactive imagination going into fifth gear - what if the roof caves in, what if that stalactite dislodges itself and comes crashing down on me, are there ghosts down here... You get the drift? After a while, these thoughts melted away and I began to calm down. To say that I was enjoying myself would certainly be a lie, but I was able to appreciate that rare silence - so alien to us city-dwellers who are used to having every moment accompanied by a background score, most often of the jarring kind... But how did I stumble upon this soundless moment? Let's rewind.
We had had an early lunch in Ancona and begun our 50-odd kilometres drive towards Genga. The folks at Life Marche magazine, who had organised our stay and experience in Le Marche, had promised us an adventure, and we were looking forward to it. The Frasassi Caves (or Grotte di Frasassi) is one of the largest subterranean cave systems in Europe. It was discovered fairly recently, in 1971, and has been open to public from 1974. Of the 18 kilometres of underground caves that have been explored, just 1 kilometre is open to guided public tours. It's likely that the cavern system is much larger, some estimates putting it at 35 kilometres long.
At the visitors' centre we met our guide Graziano who helped us get kitted out for our underground adventure. The main tourist route is an easy walk, with lots of stairs and ramps built on a path that cuts through the cave. But we were signed up for a speleological expedition, which would go beyond the tourist route and really explore the cave system. So we had to don protective clothing, rubber boots and hard miners' hats, complete with a headlamp - it was all terribly exciting!
We walked through a long tunnel and into a massive cavern, apparently large enough to fit Milan's Duomo, the world's largest Gothic cathedral. This cavern is called Grotta Grande del Vento or Cave of the Wind, and has some spectacular stalactite and stalagmite formations. All caves are lit up with strategically placed lights and the overall effect is quite stunning.
There are formations that resemble a frozen Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, even a little Leaning Tower of Pisa. Some formations resemble animals, others look like giants.
There's a cave whose floor is completely covered with candles, and it makes a pretty sight. At some places the limestone formations are so thin that it looks as if a delicate sheet or veil is cascading down from the ceiling.
At the end of the trail, a small gate opens towards a narrow gap through which the speleological expedition begins. One look at the entrance and I knew it was going to be tough going for me. Claustrophobia kicked in as soon as I squeezed myself through the entrance. I took a few wobbly steps ahead, but it was a lost cause. I had to turn back, while the husband went ahead with Graziano and the folks from Life Marche magazine.
So there I was, all alone, underground, with weirdly shaped limestone formations for company. It was at the end of the tourist trail, so no people came that way. Once in a while an odd sound like a drop of water or a falling stone would ring out, but other than that it was deathly quiet. After a few minutes, I kind of got used to the silence. I had the entire place to myself so I wandered about a bit and spent a happy 15-20 minutes naming the formations around me. My favourite was the 'bear', which looked as if it might spring up from its crouching position at any time (no photos, as the husband had taken the camera with him). After about 30 minutes of silence, I could hear approaching voices and Graziano emerged from the narrow opening, followed by the husband and the others - all spectacularly muddy and in need of a good hosing down. I have literally never been more happy to see another human being, and couldn't wait to head back up into the sunlight :)
After a shower and change, we proceeded to another must-visit place in the vicinity...
The Tempio del Valadier (Temple of Valadier) is a short drive from the Frasassi Caves, plus a steep climb for about 15-20 minutes (the climb is on a paved path and is feasible for anyone with a basic level of fitness).
The striking church, built in 1828, stands just inside the mouth of a natural cave. The octagonal church was designed by the Italian architect Giuseppe Valadier in his characteristic neo-classical style, and was built with white travertine blocks extracted from the stone quarry above the cave. The perfect symmetry of the church, built by Man, stands against the rough walls of the cave, hewn by Nature - it's quite a sight to behold, and well worth the effort of the steep climb!
Quite unlike most churches, this 'temple' is topped with a dome. The church's interior is plain, in stark contrast to the opulently decorated and frescoed Italian churches. But then this place is a "refuge of sinners". In the 10th century, this cave (and many others in the nearby hills of Genga) was a place where locals sought refuge from the marauding Hungarian tribes. When construction of the church began, human bones, artefacts and coins dating to the Bronze Age were discovered in the cave. Today the Temple of Valadier is a pilgrimage site for believers seeking forgiveness for their sins. There's a small shrine at one end of the cave, with an altar where people have left behind offerings and messages of repentance.
As we were about to leave the church, we could see a thunderstorm coming. Flashes of lightning, claps of thunder and a slight drizzle had started by the time we began our descent. Since the pathway was unsheltered, we practically began running down the slope - my legs were protesting for days afterwards - and only breathed a sigh of relief once we had reached the safety of the car. After the 'adventure' of the caves earlier, it turned out to be quite an eventful day!
Both the Frasassi Caves and the Temple of Valadier are an easy day trip from Ancona, the capital city of Le Marche. You can book tickets for the Frasassi Caves online. Wear comfortable walking shoes and carry a jacket; the temperature underground is about 14°C all year round. The Temple of Valadier is free entry.
Disclosure: Our experience in Le Marche was made possible by Life Marche Magazine. Views are entirely my own.