by Mike Towler
So I’m standing at La Croce, contemplating all the little houses sprinkled about the Middle Serchio Valley far below. I’m perched on a rocky platform jutting into space about two-thirds of the way up the sheer front face of Monte Penna and a few miles to the North, smothering the summit of its own little hill, I can see Barga, home of barganews.com. As you’d hope someone has carted a huge metal cross up here, and I’m holding on tight to it as it’s a hell of a long way down and the wind is blowing my hat off.
I turn round and make my way back to the main path where I go right and head north again. I’m looking for a cave. Not the Tana di Cascaltendine, well-known and about ten minutes behind me, but another one. See, on a wooden hoarding in San Luigi, there’s this rough map of the Turrite Cava valley and dotted all over it are caves (the circular black and white splotches):
The trouble is – apart from the famous one I can’t find any of them. Who cares? Well, I got interested in this sort of thing a while back when I found an old manuscript about an 1880 expedition to the Cascaltendine cave by a priest from Barga and his mates from the nineteenth-century equivalent of Ariosto’s Bar (see my translation). There’s this footnote near the end:
Two others caves exist in Mount Gragno (he means Monte Penna) above the Fosso di Bolognana, one of which was visited by some of our party including Ferruccio Salvi. He has made a sketch plan of it which he has kindly forwarded to me along with the two sketches in this pamphlet, and we hope to publish a description of it in the next summer season.
As far as I can tell no such thing was ever published and so after more than a century I thought I’d have a look for these other caves. There’s two of them marked on the display board in San Luigi car park. I’m interested in the one I’ve marked with an arrow (the one next to the green number 2 is on private property and I don’t fancy getting shot today):
I’ve got a couple of proper maps of this area from proper map shops that show this cave but the maps are completely different from each other and from reality. I picture the surveying guys “Uh.. yeah. We did that area, boss. It kind of looks like this” handing over the made-up sketch they scribbled down in the pub because they couldn’t be arsed and they never quite figured out how to handle a theodolite.
Anyway, one of the maps has got the cave sitting at the top of a stream bed. There’s no obvious ones, so I pick a depression in the ground that could have been formed by running water and head up. The slope is steep and it’s an uncomfortable scramble up a mess of leaves and loose soil. I get close to the base of the upper cliff. Nothing. No cave. But then I realize that to the left there’s something like a path climbing upwards. It’s got to be the one that heads up onto the summit plateau of Monte Penna. I tried to find that last year trying to get down off the plateau from the other direction, and the undergrowth was so thick I couldn’t find it. So I figure what the hell – might as well explore something today. Sam said I had to be back in two and a half hours or she would call the police (she worries like that).
The sun is pretty low in the sky – I reckon I’ve got about half an hour’s daylight left. Rather than retrace my steps or go round the regular footpath at the base of the cliffs to the north I decide to head up the overgrown and maybe long-abandoned path, get up on the plateau and see if I can fight my way through to San Luigi, from where I can get down the road to where I left the car in five minutes or so.
Nice move though. You really don’t want to get lost up there at night without a torch. It’s overgrown like the Amazon, on three sides of the plateau there’s huge vertical cliffs that you can walk straight off in the dark, and these days nobody ever ever goes up there.
Let’s go. A big old tree has toppled over and slid down the hill, blocking the path. I have to climb up and around. A disturbance down below to the left, and there’s a family of three wild boar crashing through the undergrowth. I bet they haven’t seen a human for a while. It’s the first time I’ve seen them in the flesh apart from on my plate, though sometimes you can hear grunting and crashing noises from far-off parts of the forest. I finally get to the plateau where, helpfully, the path disappears. Somewhere behind Monte Matanna ten miles to the west the sun is plunging into the Mediterranean and gloom is gathering. I start to jog.
I figure that as I know the other side of the plateau pretty well I just have to keep going west and finally I’ll find something I recognize. After ten minutes I stumble upon the clearing where somebody is growing dope plants because like me he thinks that nobody ever goes there. Relieved, I head over to the path I know leaves the clearing to the west and follow it. I go past the old ruined metato which belonged to our neighbour Delma’s family when she was a little girl. I get on the main track and ten minutes later I’m at San Luigi. This is an old pastoral hamlet – current population around ten – which is the highest place you can drive to on the road from Fabbriche di Vallico. I start to run down the road from San Luigi towards our car which is waiting at the hairpin bend in the road from where you take the Cardoso footpath – the one that goes down past the Cave of Cascaltendine and on to La Croce. Before I get there in the last few minutes of daylight I linger at the point on the road where the panorama of our new world is laid out underneath me. First the village of Vallico Sopra – the church of San Michele curiously apart. A few hundred metres down from that is Vallico Sotto – our village, where Sam is waiting – and way below is the bottom of the Turritecava valley where the local metropolis of Fabbriche di Vallico lies hidden behind a ridge.
My eyes focus on the highest building in Vallico Sotto. Despite the gathering gloom I can see that the roof has a lot more moss than neighbouring buildings and it needs a bit of work, and there is a cross and an old bell on the ridge beam. That’s our place. This is, or was, the Oratorio del Santissimo Crocifisso. Il Collegio. It’s been there for half a millennium, at least. It has served as a monastery, a church, a hospital, a school, and the Lord know what else. For the last few years we’ve called it the Towler Institute. When we’re dead and gone somebody else will call it some other name.
So I get in the car and I roll down the road, park up in Vallico Sotto and crawl up the steep hill up to the monastery. I’m a minute late. The most on-time I’ve ever been so I escape a scolding. I’ve failed completely to find the cave – again – but that’s OK. One of the problem with finishing quests is that you then have to think of another one.
So anyway, that’s enough of that. From now on, let’s say once a fortnight or so, if anybody turns out to give a toss I’ll be posting “News from the Towler Institute” here courtesy of barganews.com. Let me start by telling you something about it. Sammy and I bought the place in August 2004 (Poor Gordon died and left me a little old falling down house near Bolton, and what with property prices being what they are, I swapped it for a Tuscan monastery. Makes you sick doesn’t it.). For those of you who remember the old Art School Il Collegio (see Barga News archives) – it is, or was, that. Now the website says “The Towler Institute. Science research centre, art studio, conference venue, cinema. The place to be in the Apuan Alps”. All you need to know really. We’re trying to make it into a place where curious people from around the world can come to discuss or talk or learn or do other fairly serious things. In the mornings. Then in the afternoons we use our local knowledge to take them on fabulous activities in the mountains and we take them out for fabulous food in the evenings. Because my main job is in theoretical physics research at an English university we’ve begun, in the first couple of years, by trying to organize scientific conferences a little bit different to the usual ones, and by hosting quantum physics summer schools (oh yes). The response. Things like..
“It was easily the most enjoyable conference I have ever attended, and in the most beautiful location”
“Each of the days in Tuscany was amazingly wonderful, can I ever imagine Italian lovely place without any crowd of Japanese tourists?” [from a Japanese person]
“It remains for me the most profitable workshop I have ever had, associating the top quality of lectures and the excellent practical training, making very difficult things to become accessible. It remains also for me the type of ideal ambience associating work, scientific discussion and entertainments.”
..so I hope we’re doing something right. And the future? The church attached to the Institute is fully equipped for film projections on its massive screen (I don’t know how many cinemas there are in the Apuan Alps, but here’s one for starters. All the Vallico people came round for the opening night party last year featuring – what else? – Cinema Paradiso, and the local little boys keep asking me to do it more often). We can also hold concerts (rising opera star Antonio Badinksi did a damned fine impromptu performance there last year). And, of course, my wife Sam – and she’ll hate me for saying this – amongst her many talents she is one of the best fine art bronze sculptors that I’ve ever seen, and she also draws amazing pictures based on sacred geometry. This summer in the church she’ll be making her latest pieces commissioned by various new buildings and public spaces in London. Only trouble is, Ryanair’s goddamned 15kg weight limit.. How the hell are we going to get them back to England?
I also want over the next few years, mainly through Italian translations with a bit of research on the side, to produce some information in English about the history and geography of the Apuan Alps and the Garfagnana. As there isn’t much of this about, I’ll put it on the Institute web site. Criticism invited and welcome (I only play at translations – you wouldn’t want to hire me professionally). For what it’s worth, see here for what I’m currently working on.
Finally and before you ask – who the hell said I can name an Institute after myself? Don’t I have to be dead first? The name started off as a joke invented by one of our friends when we were setting it up, and it kind of stuck. Maybe if I fall off a cliff one day while looking for caves it will all seem horribly appropriate.
Anyway, I’ve gone on too long. If anybody got this far let’s finish this with a couple of questions:
(1) I realize this must sound really dumb to all the local speleological chaps, but has anyone got any idea where this damned cave is?
(2) I have at least two large groups of quantum physicists and a bunch of Cambridge University politics students coming to the Institute in the summer and we need to entertain them. I’m looking for challenging fun activities which might just do that. See Things to do in Vallico Sotto on our web site for my suggestions so far. I’d love to hear from anyone with any similar ideas.
That’s it for now.