Summer is well on its way in Italy. It's 6:30 a.m. The sand is still cool under my feet and the sun has almost finished rising behind the stillness of the Adriatic sea. The breeze carries the scent of oleanders, pine trees and magnolias. A flock of swallows cries high up in the sky accompanying my morning walk. An old tale suggests that when swallows fly high good weather is in store, when their flight swirls between copper colored rooftops, rain is in the air. These feathered companions of the sunny season are indeed the best meteorologists around! They sweep from the heights of the blue to cross one's sight for a fraction of a second and delight the spirit like the notes of a beautiful melody my grandfather loved to listen to as he gazed in awe before the synchronized dance of clouds of birds in motion: "Non ti scordar di me." (Don't forget me by Luciano Pavarotti.)
On days like today I am overwhelmed by a feeling of profound gratitude for being alive, for having the possibility to share the Earth with such a variety of different living beings, each of which, serve a purpose and have a reason for being on this planet.
In the wake of this thought, last week, my husband and I decided to go for a ride with the kids. We loaded a picnic basket into the car and were out the door at the break of dawn.
"So, where to?"
Italy is a great country to set out and explore. A few hours by car, train, bus or plane and you can be anywhere! But the best part of living here is that a half hour drive, in any direction, can take you places you never knew existed. Fascinating ancient towns, valleys, mountains, lakes and rivers surprise journeyers around every bend.
We had been driving for about twenty minutes when a big sign along the side of the road caught our attention. It read: "Have you ever been in the belly of the Earth?" It was exactly the invitation we were looking for!
"I wonder if the Earth's belly looks like ours?" It's hard not to smile when kids come out with questions like this one. For a parent this means you've managed to trigger their curiosity, which is always a good thing.
We followed the road for 38 kilometers leaving the marine scenery behind us. As we passed through the countryside the sight of the mountains in front us grew closer and closer. Fields of tulips and tender grass glittered under the sun.
"Welcome to the Frasassi caves!"
We parked the car near a natural water fountain and filled our thermos. A half hour walk under the sun separated us from the most important hypogean site of karst caves in Europe.
They are located in the Marche region and are part of a nature reserve called "Gola della Rossa e di Frasassi."
The caves were first opened in 1974. Since then, tourists from all over the world continue to visit this masterpiece of Nature. A constant temperature of 14 degrees celsius kept us cool during the tour. The site is 13km long however, only part of the complex is open to the public.
The first cave we encountered was baptized "Abisso Ancona" ( the Ancona Abyss ). It is 200 meters high and could easily contain the Cathedral of Milan. We then went on to discover the "Sala delle Candeline" (The Hall of Candles). A breathtaking sight of countless cylindrical stalagmites surrounded by a ring made of stone resembled candles sitting on ceramic dishes.
The "Sala Bianca" ( White Hall ) startled us with it's sparkling formations of layers of crystallized calcite, a mineral composed of calcium carbonate.
The kids were thrilled when we entered the "Sala dell' Orsa" ( Bear Cave). It comes alive thanks to the presence of a huge rock eroded by water over thousands of years into the shape of a bear.
My personal favorite was "La Sala Dell'Infinito" (The Hall of Infinity). Due to its circular shape, during the first explorations, speleologists lost their sense of orientation and ended up walking around in circles for quite some time before they were able to find their way out of the cave.
Words cannot describe the Frasassi Caves. They are a natural wonder and, as such, need to be admired in first person, for it is through feelings and emotions that we learn to care. Personally, I truly imagined I was being guided through the belly of the earth. Our kids portrayed the experience by saying, "It's as if you are walking upside down on the planet." For a brief moment in life, my family and I were welcomed into an enchanted, hidden place where silence and peace are broken solely by the steady trickle of water, bearer of life in a system that continues to evolve because humans have decided to protect it instead of destroying it.
We left the caves behind us and once again greeted the sunlight on our faces. The memory of that day will always be filled with wonder and, with wonder, comes respect for the Earth we inhabit. The marvel I saw in my children's eyes as we returned home was very much like the one I saw in my grandfather's eyes when he shared his music with the swallows in the sky. There is, indeed, hope for all living creatures, simply because we are still capable of love.