Deep in the bowels of Salerno, the Negro River has pushed through limestone rock for 35 million years, leaving in its wake a dazzling field of rugged spirals and curved towers as detailed and ornate as any cathedral.
The little-known Grotte dell’Angelo, or Angel Caves, don’t seem very enticing at first glance. Their cold and damp interiors draw few visitors compared to the most popular attractions in southern Italy, and the sun-soaked weather in the region seems to demand beach days, not hikes into the earth.
What makes the trip worthwhile are the many layers of ivory-hued stalactites and stalagmites spiraling wildly from every direction. The varying shapes, some as narrow as a magician’s wand, and others robust, meandering columns, recall the neo-gothic design of Antoni Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona, or, more simply, the unpredictable stream of a melting candlestick.
In this way, the calcium and alabaster formations are like clouds passing through the sky, or the proverbial inkblot. Each twist and turn begs for a unique interpretation. On a recent trip, a guide pointed out animals, castles, ancient ruins and saints, and invited visitors to harness their own imagination and discover new shapes in the stone fixtures.
Each centimeter represents 100 years of growth, with the thickest and longest formations having begun millions of years ago.
A small chapel dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel marks the entrance of the first cave. From here, visitors are transported along a submerged river deep into the Alburni Mountains, their jagged organs only partially visible under the sparse lighting system that encourages dramatic shadows.
After a short boat ride, visitors hike through the damp arteries of the mountains, across a series of majestic grottos illuminated by candy-colored lights. The red, green, purple and blue hues evocatively highlight the prehistoric landscape, creating a whimsical and romantic mood.
The mysterious atmosphere has been embraced by a local theater group, which regularly performs scenes from Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno” in the caves. Props from the show, including plastic skulls and limbs, are strewn throughout the trails, bringing to life the 14th-century poet’s journey through hell.
A pleasant countryside dotted with cows and stone churches makes for a peaceful drive to Pertosa from the U.S. Navy bases in Naples. Once off the highway, signs direct motorists toward the Grotte dell’Angelo and the Grotte di Pertosa. It’s the same place.
The road curves past a modest, but breathtaking waterfall and approaches the rural parking lot and visitors area, where bathrooms, souvenir shops and casual food shops cover basic necessities. The moss-covered stones and flowing river bordering the attraction make for a scenic picnic area.
Warm clothes and protective shoes are a must even in warm months. The caves naturally maintain a year-round temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit and the humid air often results in small puddles along the trail.
On The QT
Directions: The caves are roughly 80 miles from the Navy’s Capodichino base in Naples at Via Muraglione 18/20, 84030 Pertosa.
Costs: Admission is 13 euros for adults for a basic, one-hour tour; 16 euros for an intermediate, 75-minute tour; and 20 euros for a 90-minute full tour that includes a boat ride and a hike through multiple caves. Parking is 3 euros for automobiles and 1 euro for motorcycles.
Food: Pizza and snacks can be bought outside the caves. The nearby Ristorante Venosa offers affordable, tasty meals.
Information: Phone: 0975 397037; website: grottedellangelo.sa.it. (There’s an English language option, but the core of the website is in Italian only).