EXCURSION: Lamia's Cave

Descrizione

Grotta della Lamia [Lamia’s Cave] is the most important and extensive natural underground formation ever brought to light, to date, in the province of Reggio Calabria. Its importance is underlined by local stories according to which a series of underground tunnels connects it to the Melito Porto Salvo area.

The scholar Domenico Carbone Grio writes about it in considerable detail:

“The most beautiful of these Calabrian sub-Appenine excavations are undoubtedly those of Valanidi, otherwise, Pedaguddi. The peasants and shepherds of the area call it Lamia, or, in the local dialect ‘vôlta o sotterraneo’. For a long time, the information about the topography and nature of the excavation was uncertain; so much so, that some older journalists, and many contemporaries who had heard talk of them, confused the cave with the tunnel of an old copper mine opened by Saxons during the early days of the Bourbon Kingdom of Naples. One could not expect to find minute details regarding the cave; because, although it is not very far from a path well-trodden by peasants and farmers from the mountains, it was inaccessible to those who did not go there out of scholarly curiosity, armed with the patience of a mountaineer”.

The impression the visit to these caves made on the author must have been great indeed. Here is what he says about the experience:

“At first, the two openings, separated by a sandstone pillar, seemed to be perfectly similar to that of Terreti: but once inside, what a spectacle! A maze of endless, long, spacious tunnels, branched out on all sides, all separated and supported by innumerable columns and pilasters; and of these, some were held together like those of a Gothic church, others, broken in two, had left their capitals on the roof; while from the ceiling hung stalactite fringes, from which water droplets fell incessantly. On the walls there were strange twists and turns, like nooks and crannies carved in the stone; while from some of the arches fringed corbels protruded, which, looked as if they were meant to hold the crude utensils of a primitive type of domestic life”.

Then he adds: “[…] having lit a fire using ferns as best we could, seeing the ground was so wet, we ventured inside those interminable meanders, without finding it difficult to walk. The strange thing is that everywhere the ground is level, and the structure of the cave uniform. I have visited ancient latomias, naumachias and necropolises; but none of them amazed me as much as this cave. The strange forms the grotesque columns assumed from time to time struck the imagination; and frequently they took on the shape of human forms sculpted and shaped like sturdy caryatids used to hold up the vault!”

The entrance to the Grotta della Lamia stands at 910 metres above sea level, on the side of one of the many glens leading into the Valley of the Spedia, a tributary of the wide Valanidi River, that flows on its hydrographical left. Today, the cave is easily reached by means of a comfortable pathway, and its mouth, facing northward, overlooks a deep valley at the end of which, on a height, stands the hamlet of Trunca.

Although the main entrance is easily accessible from the pathway, the cave also has two smaller, secondary entrances facing the valley below. Immediately, from the main entrance, it is possible to catch a glimpse of the inside and of its more salient features: the series of pilasters and the squat stalactites that give the whole place an extremely wild air.

The words used by Carbone Grio to explain the mechanisms underlying these phenomena come to mind:

“[…] water, carrying loosened sands downhill, forms strange meanders amid hard cementified rocks which, in time, are transformed into vaults and columns, and become encrusted with white stalactites”.

The finely-moulded contours of the cave, full of pillars, variously arranged colonnades and rocky protrusions hanging from the ceiling, are due precisely to the slow, constant workings of the water. By infiltrating the Pliocene sandstone continually, the water erodes the softer rock, sparing only the more resistant stone, which the slowly-dropping calcite deposits cementify. Everywhere, on the ceilings and the walls, there are splendid clusters of fossil shells (genus Pecten), found in other caverns in the Province of Reggio Calabria but here exceptionally big in size.

The ample entrance cave, lit from outside for about ten metres, leads into a series of totally dark underground spaces. The ground tilts slightly upwards, and is sub-horizontal in all areas. Entering the grottos it is possible to follow two itineraries schematised as follows: 1) turn left in the direction of the two secondary entrances; 2) turn right to enter the deeper underground areas, farther from the surface.

Route one starts from a dimly lit cavern, containing mounds of clayey sediment from the vault, and, after a series of pilasters and columns, leads to entrances two and three.

Route two is more complex due to the presence of a large number of single and multiple colonnades, which turn the place into a veritable, inextricable labyrinth.

During explorations carried out by CAI [The Italian mountaineering association] many species of underground animals including hibernating bats have been found in the innermost recesses of the caves.

The calcium carbonate, deposited by the percolating water, leaves a white calcite patina on nearly all the columns, thus creating a strong contrast between the ground, which is dark because of the compact clay sediment, and the surrounding walls, which are generally very light in colour.

The route moves uphill along a slippery slope covered in clayey deposits which are moist because of the constant fall of drops from above. The floor of the upper area is + 3.50 metres higher than that of the entrance. Here the cave ends because visitors would be obliged to bend low to continue through low-ceilinged spaces that soon make it possible to advance. There is another passage consisting in interconnected low-ceilinged tunnels, but these are inaccessible because they are almost full of clayey deposits.

The grotto is also associated with the myth of the daughter of Belus, the beautiful, legendary queen of Libya, Lamia, who, having won the heart of Zeus, gave him several children, a progeny envied by Hera, who, unable to tolerate the relationship between her husband and the lovely queen, was overwhelmed by such uncontainable hatred against the children that she killed them all except for Scylla and Sibyl. And so, Lamia, distraught with grief, became a ghastly monster and took refuge in a dark cave to hide her horrible face. The monster’s “mouth” appears, in fact, at the entrance to this Calabrian cave. According to the tales handed down by the people of Montebello and Fossato Jonico, this mouth is so large that it capable of swallowing up entire flocks of goats.

REFERENCE

CARBONE GRIO, Domenico 1877, Le caverne del Subappennino ed i resti fossili del glaciale in Calabria [lit. The Caves of the Sub-Appenine and Ice-Age fossil remains in Calabria], published by Tipografia Romeo, Reggio.

Source: Guida Naturalistica della Calabria Greca– Alfonso Picone – Rubbettino Editore – Collana Parco Culturale della Calabria Greca

DETAILS

  • Name of the caves: Grotta della Lamia (the local place name)
  • Position in the land-commission map of Calabrian Caves: Cb 379
  • Municipality: Montebello Ionico
  • Locality: Lamia
  • Map: Carta Topografica d’Italia [Cartographic Map of Italy] scale 1:25.000 (series 25), Page 602, Section III “Motta San Giovanni” (I.G.M.I., Edizione 1, Florence, 1993).
  • Geographical coordinates: Longitude: 15°45’57”50 – Latitude: 38° 02’18”
  • Altitude above sea level: 910 metres
  • Area: 93.50 square metres
  • Volume: 94.50 cubic metres
  • Maximum height difference: + 3.50 metres
  • Depth: 3.50 metres
  • Geological details: sandstone from the middle-upper Pliocene era (Geological Map of Calabria, scale 1:25.000, Page 254 II S.O. “Bagaladi”, Published by Edizione Cassa per il Mezzogiorno).
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