The Stiffe Grottoes and Presepe (Nativity Display)
The Stiffe grottoes are in the town of San Demetrio ne' Vestini in the province of L'Aquila (Italian region of Abruzzo), 90 km/55 miles east-northeast of Rome. The grottoes are centered on the Monte Velino and Monte Sirente massifs and are part of the Sirente-Velino Regional Nature Park. Much of the area is characterized by karst formations; that is, well-developed limestone solution landforms. That typically produce caverns, grottoes, features such as stalactites and stalagmites and have extensive underground drainage systems, often including subterranean pools and flowing streams. (Also see Karst Caves and Caving in Southern Italy.) The Stiffe grottoes are what is called a “resurgence,” that is, a point at which an underground stream emerges (pictured), usually where it encounters impermeable rock after having flowed through permeable strata. In this case, that spot is the high point of the ravine overlooking the small town of Stiffe. The water is of such a volume that the resulting falls are quite audible and overflow into the valley. There is some documentation that the grottoes and falls were known even in ancient times. The water flow was strong enough to allow the construction of a hydroelectric plant at the beginning of the 20th century; it was destroyed in WWII and has not been rebuilt.
A tourist organization called, simply, “Grotte di Stiffe” was formed in 1991. As a result, the first installation of a presepe—a Nativty manger scene, the most characteristic of all Italian Christmas symbols—came about in 1994. The presepe stays in place from December 8 through January G; that is, from the feast days of Corpus domini through Epiphany. Typically, the area leading up to the grotto entrance is adorned with traditional presepe figures such a shepherds and even Roman soldiers carrying out the census (“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. And everyone went to their own town to register.” - Luke:2-3) The figures for the presepe are made by local artisans.