Friday, October 29, 2010

Europe’s Finest Cave? (Frasassi Cave, Italy)


Only thirty years ago, two kilometres south of Venice (and a hundred kilometres south of the mosaic travel wonder of Ravenna), Italian cavers stumbled across an extraordinary wonder of the world. Considered by many to be Europe’s finest show cave (though Skocjan Cave in Slovenia is stunning), shining their torches into the first huge cavern must have taken their breath away.

The cavers named the massive cave hall the Ancona Abyss after their nearby home city and from the seemingly endless pitch black hole that they bravely abseiled a descent of two hundred metres. Today an artificial tunnel enters the huge cavern at ground level. Having grown over millennia from dripping water, the huge stalagmites that jut twenty metres into the air are dwarfed by the room able to hold most of the world’s cathedrals.

This room contains unusual formations called palm trunk stalagmites formed from the water dripping from such a height that the drip splashes vigorously creating a roughened exterior like that of a palm tree.

Through the five rooms on the tour, the cave regular uses soft blue lights to complement the standard lighting to highlight the incredible purity of the formations. While coloured lighting in caves is often gaudy and kitsch, the tasteful lighting in Frasassi highlight a number of delicate formations and doesn't detract from the experience.

The tour is littered with the typically imaginative names for formations including Niagara (last photo), Fairy Castle (right) and Organ Pipes that highlight the finest and most unusual of a treasure trove of cave decorations.

A carpet of calcite crystals lies perfectly flat marking thousands of years of growth in an undisturbed lake, the surface marking the height of the lake. The lake level has since dropped leaving a crystalline floor, delicately thin and sparkling as only nature could create.

The third room includes numerous small stalagmites reflected perfectly into a crystalline lake and is appropriately name the Hall of Candles (top photo). The backdrop of this lake are narrow column, albino white in the colour of pure limestone and untainted and with no discolouring by any mineral element. Most traditional cave formations have hints of brown from iron, green from copper and various other shadings from other mineral impurities picked up as the water flows through the soils inside or surrounding the caves.

An hour later, the final cavern, the Neverending Hall, contains a circular path that loops back onto the main path. Visitors peer deep into the Earth trying to view more remarkable formations as the cave fades to an inky blackness, the last vestiges of lighting soaking into the walls.

The late discovery of Frasassi Cave has aided its beauty with early lanterns and candles not tarnishing the glistening limestone and early visitors not sampling the delicate formations. Over a million years with small deposits of limestone from every drip and trickle of water has created a treasured wonderland of formations, reflections and decorations on an unimagined scale.

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