Everywhere we have been in this part of Liguria, we have been able to see the spectacular Apuan Alps in the distance, their bare stone rising up in jagged splendour behind the green hills and colourful towns. They appear to have snow nestling in some of their valleys and dips, but it is far too warm here for snow and so for a long time we wondered what it was. I was determined to get a closer look, so despite steep, narrow mountain roads with switchbacks and blind corners, we made the drive up towards Carrara. This was a girls only trip as Andy didn’t fancy this one and he went hiking for the day instead.
What we found up there completely blew our minds. Marble. A whole mountain of marble, being slowly eaten away by heavy machinery and carried down from the slopes on the back of enormous trucks. The graceful, peaceful mountains we could see from afar were in fact a hive of activity and the snow-like white patches were huge open cast mines or piles of debris and waste from years and years of quarrying. The scale of it all was breathtaking. This area, and Carrara in particular, is known throughout the industry for the high quality white marble found here.
From Carrara we drove on to Mesiglia, where the roads narrowed and became much steeper, and from there we headed for an area of the mountain called Fantiscritti where we knew we could go on a tour of the quarries. You needed your sunglasses up here as the roads and everything around is so white and covered in marble dust that it is blinding to look at.
Review of Marmo Tour
There are two different tours you could do from Fantiscritti (see Practical Information below for details of how to get there and what the tours cover) and we chose to go with Marmo Tour as we wanted to go inside the mountain. We arrived at about 12noon and were told that the next tour in English would be at 1pm, so we came back then.
Once you have donned your high vis vest, you get into one of their 8-seat minibuses for the quick but very bumpy drive into the mountain via the tunnel right next door to their office. The tour takes you into a working quarry where giant ‘rooms’ of marble have been removed, leaving only the supporting pillars in between. The size and scale of it all is incredible. This is ‘Galleria Ravaccione N.84’ and is situated in the heart of the three marble basins of this area: Colonata, Ravaccione and Fantiscritti. Together they form a 20km stretch of marble.
We learned that this quarry is privately owned and that concessions are given to families or to villages to allow them to extract marble from the quarries. This particular quarry was started in 1963 by Dell’Amico Carlo. Standing in the centre, we could see back down the old railway tunnel through which we had driven, through which marble used to be transported from the other side of the mountain.
Fantiscritti, the Romans and Michelangelo
Today the marble is cut and removed to order and clients, particularly sculptors, often come to this area to choose the marble they want. The marble here is apparently of very high quality. In fact, it was to the Fantiscritti basin that Michaelangelo himself came to select the marble for many of his greatest sculptures. The marble he used to create both the statue of David in Florence and the Pietà that is now housed in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome came from this area. There is also evidence that marble has been quarried at Fantiscritti since Roman times when huge blocks were taken down to the nearby port of Luni (founded in 177BC) on the River Magra and loaded onto ships to be transported to Rome. Coins, household items, tools and inscriptions engraved on marble slabs have all been found in ancient quarries here, confirming Roman activity in the area. Pliny the Elder wrote that marble from Luni was first used in Rome in 48BC and it was later used in the building of other ancient structures in Rome such as the Pantheon and Trajan’s Column. It was also used to face Marble Arch in London.
How is the Marble Extracted?
Our guide explained to us how they remove the marble within this quarry cave. They start by creating a ‘terrace’ a few feet high above the section of marble they want to remove. Then they cut through the base of the block using a saw with a 3 metre blade and teeth made of Invedia industrial diamonds that cuts at a rate of 6cm a minute (when they did this by hand it took about an hour it cut this amount). Diamond is used for cutting because it is so hard and industrial diamonds are generally ones that are too small, irregularly shaped, too badly flawed or poorly coloured to be used as gems. They can be mined from natural deposits or produced synthetically by subjecting graphite to very high temperatures and pressures.
They then use a special machine to drill two vertical channels all the way down through the back of the block. They push a length of diamond wire into one of the holes until it comes out at the bottom and they then join it to the top making a loop. Another machine turns this diamond wire around and around, slowly cutting through the marble. They do this on the left and the right, pushing the wire through both of the holes they have drilled.
The next job is to gently separate the block from the rest of the mountain and they do this using iron ‘pillows’ which they push into the gap and then inflate with water so that they gradually push it away. Finally, they prepare a bed of drifts, made up of soft soil and other materials and use an excavator to push the block away so that it falls in a gentle and controlled way onto the ground. They currently have three men who work at this quarry and to cut a large block of marble takes them 7-10 days. A single cubic metre block apparently weighs 2.8 tonnes.
It was wet in the quarry and the marble had a greyish appearance not at all like the bright white marble we had seen outside. This is due to the fact that the marble is wet and also because of the pollution from the cutting machines. Apparently once removed from the quarry and allowed to dry for a few days it becomes white again. The rainwater that passes through the quarry is recycled to cool the machinery during cutting.
How Is Marble Formed?
In this particular quarry, there is only very pure white marble, but in this area as a whole there are lots of different types and colours of marble. Marble is formed from sedimentary carbonate rocks (most commonly limestone) that at some point are subject to intense heat and pressure, causing large crystals to form and bind together turning the limestone into marble. This process is called metamorphism. The swirls and veins of coloured marble are usually due to mineral impurities that were present in the original limestone such as clay, silt, sand or iron oxides.
There are currently disagreements between environmentalists and the companies who run the quarries above Carrara. Campaigners say that the quarries are an eyesore and are causing too much erosion of the mountain. They are calling for tighter controls on the opening of new quarries and a ban on quarrying above 1,200metres. About 50 years ago around 400,000 tonnes of marble were quarried from the mountains annually, compared to close to a million tonnes in recent years. The quarry companies argue that quarries have been operating here for over 2000 years and that it is vital for the economy of this area.
A lot of the white patches that can be seen on the mountain from far away are actually debris and waste from workings that date back many centuries. In the past, the marble closest to the surface and most easily accessible was mined and the waste fell into the valleys. Some of these piles are now hundreds of feet thick and will possibly never be removed as it is currently unprofitable to do so.
We thoroughly enjoyed our tour of the marble quarry: our guide spoke good English and provided an interesting and informative commentary. We had passed some of the open cast mines on our way up to Fantiscritti and so it was great to go inside the mountain as well and learn about its history and the processes used to extract the marble. It is interesting that before our visit I had never even heard of Carrara marble, but since then I have come across the name several times in connection with different marble statues or buildings. When I see it now, I can fully understand its origins and appreciate the history surrounding this area and the mining carried out here.
Practical information for your visit to the Fantiscritti marble mines:
How to get there:
The simplest way to get up to the mines is by car. You drive up to Carrara and then on to Mesiglia, from where you follow the signs for the Fantiscritti cave. The road (Via Miseglia Fantiscritti) will take you up from Mesiglia and you soon reach a sort of cross roads where three bridges intersect and there is a small shop/bar on the left. This is the Ponti di Vara viewpoint and you can pull off the road here for a closer look. From here you carry straight on and after another couple of miles along this same windy road, you reach another area with buildings and machinery and this is where the tours go from.
There are some spaces to park on the road here, or you can carry on past the buildings and turn down to the right following the sign for parking. There is a small car park just off here. The roads up to Miseglia and Fantiscritti were in good condition, especially compared to a lot of the roads in Italy. You just had to take it slowly, especially around the hairpin bends. It was fairly busy when we got there and people were waiting for parking spaces so I imagine in the summer it must be difficult as the area is quite small.
Once you have reached Fantiscritti, there are two companies offering tours: Marmo Tour and Carrara Marble Tour, both of whom offer a completely different experience.
Marmo Tour are the first company you see on the left as you approach from Mesiglia. Their ‘office’ is a small hut with some tables and chairs in front and lots of colourful artificial flowers all around. They are situated right next to a tunnel entrance and their tours take you to see some of the quarries inside the mountain, including the Ravaccione gallery. They will NOT take you to see any of the open cast quarries in the area. This is the tour we did (see my review above).
The cost of the tour was €10 for adults, €5 for children aged 6-12 and free for under 6s. Our tour lasted for an hour, but that was because the guide had to say everything in Italian and then repeat it in English. Normally the tour lasts about 40 minutes. At this time of year, tours were taking place from 11am until 4pm.
The Marmo Tour website has more information about the tour, including a form where you can make a reservation online.
Telephone number: +39 399 765 7470 or +39 338 783 9855
Marmo Tour di Francesca Dell’Amico, Piazzale Fantiscritti, 84 – Miseglia, Carrara
Carrara Marble Tour
Further along, also on the left, is the office of Carrara Marble Tour. This company will take you further up into the mountains in a 4×4 jeep to see some of the open cast quarries in the area. They will NOT take you inside the mountain. I spoke to some people who had just returned from one of their tours and they said it was an exhilarating and exciting tour that took about 50 minutes.
The cost was the same as for the Marmo Tour: €10 for adults, €5 for children aged 6-12 and free for under 6s.
Carrara Marble Tour website
Via Fantiscritti – 54033 Carrara
Telephone number: +39 333 602 4026 (in English and Italian)
They also offer longer, 3-4 hour tours of Carrara and the marble quarries (see their website for details).