The Apuane mountains
Apuan Alps are in the hinterland of the Versilia Riviera. This is a range of mountains of great beauty, dramatic scenery and high and rugged peaks, hence the name “Alps”, due to the resemblance with the real Alps. In fact, they are an offshoot of the Appennines, the mountain range that runs through peninsular Italy for all its length.
The Apuan Alps, in Italian “Alpi Apuane”, are a designated UNESCO Global Geopark, which UNESCO itself calls “The most beautiful marble mountains of the world.”
The Apuane (see top picture) are very close to the coast; their blue and white silhouette dominates the scenery from Viareggio beach and sea.
Versilia is certainly a unique part of the world, where mountains of this great altitude are so close to the sea: it is a rare gift of nature. To swim in the sea and then look back and be able to admire those gigantic, majestic masses and their pointed summits as the backdrop is to experience two of the greatest forces of natural beauty at the same time.
The Apuane Alps are a protected area, the Regional Park of the Apuan Alps. Part of it lies in the Versilia district, and is called Alta Versilia (High Versilia) as opposed to the low-lying Versilia coast. Another section of Apuane lies in the Garfagnana area, which includes the valley of river Serchio.
There are excellent walks to be had all around the Apuane mountains. The trails are studded with “baite” of the CAI (Club Alpino Italiano), Alpine huts and chalets where to stop, have refreshments and in some cases stay overnight, having a sound sleep after a long hike and possibly a “bicchierino” (small glass) of grappa.
The great beauty of the Apuan, this vast unspoilt area is also in its silence, which in some places is perfect and absolute. You can stand there and hear nothing at all, or rather you can have that eerie experience of almost hearing the silence itself.
The Apuan Alps are rich in marble, the white, world-famous Carrara marble, which has been extracted from open quarries in the side of the mountains for many centuries, since Roman times. Marble from the Apuane mountains was used by Michelangelo to sculpt his masterpieces, and the great artist himself worked in the quarries for some time.
If you drive around the area, you’ll see lorries transporting blocks of marble on the road; companies processing marble are also part of the scenery, with their characteristic, special cranes, like “gru a ponte” and “gru a cavalletto”.
Italy, thanks to the remarkable quantity of marble formations existing in a large part of its territory, is the world’s top country for marble production.
The Carrara marble is of very high quality, fine, precious and valuable. It is named after the city of Carrara in northern Tuscany, close to the Apuan Alps, which is the world’s most important centre for the extraction and processing of the renowned marble.
Carrara’s historic centre can be considered as a proper mountain town, surrounded by hills at the foot of the Apuan Alps and by their marble quarries. The city of Carrara extends from the Apuane, on whose slopes are its mountain suburbs and hamlets, all the way to the coast, where Marina di Carrara, a beach resort and port, lies.
Three great marble fields in the Torano, Fantiscritti and Colonnata quarries, which meet at Carrara and form the city’s white frame, are open to the public and can be visited. Every tourist should see them.
The visit is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience. It follows the route of the former Marble Railway, which from 1876 until 1964 transported the marble from the quarries to the lowland sawmills, the port of Marina di Carrara and the national railway system: an enormous feat for the time, over an altitude of 450 metres across a length of 22 kilometres through a large number of bridges and railroads, it has now been replaced by transport by road.
Visitors are taken on a spectacular journey over the impressive Vara Viaducts and inside striking tunnels dug into the rock, to discover the quarries worked since Roman times. During the Roman Empire the blocks were transported down to the valley below with the hazardous method called “lizzatura,” and marble reached the port of Luni along the Via Carraia on bullock carts.
Carrara’s economy mainly revolves around marble, its production and trade. Other economically-important activities are chemical and food insdustries as well as both artistic and seaside tourism.
The blocks of marble are extracted with special channeling machines, shipped from the port of Marina di Carrara and exported all over the world. Sometimes they are processed and sold by local marble sawmills and laboratories.
The medieval town of Pietrasanta, in Versilia, is an important centre of quarrying companies and a thriving international artists’ colony: visitors have included Henry Moore and Fernando Bottero. Marble is the backbone of the local economy of Pietrasanta, with 115 companies involved in quarrying and selling the white Carrara marble from the Apuan mountains.
Pietrasanta is rightly considered as the world’s capital of marble working. Many internationally renowned art schools and sculpture laboratories are in Pietrasanta.
Photo credits: Pizzo d’Uccello by Lorenzo Antiga. Carrara by Carrarino at it.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons. Photo of Ponti di Vara courtesy of Club Fotografico Apuano. Marble mountain by picdrops.