North of Lucca lies a magnificent valley with peaks of limestone. Where you have water and limestone, caves are soon to follow. The Grotta del Vento is one of those caves. Further up the valley of the Serchio River is the fine hilltop town of Castelnuovo di Garfagnana with its rocca and, just as important, some good restaurants. In the heat of the summer this trip provides an opportunity to enjoy the scenery, have some good food and cool off.
You can opt to visit the Grotta del Vento first and then travel on to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana for lunch. The first tour starts at 10 AM. The road to the Grotta is narrow, winding and slow so you should allow 1 ½ to 2 hours from Lucca.
If you are not an early riser you can travel up valley to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, have lunch there and drive back down valley to Grotta del Vento to take a tour during the heat of the day.
There are a number of side trips available on the east bank of the Serchio – one not to miss is the Ponte delle Magdelena (AKA Ponte del Diavolo), across from Borgo di Mozzano.
The Grotta del Vento is a privately run operation. Now, before you Americans start conjuring up images of those hokey roadside attractions named “Mystery Cave of ____!” (you fill in the blank), these tours are informative and serious. The tours come in three flavors:
- The 1-hour tour that stays on a single level, traversing the cave horizontally.
- The 2-hour tour that covers the same ground as the 1-hour tour but adds a descent of 40 meters (about 120 feet) to the bottom of the cave (and return, of course).
- The 3-hour tour that starts by ascending 40 meters to the top of the cave. The tour then descends 40 meters, hooks up with the people on the 2-hour tour and then descends another 40 meters to travel the rest of the cave.
The temperature in the cave is a constant 53°F(10.7°C)so summer visitors will want to bring a jacket. This is one of those times when layering clothing will really pay off. There is no problem taking photographs inside the cave. The features are nicely illuminated but for those who wish to avoid using a flash the illumination isn’t very bright – you’ll need a tripod or monopod to get other than a blurry shot.
1-hour tours: 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, 14:00, 15:00, 16:00, 17:00 and 18:00
2-hour tours: 11:00, 15:00, 16:00, 17:00
3-hour tours: 10:00, 14:00
Tickets are €7.50 for the 1-hour tour, €12.00 for the 2-hour tour and €17.00 for the 3-hour tour. (2007 prices)
Castelnuovo di Garfagnana has a well-preserved centro with a church (San Pietro e Paolo) and a rocca for defense.
These days the rocca is used more for traveling exhibitions than defense. Within the walls there are outdoor cafes in and around the nicely shaded loggias. However, don’t miss the chance to walk to the top of town for remarkable views of the surrounding Apuane mountains. The best views are from the wall just outside and to the right of the police station. After taking in the panorama consider lunch or dinner at Da Carlino (Via Garibaldi 15) or a snack at Osteria Vecchio Mulino (Via Vittorio Emanuele 12), an excellent place for some fine wines, cold cuts and cheeses (and an excellent outdoor mural of Bacchus).
To Get There:
The Grotta del Vento is 47 kilometers north of Lucca via SS 12. That having been said for the map-focused travelers, in Italy signs indicating what road number you are on are few and far between. To navigate this route your best bet is to follow the signs for Abetone and Castelnuovo di Garfagnana. You’ll take SS 12 to Marlia where you’ll enter a traffic roundabout. The sign to Abetone is the one to follow and it will take you across a bridge over the Serchio River. You have now departed from the route shown for SS12 on the maps. However, you are on a road that parallels SS12 and eventually reconnects with the SS445 . Once on the road (a very nice wide road at that) continue north to Gallicano (36 kilometers). In Gallicano watch for yellow signs pointing to the left for Grotta del Vento. Turn left onto the road and continue following the signs to Grotta del Vento or Fornovolasco. Once you arrive at the Grotta there is pay parking – you will need to purchase a parking ticket from the blue machine. Be sure to pay for enough time to cover the time until the tour begins plus the length of the tour. You might want to allow an extra 30 minutes if you want to browse their (excellent) rock shop and catch a drink after the tour.
Below is a map (courtesy of Litografia artistica Cartografica) of the route just described. The yellow line will take you to the Grotto del Vento. The green line is the side trip to Ponte della Magdelena (see below).
To reach Castelnuovo di Garfagnana return to the main road at Gallicano and turn left. Follow the signs to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana. There is pay parking just off the highway. Follow the signs to Centro.
Ponte della Magdalena
On the way to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana there is a bridge – the Ponte della Magdalena (or Ponte del Diavolo) – with five asymmetrical arches. It is very picturesque and photogenic. To reach it take the first right on the traffic circle as you enter Borgo di Mozzano and cross the river. Take the left turn at the end of the bridge and travel north for about 4 kilometers. There is free parking on the left side of the road. You can walk over the bridge. The best time for photographs is in the morning when the water under the bridge is still. The reflections in the water are great.
Bagni di Lucca
See the description in the Orrido di Botri Itinerary.
The old town of Barga is uphill from SS445 and contains a cathedral started in 1000. The cathedral at the top of town is decorated with carvings of pagan and Christian scenes including kings, dwarfs, lions and mermaids. Behind the cathedral is a garden with a beautiful Lebanon cedar. The streets of Barga tumble down the hill offering views of archways and pallazi.
By Stephen D Evans