The Castellana Caves are one of the most interesting and famous geological sites of our natural heritage.
Famous for the alabastrine formations that have made the Grotta Bianca famous internationally, the Caves are an immense living ecosystem and a very important reference point for scientific dissemination thanks to the Museum dedicated to their discoverer and the astronomical observatory set up in their vicinity.
Caves of Castellana where are
Located very close to the town of Castellana, in the metropolitan city of Bari, the Castellana Caves are part of the natural and cultural heritage of the area called Terra dei Trulli, in the Itria Valley.
Ancient and terrifying legends of Castellana
The people who inhabited the area of Castellana over the centuries were perfectly aware of the existence of large underground cavities near the inhabited areas. The frightening accesses, damp and dark, were considered dangerous areas, often infested by the spirits of those who went to throw themselves inside the apparently endless ravine to take their own life. To make the legends more realistic and frightening was the fact that the Caves of Castellana were home – and still are – to a large population of bats, which came out at night from those cracks in the ground where the suicides went to end their days.
Popular superstition can therefore be counted among the reasons why the Castellana Caves were discovered very late: there is news of a first exploration conducted in the eighteenth century but the official discovery of La Grave, that is the gigantic cavity close to the surface that constitutes the entrance to the system of cavities below, dates back to very few decades ago.
A mystery yet to be revealed
The Caves of Castellana were officially discovered in 1938 by the speleologist Franco Anelli, who was the first to have the courage to descend through the swallow that had long been known to the inhabitants of the Castellana area. Through the narrow tunnel, Anelli reached the great abyss which was given the name of La Grave. From that moment the exploration of the caves continued very slowly and prudently: if at the beginning the speleologists’ enthusiasm was limited by the inadequacy of the technical means with which to continue the explorations, in more recent years it was the tragic lack of funds that constituted the greatest obstacle to the exploration of the whole Castellana Caves.
Today the complete route inside the Caves is about 3 kilometres long, to be covered in 3 hours along a route that starts naturally from La Grave, of which today you can reach the bottom very comfortably thanks to the installation of a staircase.
Today we know that what has been discovered so far about the complex system of cavities in the Castellana Caves is only a small part of an even more majestic system. An interesting discovery has been made during recent emptying operations of La Grave, which had been partially occupied by the resulting materials derived from the construction of the staircase and the work of securing the abyss to make it accessible to visitors: there is a cavity at the bottom of the North wall which could provide access to new areas not yet discovered and which could develop perpendicularly to the plan of the caves explored so far.
Unfortunately, these are only hypotheses, since more than ten years after that discovery the necessary funds have not been made available to speleologists to continue their exploration work.
The current route and the White Grotto
The route that tourists have the possibility to follow inside the Castellana Caves crosses a large number of very different environments to which imaginative and suggestive names have been attributed, sometimes derived directly from mythology. From the Grave we pass, for example, into the Grotta Nera, inside which there is the calcareous concretion which has been given the name of Lupa Capitolina, because it bears an impressive resemblance to the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus and which is so often represented in Rome and the rest of Italy. With a bit of imagination it is also possible to identify the twins attached to the she-wolf’s breasts!
Then we reach the so-called Cavernone dei Monumenti and another series of environments that widen and narrow until they lead to the so-called Long Desert Corridor or Grand Canyon: the name of this area is due to the presence of iron ores that give the walls of the corridor a characteristic red colour reminiscent of the clayey soil of American canyons.
The second part of the route winds from the Cavern of the Tower of Pisa to the Crystal Lake which leads directly into the most suggestive, fascinating and famous environment of the Castellone Caves: the White Grotto.
The White Grotto: a wonder of alabaster
The Grotta Bianca is an immense cavity, placed at the deepest level of the Castellana Caves that can be visited today. It seems to be supported by huge stalagmites that seem to be wrapped in heavy ivory and butter coloured silk drapes. From the ceiling they hang like sharp swords transparent and shiny stalactites, and often reach really impressive dimensions.
Smaller in size but equally fascinating are the small crystalline formations that dot the floor of the cave, which resemble glass flowers and small alien creatures.
The flashing of alabaster in the light of the torches and the suggestive lighting system has earned this cave the reputation of “the most shining cave in the world”, as the tour guides proudly repeat.
Activities and events
The caves of Castellana offer much more than just a “simple” exploration of the underground and over the years they have become a multifaceted and terribly interesting cultural centre.
The Franco Anelli Speleological Museum was inaugurated in 2000 and offers a rich but easy-to-use didactic and exhibition itinerary which, starting from 2015, will also host a 3D multimedia room that will allow you to explore the Itria Valley through digital reconstruction. The Museum is also very active in bringing young people closer to speleology: students can live the unforgettable experience of darkness that the first courageous explorers of the Caves experienced. This project, called speleojunior, involves school groups of different ages every year.
The Astronomical Observatory
Together with the Museum, in 2000 the Sirio Astronomical Observatory was inaugurated, which organizes, in summer, astronomy lessons and guided observations of the sky. All the astronomical instruments necessary for observation are also made available to enthusiasts and illustrative films are projected.
In every season there are day and night workshops for the study and observation of the Sun and other stars.
Since 2008 the Grotte di Castellana has been hosting an aerial acrobatics show called Hell in the Cave, which stages pieces from Dante Alighieri’s L’Inferno. It is an imposing installation that occupies in an extremely suggestive way a large part of the known cavity of the Castellana Caves. Replicas follow one another throughout the year and you can watch the show by purchasing a ticket for the tour of the caves, to be performed before or after.
Practical information about the Caves of Castellana
Just like any other underground site, the Caves of Castellana have some peculiarities that should be taken into serious consideration when planning and carrying out a tourist visit. Here is a series of useful information so as not to arrive unprepared!
How to reach the Castellana Caves
By car coming from the North you will have to take the A14 and exit at Bari Nord, then continue in the direction of Brindisi – Taranto.
From the South you have to follow the A16, exit at Bari Nord and then take the Strada Statale 16 to Conversano Cozze and then the Strada Statale 34 to Castellana.
By train, the nearest Ferrovie dello Stato railway station is Bari Centrale, from which you will have to take a train from the Ferrovie del Sud Est to Castellana.
Timetables of the Castellana Caves
The opening hours of this site, just like those of all other Italian caves, depend on the season in which you visit. In winter the visits are drastically reduced: between November and December it is possible to visit the complex only by appointment, while between January and February it is possible to follow the complete itinerary only at 10 am and noon. In summer things change radically, since the caves remain open for most of the day, from 9.00 am to 6.00 pm.
During opening hours, visits generally start one hour apart.
Caves of Castellana Tickets and prices
Tickets can be purchased comfortably on site by showing up half an hour before the start of the tour you intend to take part in. Alternatively, the ticket can be purchased online on the Ticket One circuit (at the latest the day before for the next day, so it is not possible to buy the ticket for a visit to be made long after the purchase).
The ticket for the full itinerary costs 16 Euro, while the ticket for the partial itinerary (lasting about 50 minutes) costs 12 Euro. There are reductions for children from 6 to 14 years old, provided that the tickets are purchased at the ticket office and not online. Special discounts are applied to groups of minimum 20 people.
How to dress at the Castellana Caves?
Inside the caves the temperature is around 14 degrees all year round, but it may drop in the winter season. The humidity is always at very high levels and often reaches 100%. Trekking shoes are absolutely recommended to avoid falling on the wet and slippery floor and heavy clothing, especially for children, which you will need to keep carefully under control at all times.