Italy: From grit comes glistening art

By Heather Whelan

Heather Whelan marvels at Carrara's famed marble mines.

The Ponti di Vara is dwarfed by the quarries around it. Photo / Heather Whelan
The Ponti di Vara is dwarfed by the quarries around it. Photo / Heather Whelan

It looked like snow glistening on the mountain tops as we drove along the coast of Tuscany between La Spezia and Lucca. Only the fact it was mid-summer and the temperature was 38C made us realise that it wasn't snow we could see ... but marble.

Turning inland, we followed a valley to the town of Carrara, in the foothills of the Apuane Alps, which gives its name to the famous white or grey-blue marble which has been mined and quarried in the area since Roman times.

The roads here are narrow and windy, coated with marble dust from the 400 open quarries which tower around and above; some stepped like giant sugar cubes.

The village of Colonatta is a good place to stop for photographs and to try the local delicacy, lardo.

The quarrymen needed cheap food that would provide them with energy and the lardo sandwich was invented to satisfy this need.

Lardo is made from the fat from a pig's back, which is placed in a marble basin with alternate layers of garlic, salt, pepper, rosemary and sage, covered with a marble slab and left for between six and 10 months to mature.

When mature enough, it is cut into thin slices and served in fresh bread. What was once the staple of the worker is now served to gourmands and tourists.

There's even an annual Sagre del lardo (lardo feast) held on August 25.

Fortunately for us, it was the holiday period and the roads were empty, but we were able to stop at many of the quarries and pick up souvenir pieces of marble from the roadside. There are also souvenir shops and saleyards selling all manner of marble, from small cubes to huge statues.

At Fantiscritti, where Michelangelo sourced the marble from which he carved the figure of David, we stopped to peruse a small open-air museum. Here we saw examples of the tools the Roman workmen used and sculptures of the men themselves.

Nearby was the entrance to Marmo Mine, Cave di Marmo, which offers tours. As we waited for the midday tour, we tried to find some shade to cool off in. But that changed abruptly when our minibus drove 600m into the heart of the mountain and the temperature fell to around 16C.

Whereas the marble exposed on the mountainsides was dazzlingly, gleaming white, inside everything was gritty and grey. Spotlights illuminated the huge caverns and the 17m-tall marble pillars holding up the roof. The sheer size of the mine was mind-boggling. Our guide informed us another company has a similar mine right above this one.

Marble sculptures stand beside huge rough blocks awaiting removal from the mountain.

Slabs of marble are cut from the mine walls using water and a machine that resembles a huge chainsaw, which can cut blocks up to 9m square. In the past, dynamite was used, but modern methods are cleaner and less wasteful.

After the half-hour tour, we returned to the warmth and dazzle of the mountainside and headed back to the coast.

We knew London's Marble Arch was made from Carrara marble and we looked forward to seeing Siena's marble-layered cathedral and medieval marble pavement. We weren't disappointed.


Getting there: The nearest airports to Carrara are at Pisa and Florence. If you're driving, take the E80/A12, which runs north from Pisa along the coast. Carrara is 65km from Pisa. Take the signposted turn on to the partial toll road via Galileo Galilei.

Where to stay: Accommodation is available at Carrara and along the adjacent coast, or the quarries can be visited as a day trip from Florence, Pisa and Lucca.

What to do: For tours inside the mountain see

Information and recipes featuring lardo can be found here.

Further information: To find out more about visiting the area, see the local tourist

Heather Whelan paid her own way to Carrara.

- NZ Herald

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