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The Pertosa Caves
—or, Fun for the Well-Read Cave-Man

The Pertosa Caves (Le grotte di Pertosa) are 100 km (60 miles) SE of Naples in the Campania region of Italy (shaded green on the map insert) in the province of Salerno. The caves (red dot) are 40 km inland on the north-eastern foothill of the large massif that hosts the Alburni Mounts. A short distance from the caves is the town of Pertosa, itself, located on the Tanagro river just off the E45 autostrada that runs from Salerno south to Calabria. If you are an ardent spelunker of wild caves where you can roam free, falling into holes and impaling yourself on stalactites (no, wait—they're the ones that fall on you from above!)—well, all of that, then maybe you should look elsewhere. On the other hand, if you have imagination and literature in your troglodyte soul and you want to see where Dante's Inferno really is, this is for you.

The Pertosa caves are what is called a karst (limestone) cave system and are extensive, offering 2,300 meters of explored sections and a large lake/river that runs west to east from the entrance (image, above). (The entire 280 sq. km Alburni massif, itself, is the most important karst area in Southern Italy, hosting several hundred caves. Indeed, the Castelcivita cave, on the opposite SW foothill of the massif, is the longest cave in southern Italy, measuring 5,400 meters in length.) The Pertosa caves are called "show caves," meaning that they are open to the public and usually have constructed trails and guided tours. (The Pertosa caves were opened to the public in 1932.) There are currently three speleology/geology tours of the Pertosa caves available; they last 60, 75 and 90 minutes, respectively, and they all start with a 200-meter boat ride on the underground lake/river. (It is not a standing body of water; there is water coming in and going out. It's really a river that has been dammed with some fine engineering to form the lake; the overflow from the river still exits below the dam.) The caves have cutely named sections: The Falls, The Fountain, The Belvedere, The Bat Cave, etc. (The dotted white line in the image shows the route of the 60- minute tour. Blue is water; maroon is cave. White sections are rock.) The official and complete name of the site is Grotte dell'Angelo di Pertosa. (The black dot near the entrance is a shrine to St. Michael, the Archangel.) The entrance to the caves is at 263 meters above sea-level.

It was originally assumed that the lake within the cave was fed in some way by the nearby Tanagro river. More recent geology, however, holds that the source of the water is one or more phreatic faults in the Alburni massif. (A phreatic fault is a fracture that releases groundwater from the aquifer to the surface). The river in the caves is called the Negro; the caves are, thus, particular in the area in that they are the only non-marine caves with water running through them. The caves are of anthropological interest, as well, since a number of artifacts from the mid-Bronze Age (c. 1500 BC) have been found indicating that the site was inhabited long ago. Besides a great number of pots, a deposit of 324 miniature vessels was found in the farthest part of the cave, lined and piled up in a cavity in the wall. The assemblage is interpreted as a votive offering. Many of the finds from the caves may be seen in the Museum of Prehistoric Ethnography in Rome, the Provincial Museum of Salerno and the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. Tours of the caves as well as of the local area are conducted by MIDA (Musei integrati deii'Ambiente/Integrated Environmental Museums) in the towns of Auletta and Pertosa.

Back to educated troglodytes...Besides the genuine cave-exploring during the week, on weekends you can now take in L'Inferno di Dante nelle grotte a Pertosa, dramatic presentations of scenes from Dante's Divine Comedy. You and about two dozen other recently and dearly departed are ferried across the Acheron, the river of pain in ancient Greek mythology, to enter the Underworld. The part of Acheron is played by the lake; the Underworld is played by, well, 35-million years of real underworld all around you. (Phoney papier-mâché speleothems need not apply, thank you!) A dozen or so performers, guides and readers—aided by torchlight, music, props and various multimedia special effects—then lead you through prominent scenes in the Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise, the three parts of The Divine Comedy. The presentation was the idea of—and is directed by—Domenico M. Corrado of Tappeto Volante (Flying Carpet), a corporation that specializes in recreating literature and historical events for the stage. (This includes presentations of Orpheus and Euridice in the nearby Castelcivita cave.) It helps, of course, to be familiar with The Divine Comedy, either through the original Italian or through translation. Italians, of course, have no problem since they were all numbed into a literary coma by the droning of teachers throughout years of schooling. I read one enthusiastic comment about the Pertosa presentation published in the advertising for the show that I'm sure is echoed by countless other ex-tormented school kids: "This is great! Where was this when I was in school?"

Carucci, P. (1907) La grotta preistorica di Pertosa in Provincia di Salerno. Di Gennaro & Morano, Napoli.
Cremonesi, Renata Grifoni. (2007) "Notes on some cultic aspects of Italian Prehistory" in Documenta Praehistorica XXXIV. University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Arts, Department of Archaeology.
Parise, Mario. (2011) "Some Considerations of Show Cave Management Issues in Southern Italy," in Karst Management, Phillip E. Van Beynan editor. Springer, New York.
—Santangelo N., Santo A. (1997) "Endokarst processes in the Alburni massif (Campania, southern Italy): evolution of ponors and hydrogeological implications" in Zeitschrift fur Geomorphologie, Vol 41, Issue 0, p. 229-246, Schweizerbart, Stuttgart.

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