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CASTEL DEL MONTE & GROTTE DI CASTELLANA:

BY LUCIA MAURO

On one bitingly cold Sunday in November, we soared to mythic heights and then descended to the darkest depths of the earth. Shortly after skimming the clouds in our helicopter journey from the Tremiti Islands back to mainland Foggia, my husband Joe and I hopped in our rental car and headed for Grotte di Castellana – antediluvian underground caverns discovered in 1938 along Italy’s southeastern coast.

But before we snaked down that clammy subterranean lair, we stopped to tour the intriguing octagonal Castel del Monte, firmly planted on the highest hill of Andria, a small town that hugs the Apulia and Basilicata regions. As we sped along the autostrada, gray industrialism soon gave way to the fairy tale-like "trulli" of the Murge plains. The regal tan stone castello poked intermittently through fuzzy trees and tangled olive groves.

When we arrived in the cramped parking lot, unusually crowded for such an overcast day, a team of equestrians in full riding gear trotted up the walkway with a pack of agitated dogs nipping at the horses’ hooves. A band of white German Shepherd puppies frolicked around the heavily bundled tourists – mainly Italians, Germans, Brits and Americans.

Castel del Monte is a massive 13th century marvel of deceptively simple engineering. There is essentially nothing inside this open-air, non-fortified fortress except thick stone walls, porphyry marble columns and coral-mottled doorways. We did find a medieval toilet -- its iron grates placed atop a cold stone slab with a round opening that led down a very deep, multitiered shoot. On a more romantic note, one can truly imagine knights in chain mail and their green- velvet-draped ladies-in-waiting out of a Dante Gabriel Rossetti painting arranging secret trysts behind these thick naked walls wrapped around spiral staircases.

But the vast emptiness of this structure suggests a body-shuddering sense of mysticism. Construction of Castel del Monte, ordered by Emperor Frederick II of the Suevian dynasty, began in 1240. Yet its purpose remains unclear to this day. Its perfectly proportioned eight towers raise the question of numeric symbolism. Scholars also have noted that, due to extended building delays, Frederick II never had a chance to reside in his own castle. Apart from a few aristocratic wedding celebrations, this imposing maze-like sanctuary was used mainly as a prison in the 15th century and as a shelter for noble families fleeing Andria’s plague in 1656.

Ever since Castel del Monte was abandoned in the 18th century, it has been regularly devastated -- stripped of its marble and furnishings. A hideaway for brigands and political refugees, it nearly fell into complete ruin by the late 19th century, but was rescued when the Italian government purchased it from ancestors of the noble Cordova clan for a mere 25,000 lira. Major restorations took place between the 1920s and 1980s.

A beguiling edifice, with endless views of the fertile Apulian hills, the castle consists of wide doorways and echoing corridors that intersect and lead in and out of a geometrically precise courtyard exposing the sky through an octagonal opening. Most historians regard it, as one guide book points out, "an enigmatical book made of stone, where we find enclosed in a code the stages achieved by technical disciplines at the time of Frederick II."

It has been argued that the castle’s "purpose" was not a functional one. Instead the architects sought to create their own karmic energy zone – like designing a structure around a vortex in Sedona, Arizona to harness the invisible harmonizing rings of the stratosphere. Once inside Castel del Monte, one feels entrapped by the number eight. Again, it’s an octagon with eight octagonal towers at the corners, an octagonal courtyard and eight rooms on the ground floor and eight on the first floor – each one being trapezoid and exactly equal to the others. The arrangement of all these architectural elements obeys the terms dictated by the sun’s positions over the course of a year.

Mathematicians have had one extended field day measuring the circumference of each brick to prove that, for instance, on the autumnal equinox at noon, the sun casts a shadow on the ground the length of which is equal to the width of the castle’s courtyard. Comparisons have been made between this solar-sensitive design and St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican, where marble disks represent the signs of the zodiac set in the pavement on the north side of the central obelisk. On the day the sun enters each sign of the zodiac, at noon, the shadow of the obelisk’s point reaches the disk with the symbol of the corresponding constellation.

This hulking physics equation was not immediately apparent to us though. Joe and I were mesmerized by the contrasting textures – like rough limestone bordered by sleek purple marble – and the rich fill-in-the-blank quality of an abode whose very reason for its existence remains a conundrum. A photographer’s dream, the castle affords ever-changing combinations of eroded Corinthian columns, cross-hatched triangular windows and arches etched in veins of deep purple. No paintings need adorn these walls whose architecture is its prime decoration. Every beam and stairwell serves as an evocative example of engineering stripped to its very bone.

The imaginative stone canvas stands for an age of superstition – when wizards, sorceresses, alchemists and astrologers held the fate of a society in their chants and in their herb-encrusted apothecary jars. Castel del Monte embodies those esoteric times. For anyone who has seen the occult-themed film, "The Ninth Gate," Castel del Monte comes dangerously close to that intricately encoded passageway to hell. Yet the energy is not eerie or cold. And the building certainly points toward the sky, giving it a more benevolent cosmic aura.

Someday, if scholars devoted their lives to the castle’s metaphysical measurements, they might discover the secret of immortality or, at least, catch a glimpse of the great beyond.

The befuddling mysticism followed us all the way to the Grotte di Castellana, where a more natural magic code has been forged out of our planet’s evolving geology. Hidden gravel roads led us past more cone-shaped huts and olive groves toward this earthy enigma. Joe and I arrived in mid-afternoon to what surprisingly struck us as a volcanic version of Yellowstone National Park.

Huge signs pointed us in the direction of a massive parking lot, where an amiable white-haired attendant guided us into an unexpectedly wide space and explained that the entrance to the Grotte was about a half-a-mile away by foot. Since it was winter, we only had about an hour left of daylight; a surreal charcoal-gray gloom hovered over more "trulli" as we made our way past closed souvenir stands and toward a rather deserted ticket area.

We were greeted by a skinny, leathery man who offered us a fiendishly confounded tour option. He explained in a hushed hoarse voice that we could pay about $US20 per person for a 90-minute tour that began promptly, or half that price for a shorter tour scheduled to begin in an hour. The prune-faced ticket agent knew we wouldn’t want to sit around for an hour. Plus time was of the essence because we dreaded the idea of driving around unmarked roads toward Alberobello in the wee hours of the night after such a jam- packed day of travel and sightseeing. So we had to opt for the more expensive arrangement. This spindly employee was so hungry for our money that he practically reached into my purse for the lira -- while dangling an ash-clustered cigarette from his bony fingers.

We were suddenly joined by six other tourists, all Italian except for an American businessman who stumbled upon the site. Our young Italian-speaking engineer-guide spoke in enthusiastic scientific terms, citing rock dimensions and gazillion-year-old eruptions with the gusto of a traveling evangelist. We proceeded downward into this 20-million-year-old cave, which could have been the model for Dante’s "Inferno" or the inspiration for Jules Vern’s "Journey to the Center of the Earth." Amid square blocks of hunch-backed stalagmites – that looked like emulsified icons from Easter Island – an eternal dripping sound nearly drowned out our animated speaker. An elliptical opening at the top (similar to Castel del Monte’s open-air design) marked the initial entranceway uncovered by a team of local geologists in 1938. Foliage, filled with screeching birds, hung over the portal.

This eerie juxtaposition of other-worldly images and natural elements made it clear why the locals once called this area "La Grave," a haunted place where ghosts and monsters wandered around at night. The 20th century explorers reached the Grotte by way of a strong rope ladder that dropped them 200 feet into a glistening cove of alabaster gems. Over the decades, excavations have opened up a series of rooms, each its own scintillating art gallery.

As our group continued to descend into this inter-galactic sculpture park, the air grew heavy and moist. Crystallized stalactites and stalagmites resembled everything from shards of meat to tattered rags to calcified spider webs and an array of phallic paraphernalia. This is the "Cave of the Monuments," about 130-feet high, where rock formations rise from the ground in the shape of abstract art.

Each cove reveals yellow-, white- and rose-colored natural wonders: one shaped like a camel; another like a she-wolf. Others could be pipe organs, an owl, a human torso or Milan’s lattice-work Duomo. The "Corridor of the Snake" is guarded by a cobra formation, complete with coiled body, fanned-out head and razor-sharp fangs. Some stalagmites reminded me of the giant saliva-jawed "Alien" figure sold at Sharper Image. In the "Cave of the Altar," slender columns glowed like quietly resplendent church candles. At one point, we crossed a bridge and were hit with a blast of ice-cold air. Could the deepest ring of Hades be near?

We felt like we were time traveling to an age, millions of years ago, when the caves of Castellana constituted a widespread series of channels for the underground flow of rain water. At that time, the water, which contained carbon dioxide, sank into the joints of the carbonated rocks of the southeastern Murge plains of Bari. Later, violent earthquakes detached rocky masses from the vaults and fractured walls of the now dried-up channels of the streams. Huge limestone blocks, mixed with more stony materials, filled up these underground cavities.

The slow dripping of water through these fissures eventually shaped the crystalline stalactites hanging from the ceiling. These veils of water saturated with limestone deposits flowed slowly down the walls to form transparent curtains of genuine alabaster. Meanwhile, the continuous precipitation gave birth to the unusual stalagmites, or pillars, pushing up from the floors.

Grotte di Castellana can alternately be the ice palace of the abominable snow monster, a holy shrine, the jaws of the whale that swallowed Jonah, or the bones and sinews of a massive prehistoric fossil. We exited into the ink-black night – the Grotte now appearing more an unwieldy lump of granite than a shimmering galaxy where an invisible hand sculpts the metaphysical secrets of the universe.

As Joe and I got back on the road toward Alberobello, we reflected on our day, which began in a helicopter then meandered across a path of astronomical architecture toward the plummeting crevasses of Mother Earth and a netherworld unfurling with abundant life.•

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