Rogue Carver on the Loose in Italy
Part 14, The Marble Quarries of Carrara
In my previous post I mentioned being shocked at the scale of the Carrara marble industry along with the quite gargantuan scope of quarrying. And so around a week ago I headed The Bee, my trusty rented Fiat Panda, north in order to see for myself the legendary marble quarries of Carrara.
At this point I should explain that the two-lane road between Pietrasanta and Carrara is practically lined with huge marble processing plants the size and scale of which quite beggars belief, each one announcing itself with one or more gargantuan mobile cranes, each standing several stories high, and one tailored to glide silently along their own set of rails. I cannot exaggerate just how many of these monster hoists there are – they quite literally dominate the landscape. In fact I couldn’t even hazard a guess just how many there are, but to give you some idea of the numbers we are talking about – the road between Pietrasanta and Carrara can take around half-an-hour to drive, and for practically the entire way there always seems to be several of these giants in view.
But of course they are not just limited to this one road, huge marble operations are to be found in the foothills of the mountains, on the plains leading to the coast, and up every nook and cranny of a valley; they are indeed everywhere.
Choosing one of these marble operations at random I pulled The Bee over by the side of the road and watched as two sawyers expertly split a giant slab and carefully hoisted one half of it across the yard. I couldn’t help being impressed by the calm confidence these men imbued into their work – no fuss, no muss, they simply went about their business with a composed assurance that bellied the fact that moving stone is actually one of the most tense experiences you can imagine – not that I have ever moved anything on this scale, but when moving a block of any size it is critical to ensure that the straps are even, and in precisely the right place otherwise gravity will take over… and take over in a flash!
Several times they set the hoist in motion only to have to gently lower the slab and patiently reset the straps… an experience I am very familiar with. Eventually the job was done, the slab tucked into its predestined corner of the yard, and The Bee and I went on our way.
The entrance to the City of Carrara is marked by a giant arch and during the few minutes it took to snap a picture or two I’d say at least a dozen trucks rumbled under it presumably on their way to the numerous awaiting ships moored at the harbor.
To be honest I had no real idea just where I was going. That may sound odd but it’s actually the M.O. when I set out to discover a place for the first time. I prefer to simply wade in and let the scene present itself freed of any preconceived ideas. And so quite randomly I chose Colonnata as my entry point, not for any particular reason but from what I could tell from the map it did seem to sit at the heart of the quarrying operations. Also I imagined it to be just the sort of craggy, atmospheric hilltop town that would prove interesting in itself, and I wasn’t disappointed for not only did the place provide front row seating, but actually boasted a lovely wide terrace from which I could gaze at the phenomenal spectacle of a whole entire mountain being removed one slab at a time. However, on arrival I discovered that not only did Colonnata provide all of the above but it also proved to be the Lard Capital of the World, an added bonus since I could never have imagined that there was a Lard Capital, of the world or anywhere else.
But first I had to get there, and so setting my course through Carrara I emerged at the city’s Eastern edge with a few swift decisions to make (Italian traffic has little tolerance for indecision) and by far more luck than judgment, to my surprise, I found myself following signs leading the way to Colonnata.
The train itself was quite a sight, perched upon elevated rails it was well worth the slight delay. It became immediately clear that this locomotive was one of the legion of such engines that used to shunt between the port and the quarries through an elaborate series of tunnels and elevated embankments that now are largely used by the trucks that replaced them.
Steering The Bee up and up-and-up towards the village of Colonnata, following the signage as best I could, I also took every opportunity to safely pull The Bee safely off the road, and feast my eyes at the sight of so many quarries either side of the roadway. However, impressive as these were to my innocent eyes, they were but a glimpse of the epic scenes I was about to encounter later that afternoon.
Arriving in Colonnata I was immediately impressed by the drama of the place. In fact I found myself slightly overawed by the sight and sounds of quarries busy at work, but the village seemed quite impervious to it all, as if to say ‘you can remove everything, take the lot, but we will still be here when it’s all gone’, because removing ‘it’ they certainly were.
Parking The Bee in the largely empty parking lot I made my way through a series of narrow winding alleyways until I came unexpectedly upon a wide terrace facing a mountain of human activity. As trucks wound their way up and down the impossibly steep looking mountainside forming the opposite side of the narrow canyon, way up high, there were the unmistakable signs, and eerie-echoey sounds resulting from the cutting, and hauling-out, of countless truck-sized marble blocks.
Having satiated my immediate need for a half-bottle of very local, very locally priced red wine my attention was turned to the main preoccupation of this likable and interesting little village, for I soon became aware that the entire community was absorbed in a single commodity – not marble, although the two were not unconnected, but lard… yes, lard! Every single shop, bar, cafe and restaurant was singularly devoted to the stuff. Lard, or ‘lardo’, was everywhere, and I mean everywhere!
I later learned that the lard in question is not your common or supermarket variety but a cultured and highly prized. Produced by storing it in marble containers the lard is imbue it with properties quite unobtainable elsewhere. People in fact drive half way across the country just to partake, filling their cars to the brim with bundles of brightly colored packets to take home with them.
By now the afternoon was growing a little long in the tooth and so I gently navigated The Bee back along the winding road to a crossroads that pointed me in the direction of a ‘Cave’ that seemed to promise a glimpse into the tantalizing world of Carrara marble quarrying, and so I began the long and very winding trek up to one of the many giant sized holes in the ground that surround the city giving its name to the the world’s most famous stone.
Carefully, slowly, and by pulling over prior to each hairpin bend, up and up I went, never knowing if or when some officious looking person would demand that I immediately turn around and head back in the direction from whence I came, but fortunately no one appeared, and so up-and-up even further I went. Round-and-round the endless series of hairpin bends I went, on and on, higher and higher, always with safety first and foremost in mind – until at last, though it came as some surprise, I had arrived right in the crucible of the action – right at the heart of a huge, gargantuan quarry!
Immediately I tucked The Bee into a roadside recess and awaited the arrival of the inevitable flashing light vehicle of authority, but it never came. I’d made it, no one seemed to care whether I was there or not… and then I remembered – I was in Italy.
At first I couldn’t quite believe the sight that presented itself. It took quite some time to grasp the scale of the operation. Everywhere I looked there was evidence of quarrymen at work, everywhere the noise of heavy stone being shifted, drilled, loaded and otherwise disturbed echoed through the air – I’ve never heard a sound like it before. The noise was quite unbelievable – huge and terrific, like thunder, deep and resonant – I could feel it in my bones.
Bear in mind that this is just one of the huge quarries that loom above the city of Carrara. And also consider that my visit coincided with the end of the working day, or so at least it seemed to me.
I’m not sure just how long I spent gazing at the spectacle but after a while I began to recognize the older caves and galleries.
It was at this point I began to realize the relatively small ratio of pure white marble. Much of what I could see was deeply stratified and cut through with streaks and cracks, clearly this was no solid mountain of perfect unadulterated white Carrara, as some writers on the subject have lead me to believe. Of course, there is plenty of ‘pure white’ Carrara within the seams, but in fairness, there is also an awful lot of scrappy marble too.
Eventually time came to make my descent and I headed The Bee back down the narrow zig-zagged road. Very soon though I caught sight of a huge truck bearing barreling down the mountain with quite staggering speed and agility. Pulling The Bee safely to the side of the road I let it pass and then followed in its wake as it tore through the twists and turns of the bends. I’d seen these trucks back in Colonnata as they made their way down the impossible gradients leading down from the quarries perched at the top of the opposing side of the valley, and once I had recovered from the astonishing speed at which they took the corners a closer inspection showed that all four front wheels of the truck turned in unison… which of course explained some, but not all, of the driver’s supreme confidence in rounding tight hairpin bends at such velocity. But still, four turning wheels or not, I just couldn’t imagine the consequences of a simple miscalculation given the precipitous drop that inevitably awaited any error on the driver’s part, not to mention a mechanical failure.
It was while following this truck that I stumbled across the last surprise of the day. On my way up I had been so absorbed in the monumental landscape unfolding before my eyes that I hadn’t even noticed it, but as we rounded a bend a time capsule came into view that immediately had me pulling over to the side of the road. What I discovered was the old railway terminal where the locomotive that had so enthralled me earlier in the day would have begun its perilous downward journey. The place was almost completely intact and it only took a slight squint of the eye to imagine the railway men and quarry workers busy loading the carriages with giant blocks hewn from the surrounding hills.
There was even an old hospital, for I can only imagine the horrific injuries these men suffered back when the slabs were maneuvered largely by hand. A little further poking around revealed one or two clerical buildings, a tool shop, and a supremely atmospheric gantry stretching from one end of the yard to the other, complete with the biggest hook I think I’ve ever seen in my life. Not to mention a still functioning but gated-off railway tunnel, complete with dignified and dilapidated station at the entrance.
Staring into the darkness for quite a while I gradually became aware of a dim point of light emanating from the far end of the tunnel, when suddenly I heard, or swear I heard the chug, chug, chug of a locomotive and caught a faint waft of the sweet scented hot oil, steam and smokey air.
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