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Delve Deep into the Heart of the Earth at Puglia’s Grotte di Castellana

Enter the Grotte di Castellana and uncover the secrets of Italy's subterranean wonderland. Delve into a mesmerizing world sculpted by nature's hand and, if you dare, explore what was believed to be the pits of Hell.
Thousands of stalactites and stalagmites illuminated by the warm glow of spotlights.
The underground world within the Grotte di Castellana. Photo courtesy of Grotte di Castellana.

A world where the artistry of nature has been sculpting masterpieces for millennia, hidden beneath the earth's surface, in a place waiting to awe-struck willing explorers. Underground, in the heart of Italy, the Grotte di Castellana (Caves of Castellana) is a stunning network of caves that offer more than just a glimpse into the subterranean. This location is a deep dive into a mysterious and mesmerizing world with an equally interesting history, and it was an easy place to stop on our way back to Calabria from our weekend trip to Basilicata and Puglia.

If you're ready to wander through the depths of the Earth and see its incredible beauty first-hand, the Grotte di Castellana promises an adventure that resonates with the core of our planet’s history and natural phenomena.

A Natural Wonder Unveiled Inside the Grotte di Castellana

Discovered in 1938, the Grotte di Castellana began to reveal its secrets when speleologist Franco Anelli lowered himself into a 60-metre (almost 197-foot) abyss, opening the doors to what would soon become one of Italy's most visited natural sites. The caves stretch over 3 kilometres (nearly 2 miles) and reach depths of about 122 meters (400 feet), presenting a journey through time sculpted by nature’s own hand.

From the stunning entrance known as La Grave (The Grave) to the magical white alabaster of the White Cave, the deepest and arguably most enchanting part, every step and turn inside these caves presents something seemingly new to marvel at. This natural labyrinth isn’t just a series of caves, but a gallery of geological artistry and an opportunity to see Italy from an entirely new perspective.

More Than Just Rocks: The Caves' Flora and Fauna

Massive stalagmites and stalactites illuminated by spotlights.
Inside the Grotte di Castellana. Photo courtesy of Grotte di Castellana.

The Grotte di Castellana are not only a geological marvel, but also a habitat for unique flora and fauna, adapted to the cave's dark and humid environment. Visitors might glimpse bats fluttering in the quieter sections or notice the sparse yet resilient cave-dwelling plants. This delicate ecosystem adds another layer of intrigue to the caves, offering insights into the adaptability and diversity of life forms.

The preservation of this environment is paramount, and the cave tours are conducted with the utmost respect for its natural inhabitants, ensuring that the ecological balance is maintained.

Many animals live in the caves of Castellana, and some are new endemic species, including Isopods, Pseudoscorpions, Beetles, and a large number of cave crickets. However, the most common animal you might spot is any of the five species of small bats that inhabit the cave system (Miniopterus schreibersii, Rhinolophus ferrumequinum, Rhinolophus mehelyi, Rhinolophus euryale, and Myotis capaccinii).

Before the network of caverns was explored, the first cave, called The Grave, had long struck fear among those living nearby as the night settled over Puglia. Superstitious passersby who witnessed bats emerging from the cavernous depths to feast on nearby field insects also spotted eerie mists rising from the chasm—and, naturally, their religious selves (and, hundreds of years ago and most likely being peasants who were uneducated) went absolutely wild thinking that these mists were the souls of those who had ended their lives in the abyss, desperately attempting to ascend to heaven. However, mired in tragic folklore, it was thought these same souls were doomed never to reach heaven, as Satan himself was said to tether them to the earthly realm, punishing the ‘sin’ of suicide by denying them eternal peace.

And then, yours truly perched herself at the (now blocked off) Mouth to Hell for a selfie…because why not?

A woman with sunglasses sits on a ledge smiling for a selfie. Behind her is a gate to prevent tourists from falling.
Hello, from the Gates of Hell!

A Journey Through the Caves

The tour of the Grotte di Castellana offers two distinct experiences: a shorter, one-kilometre (0.6-mile) walk and a more extensive two-kilometre (1.2-mile) trek which concludes at the White Cave, the crown jewel of this subterranean wonderland. As you meander through these cavernous spaces, you’re met with an array of stalactites and stalagmites, each formation telling a tale of centuries and the slow yet persistent pace of nature’s craft. If you were coming into the caves from warm 30°C+ (86°F+) weather like I was, the constant 16.5°C (61.7°F) temperature within the caverns felt pretty chilly (and my—apparently—delicate self needed a sweater).

Regardless of the temperature, the play of light and shadow, along with the sometimes eerie echoes of dripping water, creates an atmosphere that is both thrilling and meditative, transporting visitors to a world that feels timelessly isolated from the bustling life above. As well, both journeys begin with the aforementioned Grave of Castellana.

A beam of light shines into a giant rocky cavern, bathing it in light.
Inside The Grave. Photo courtesy of Grotte di Castellana.

Begin Your Adventure in a Grave

The Grave of Castellana stands as a monumental natural cathedral, illuminated by a natural skylight framed by a circle of holm-oaks, through which a sliver of the clear sky can be seen. It’s also the only place within the caverns where you can take photos; after this point, all cameras and phones have to be tucked away.

Sunlight cascades down from above, its path shifting with the day's time and the seasons. Within the Grave, this light produces enchanting effects: initially casting a vast white canvas on the sloping walls, it then breathes life into a distant group of stalagmites known as the Cyclopes, which resemble sea giants emerging from the tumult of a stormy ocean. Eventually, the light reaches the uneven and shadowed floor of the chasm.

The southern walls and massive fractured draperies and columns cloaked in green moss remain cloaked in perpetual darkness. Beyond these columns lies a grand architectural formation naturally sculpted over time. The Grave, marking the entrance to this karst cave system, is the only cavern that opens to the exterior.

Its origins date back to the Upper Cretaceous period, around ninety-one hundred million years. During this era, Apulia was submerged beneath an ancient sea inhabited by large colonies of mollusks and sea plants. Over millions of years, successive generations of these marine organisms died, their shells and remains accumulating on the ocean floor to create vast deposits of mud and sand. Under relentless pressure, these deposits solidified into several kilometres of thick limestone layers.

On the day that I visited, The Grave had a stage, where the public could purchase tickets to watch plays about Dante’s Inferno in a place once believed to be the pits of hell, the mouth to the above world directly above you. (More on that in a little bit, though!)

Two cave explorers in red suits walk among white stalagmites and stalactites.
Inside La Grotta Bianca. Photo courtesy of Grotte di Castellana.

The Heart of the Caves: The White Cave

Considered one of Europe's most spectacular stalactitic formations, the White Cave—or Grotta Bianca—is the finale of the long tour and easily the most unforgettable. Here, the natural décor has an ethereal quality with brilliant alabaster and white calcite formations reflecting the carefully positioned lighting like diamonds.

This section of the caves is renowned for its delicate and extraordinary formations, including the famous ‘Madonna’ stalagmite, closely resembling a praying figure. The White Cave not only is visually beautiful, but also tells a story of the earth’s geological evolution, echoing epochs of water flowing through rock, each drop contributing to the cave’s otherworldly beauty.

While you’re here, the tour guide will ask the group to stay completely quiet, refraining from talking or moving. The silence becomes deafening and, if everyone actually remains still, you can even faintly hear your heart beating.

Cultural and Educational Significance

Multiple actors bathed in a red glow act on a rocky stage.
Dante's Inferno in The Grave. Photo courtesy of Grotte di Castellana.

The Grotte di Castellana holds a special place in Italy's cultural and scientific landscape. In addition to being a tourist attraction, it also serves as an important educational site for geology, paleontology, and biology. Schools and universities often organize trips to the caves, allowing students to learn firsthand about karst phenomena and the formation of underground landscapes.

The caves are also a venue for events and presentations, including the annual Hell in the Cave show—a dramatic reenactment of Dante’s Inferno, which utilizes the natural acoustics and atmosphere of the caves to create a spectacular theatrical experience. This takes place in The Grave, which I mentioned above.

All in All

The Grotte di Castellana offers an amazing opportunity to discover a world beneath the surface that’s as informative as it is breathtaking. Encapsulating the beauty and complexity of natural history, there should be no hesitation in packing your curiosity and making your way to this incredible place. Explore, learn, and tell people you made it to Hell and back.


1 Comment

Marysa Nicholson
Marysa Nicholson
Jun 27

This would be a neat place to explore. We have been to a lot of underground caves in Mexico, which remind me of this. Such fascinating geological features.

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