I must write about our trip to the caves at Toirano. It took a while to work out how to go there, because the tourist information office in Luarno is subject to a shielding spell. On our initial exploration we had consulted a street map and found our way to the place shown on it only to find the office had moved. It seemed to have moved to a building next to the billboard with the map. On retracing our steps we could find no sign of an office, perhaps the move was still ongoing. No, one day when we were not looking for the office there it was, hiding in plain sight, a shared part of a large building. At the time we were laden with shopping so decided to visit early next morning, thunderstorms were forecast, so it seemed a good day to go down a cave. Unfortunately we had failed to notice tourist information did not open till ten and arrived next day with nearly an hour to kill before that. Next door to the tourist office was a beach café set in a lovely garden. Mainly of container plants it must have been a real labour of love in such a warm climate. The containers were grouped round the base of palm trees growing in the sand and window boxes and other large planters had been strung round the palms using their knobbly trunks to provide tumbling greenery. The plants were a mixture of shrubs such as red hydrangeas, succulents and what in England would be houseplants and bedding, gone feral here. So we whiled away the hour with two small coffees and a shared pastry. Once open the woman in the office was very helpful and gave us an English language guide to the caves together with a map of Luarno, on which she marked the bus stop and the tobacconist from where we should buy our tickets. There were dramatic photographs of stalactites and stalagmites on the cover of the cave guide, inset with a picture of a bear skeleton.
The bus stop and tobacconists were easy to find. There were two counters, one for the shop and the other looked full of tickets and timetables. A line of people were waiting to buy Lotto tickets from one assistant, John suggested I approach the other. I seem to have retained my role as interpreter, despite the fact that my Italian is so limited I do not even know the names for all the shapes of pasta. Brandishing my cave brochure I said ‘Autobus’ and ‘ Billet’ pointing at the bus shelter outside. She smiled and nodded, said something and indicated the queue. We joined the queue. A few moments later the same woman beckoned me over to the shop till and sold us two tickets, I drew a circle in the air and she sold us two more. We headed out to the bus stop, where a number of people were waiting. John had a look at the timetable and managed to work out which bus to catch and thought one was due at ten thirty. Sure enough it came round the corner, but from the opposite direction than our left hand side driver expectations. Everyone climbed on the middle door, John suggested I go up to the front and ask the driver. I stood at the open front door waiting as she was engaged in conversation with another lady, clearly not intending to travel. Finally I stepped on and showed her my trusty brochure. She shook her head and was clearly struggling to say something and said her Francais was better. I admitted to un peu and I think the news was that her bus stopped in the town of Toirano, but the bus to the caves was not till the afternoon. We could look round Toirano and walk from there. By this time John was stood next to me and we decided to do this and sat down.
Five kilometers of ribbon-developed road later she dropped us in the center of Toirano. It had a church and a museum, a café and that was about all. It was very pretty and sort of alpine. Above it towered limestone cliffs with some of their heads in the grey clouds. There was a brown road sign to the caves and John immediately set off for them. We were walking along the main road following the route the bus had taken after dropping us. It wound out of the village between a deep gorge, some of it natural and some obviously blasted for the road. We soon ran out of pavement, but white lines along the sides of the road seemed to indicate pedestrian right of way, similar to the cycle lanes painted on roads at home but not so wide. We passed a man walking into the village, from a small hamlet ahead on the right. When we reached the turn off to it there was another sign for the caves. All the time we were climbing and the views were spectacular. John checked his phone to see how far it was and Google reassured us it was only minutes to go. Sure enough we came to a bus stop next to a private road to the caves. Even from the bus stop it was quite a climb and it was a relief to round a corner and see a low building and big car park.
A few couples were busy pulling on hiking boots at the back of their cars. First we headed into the cafeteria and I waved my brochure and was directed upstairs. Finally we bought our tickets and were told the next tour was at twelve, faced with an English speaker John asked where from and was told up above, which was puzzling. We headed back down to the café to sit and wait. John bought a bottle of water. At about ten to twelve we set off back upstairs and sure enough some further stone steps led round the roof of the building. There was an asphalted footpath heading up into the hills. As we stood deliberating whether to follow it or just hang around a family of three walked past us, so we followed them. The path wound round the hillside, past a right turn and then arrived at a cavern entrance, blocked by a cast iron gate. Inside the overhang of the entrance a wooden bench ran along the wall with a number of families sat in line. A man nursed his small boy to make room for us on the end.
At twelve another family arrived to join us and at quarter past came the scouts of a family of four we had seen in the café. A small boy and a toddler with sparkling white lights in her shoes. The mum and dad fished coats from their rucksacks and the rest of us felt ill prepared. A rumble of thunder rolled around the hills and John said that the bears were growling. In view of the small children around I shushed him. The man next to me spoke to his small son and my German was good enough to work out he was telling the boy that the bears were growling, he made a very credible growling noise. Across the way I could hear another German man telling his son bear stories. All Dads must be the same.
At around twelve twenty lights came on in the tunnel and a girl came up to the gate from the inside, opened it and checked our tickets as we filed past her. We stood in a damp cavern looking at a witch doll whilst a man spoke quietly to us in Italian. So far it did not auger well. He then changed to English, said we would be visiting two cave systems linked by an artificial tunnel in which were fantastic rock formations, the footprints of prehistoric men and a cemetery of the bears. The tour would last about an hour. The cave floor would be wet and uneven so we should all take care, particularly those with children, that we please should not touch any of the rock. With that he set off down a narrow, winding passageway and we followed watching our heads and feet, avoiding the puddles.
The caves were spectacular, not huge grottos with fancy illuminations like we had seen in Gibraltar, but a linked series of chambers with beautiful and unusual rock formations. There were mighty columns where the drips from the roof had met the peaks from the floor, elegant folds of rock suspended from the filigreed roof and great bulbous eruptions our guide said were calcified waterfalls. Some of the features had subtle colours rising from mineral deposits others were pure white. At one point we crossed a low underground pond in which transparent blind crabs lived. The prehistoric footprints ran under a low roof alongside the route we were following. There were foot, knee and handprints of two adults and a child. They were deep inside the cave system, running under an overhang. Our guide said they must have been exploring, but when he turned the lights out I could not see my hand inches from my face. If they had fire and could see, surely they would have chosen to stand in the higher bit we were on rather than grope on all fours. I think they were hiding from something, crawling along next to the wall so they did not lose their way in the darkness. The good news was that no human remains had been found in the caves, so they found their way back out again. The same was not true of all the bears. Lots of bones from bears of different ages were collected in one area deep in the caves. The guide said they had been washed down by underground rivers and collected due to a low veil of rock we could see. He thought the bears had come to hibernate and over many years some had died. I wondered about a flash flood underground. All conjecture.
After the bear cemetery we came to the man made tunnel between the caves systems. A solid iron door guarded both ends. The second system held even more bizarre wonders. It had been flooded, so in parts the stalactites had partly dissolved into bulbous protuberances, some of which had started to grow nipples and in some cases massed warts, when the water was drained. The stalagmites had often dissolved completely or left stumps like fat candles on the floor. Then we came into a chamber that had held vapour and out of the vapor crystals had grown, forming glittering filigree flowers, like corals on the sea bed but more intricate.
The draining of the caves has stopped this happening and the heavy doors are an attempt to stop the damaging airflow through the now open system. I felt a privilege to be able to see these things. Finally we came to a large cavern, where villages sheltered from bombing in 1944 at the end of World War Two. Quite why the Germans should choose to bomb such a small isolated spot was not clear. Anyway these caves held large gabions full of bottles of sparkling wine, apparently being cave aged. We emerged back onto the hillside, still high up despite all the steps we had climbed up and down.
Thunder was still rolling round the hills. We had a pleasant walk back to the cafeteria and stayed to have sandwiches. Then John decided the chances of us arriving at the correct bus stop in time for a bus were slim, so we phoned for a taxi. Or rather we phoned the number the girl serving gave us and then she kindly spoke to the driver as I could say the names of where we were and where we wanted to go and it was obviously not clear to him, which was which. The map of Luano came in handy when he arrived and he dropped us right by our pontoon.