Evaporitic Karst and Caves

Evaporitic Karst and Caves
Photo by Astraftis.

The Evaporitic Karst and Caves of Northern Apennines comprise well-studied examples of karst phenomena in gypsum and anhydrite in a humid sub-tropical climate.

They consist of two different deposits from different periods: Triassic anhydrites and Messinian gypsum. The caves include the world's largest epigenetic cave and the largest karst salt spring in Europe. Over 900 caves have been explored and mapped so far, moreover, the discipline of speleology was born in this area.

Community Perspective: the nine components can be safely watched from a distance or by joining one of the cave tours. Tsunami describes a harrowing experience at the Spipola Cave.

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Japan / USA / Europe - 04-Aug-23 -

Evaporitic Karst and Caves by Tsunami

Evaporite karst and caves of Emilia Romagna Region: Messinian Gypsum of Bologna

It was rather difficult to grasp the OUV of this nomination, so I thought there was no better way to recognize it than taking a tour of one of the caves.

The Spipola Cave is one of the two main caves in the core zone of this section of the TWHS.  After my two failed attempts to take the tour in June and September 2022, I finally managed to take it in the Sunday morning on May 28, 2023. It was the last day of my 18 days trip through the UK, France and Italy, and indeed I had a flight from Bologna back to Wroclaw, Poland, in that afternoon.

Here is more about how I made the reservation:

I started thinking about incorporating this tour into my trip itinerary only after I purchased the ticket for the flight out of Bologna. So I knew that I had only Sunday morning for the tour, and very fortunately the tour was offered only on Sunday mornings. In fact the tour to the Spipola Cave and the tour to the Farneto Cave were offered alternately on almost every weekend morning over the summer.



When I sent an email to make a reservation, the first thing they said in the reply mail was "Let us see if we can find an English speaking tour guide for that Sunday morning." Within a few days I received another email stating that they found one, so they went ahead and booked a place for me in the tour. I received yet another email from the English speaking guide himself. He warned me that participants would get wet and dirty, in the darknes of the cave, so he recommended that I bring another set of clothes to change into after the tour. I anticipated a rather difficult, speleological tour. I was never asked to pay for this tour, so I never paid. 

Only several days before this tour on May 28, 2023, the massive rain and flood in the region that covers this TWHS hit the international headlines. So a few days before the tour I emailed the English-speaking guide to ask if our tour would go ahead. He replied and said yes, but informed me that he was no longer the tour guide on my tour...

Now about my experience at the TWHS:

The Farneto Cave

Having arrived from the Montecatini Terme WHS by train in the mid-afternoon of the Saturday before the Sunday tour, I decided to visit the other cave of the two: the Farneto Cave in that Saturday afternoon.  Although I was aware that the cave was also entered with a guide only and the visitor center there was closed on weekends, I knew that there were some info boards along the path from the visitor center to the cave.

I was only using Google Map Direction and took a bus from the center of Bologna to the commune of San Lazaro and was to take another bus 126 to the bus stop of Farneto Gessi near the visitor center, but this bus 126 simply did not come.  So I decided to walk for 5 km, for half of which I managed to hitch a car.

Once arrived, I walked on the path from the visitor center to the Farneto Cave. This was rather a short and quite an easy path. I did see some rocks along the way with clearly visible gypsums.

I waited on the road until the Bus 126 back to San Lazaro came. The bus driver was not selling tickets and did not charge me for the ride. I guess only locals with a bus card ride this bus.  Now this bus dropped me off at another bus stop in San Lazaro, only half a block around the corner from the bus stop where I waited for the same bus earlier. So I guess I was waiting at a wrong bus stop, which Google Map did not specify.

The Spipola Cave

Then came the Sunday morning. The meeting place of the tour was at a parking lot called Parchegggio La Palazza near the Spipola Cave, and the meeting time was at 9:30. My plan was to take a Bus 11 from the Bologna center to the end of the line and walk the rest for 1.6 km.

The road to the parking lot was getting steeper and steeper as I walked, and I started wondering if I could arrive on time. So once again I tried to hitchhike. Soon enough a car stopped and took me in.  The car was driven by an Italian man, and his wife and two teenage children were in the car. They asked me where I was from, and when I said I was born in Japan, they all screamed, "Japan!!!" because the wife was from Japan, and children were Japanese-Italians!  Moreover, they were also going to take the same tour with me.  The rest is history among us!

We were at the parking lot at least for 30 min. prepping for the tour, meaning we were putting on protective clothes we all brought and a helmets with a head light provided. I had a jacket and a pair of sweat pants on. After the tour I was just going to take off the dirty jacket and to change into another pair of pants before boarding the airplane. 

But then I had some problems. It was most likely that my shoes would also get so dirty with dirt that Ryanair would be sorry. But before I said anything about my problem, the Japanese woman asked me for my shoe size and said I could wear her husband's extra shoes. The same concern was with my shoulder bag, and I eventually abandoned the idea of taking the bag with me, along with my phone with camera. The Italian husband will take photos and send them to me later.

I looked around the parking lot and noticed there were some very young children with a helmet on. I had to wonder why there were such young children if this tour was supposed to be such a difficult one.  I also learned that there was a main guide and two assistants who were supposed to look after us through the cave, but none of them spoke very good English...

As we all entered the cave, we found that the path along the cave was pretty slippery with wet dirt although I myself was managing not to slip and not to get too dirty. In fact I HATE to get dirty, so I tried to remain as clean as possible, an apparently wrong attitude. 

The guide stopped every once in a while to talk about ... something in Italian. I knew that his English was not good enough to explain any difficult concepts. So the Japanese woman, realizing that I was only nodding for no reason, started giving me a brief summary of what the main guide was saying. Some areas of the cave were entirely covered by gypsum, which shined as the guide shed his flashlight on.  They somehow reminded me of the Waitomo Cave with glowworms in the North Island of New Zealand.

As the tour went on, it was getting increasing difficult to navigate without getting seriously dirty.  We had to go through narrow vertical as well as horizontal opening between wet and dirty rocks. As I was struggling, I noticed that those young children were rather having fun. They were smaller than adults, so they didn't have any problem of going through those openings. The struggle applied to most of the adults, including the Japanese woman, and the next thing I noticed, she wasn't giving me the summery any more, and to be honest, preoccupied with trying to cleanse myself while the guide was talking, I wasn't even inclined to listening to her or anybody for that matter. 

After we reached the final destination of the tour we simply returned on the same route, but the guide, instead of giving the explanation of the cave as he did on the way in, tried to make this tour more "memorable," and at some points he said things like (I'm just guessing from the context), "Let us see who can run up this slope without slipping" or "who wants to crawl through this little tunnel instead of going over those rocks as we did on the way in?" They were of course the little ones and some of their parents who seem to consider this caving tour as a Sunday morning family outing. Or is this the main object of the tour??

After almost 3 hours in the cave I was so glad that this tour was finally over.  We walked back to the parking lot where there was a water faucet, cleansed ourselves and changed into another set of clothes. The Japanese-Italian family gave me a ride to a nearby bus stop, from which I could take a direct bus back to my accommodation. I picked up my luggage and then headed to the airport. 

It wasn't until I sat in the airplane when I finally got rested and calmed down. I looked back on the tour and was shocked to realize that I hardly learned anything about the cave!!  What OUV?? One thing for sure, however, is that if I had not met that family, my day would have been unbearably difficult...

OK, I concede that if this TWHS doesn't make it to the WH list in September 2023, taking this tour was a complete misadventure.

Read more from Tsunami here.

Jarek Pokrzywnicki

Polska - 15-Jul-22 -

Evaporitic Karst and Caves by Jarek Pokrzywnicki

Site visited just recently (June, 2022), tentative site, scheduled for inscription in 2023. Since Astraftis described one component - Upper Secchia Valley - I will try to focus on two other areas located close to Bologna - Messinian Gypsum of Bologna and Messinian Gypsum of Zola Predosa. It is always a kind of guessing game for a tentative site, which part will be inscribed (if any) but anyway if in Bologna it may be a nice rest from endless Bolonia’s porticoes

Parco Regionale Gessi Bolognesi e Calanchi dell’Abbadessa (Messinian Gypsum of Bologna), located south – east of Bologna is a regional park. Easy accessible with a car, but I guess there is also a public transport available. While preparing for the trip I studied the maps and found that Farneto Cave may be open to the public. Hence I started exploring the area from parking near the cave (google coordinates 44.43253927452703, 11.404740950820656, it is only 10 km from Bologna) just to realize that the cave is closed and may be visited on a guided tour, later on I found info that may be helpful for future visitors - Visits to the cave are organized from March to November, only upon reservation, and are led by authorized speleologists of the Regional Park Gessi Bolognesi. For further info you can contact tel. +39 051 6254821 or use email: info.parcogessi@enteparchi.bo.it

More information available (park official website):


Since the cave was closed I decided to have a short hike in the surrounding height – I used San Antonio hiking path (Il Camino di Sant’Antonio) – easy, well marked, leading from parking lot on SP36 to Gaibola Valley. On a way through the forest there are numerous gypsum crystal rocks as well as nice views of surrounding area. Anyway, even if the cave was not visited, the park is interesting, for sure those huge crystals forming different rocks.

Messinian Gypsum of Zola Predosa – located south west of Bologna, with car you can get to Gessi (I started the hike from the turning of Via Carrale and Via Valle – google coordinates 44.460710, 11.231730, but probably better starting point maybe be closer to Gessi village (google coordinates 44.46820168160388, 11.216264938103595). At first glance the area looks less interesting than Messinian Gypsum of Bologna. There are no rocks (at least within a hiking path I used – Itinerario Pedonale dei Gessi). Whole park looks as recently converted to nature (in fact it is an area of former quarry). Map shows also the cave nearby (Grotto dei Gessi) but I could’t find it.

Places on the photo, bottom left, than clockwise: hiking path towards Gessi (Messinian Gypsum of Zola Predosa), entrance to Farneto Cave (Messinian Gypsum of Bologna), Crystal gypsum rock (Messinian Gypsum of Bologna), green valley (Messinian Gypsum of Zola Predosa)


Italy - 25-Jun-21 -

Evaporitic Karst and Caves by Astraftis

This is to me a bit of a mysterious (tentative) site, and one that I don't know if it will ever manage to make it on the list, although it has potential. But the main reason I decided to write a review for it is that I have a personal connection with this evaporite karst, since I have been visiting one of its components regularly since my childhood: having descent from one of my parents' side from a small village on the hills of Reggio Emilia (the lesser famous cousin of neighbouring Parma and Modena), the gessi triassici ('Triassic gypsums', or better anhydrites) in the Upper Secchia Valley (in the Alto Appennino Tosco-Emiliano national park) are in fact coterminous with one of the major local attractions, the fonti di Poiano ('Poiano springs' - Poiano is the nearest, minuscule village). So my point of view might be subjective, and it is somewhat odd to think that such a familiar and intimate place might one day bask in universal glory. I hope this might help shed some light on this proposal.

So, I can refer to just one component, the "Triassic anhydrites [or, more currently and also on all signs, 'gypsums'] of the Upper Secchia Valley", which however, from the official description, also seems to be given more relevance than the others (it's the only one that is actually explicitly cited there). They are placed along the course of the Secchia river, which is still young and of torrential character here (its springs are in a a meadow just some 15kms upstream), but already relatively wide, even if still not so destructive as it can become downstream near its outlet into the Po river. This region is characterized by pleasant and soft hills (500-900m) lining parallel valleys, is moderately densely populated and cultivated, but has a quite "difficult" geology, as it is very much subject to erosion (giving rise to extended calanchi 'ravines') and landslides. Historically, it is very interesting for the presence of Romanic parish churches (pievi) and castles (well, ruins) retraceable to the ruling period of margravine Matilda of Tuscany (Matilde di Canossa) in the XI-XIIth c., but this TWHS is all about geology, so such amenities are of no further importance. What is actually geologically relevant is the famous Pietra di Bismantova ('Stone of Bismantova'), a massive flatiron dominating the landscape and the paradise of climbers. But (surprisingly?) even the Stone, as conspicuous as it may be, does not seem to be correlated at all with the evaporite karst and caves.

The Triassic anhydrites have two facets: one visible and enjoyable, and the other hidden and hopelessly unreachable.

The visible one consists of two "locations". On the one hand, the big and spectacular rock faces that enclose the Secchia valley in this tract roughly between the villages of Poiano, Sologno and downhill from Castelnovo ne' Monti (the de facto "capital city" of Reggio's hilly region). They give a sense of incumbentness which is nowhere else seen along the Secchia. Apart from the riverside road and the river bed, the rock faces can be appreciated from some vantage points on both sides of the valley, especially from Vologno and (better) from the (long) road ascending to Sologno from the bridge on the valley floor: from this side, there is some perceived "wilderness" to the area. On the other hand, one can stop at the aforementioned Poiano springs: there is a meadow at the foot of the mountain where the numerous, mineral-laden karstic springs, gushing directly from the rocks, merge into small streams and ponds before flowing into the Secchia. This is a place to lean back on a towel and relax, and is very beloved by locals, so it can get crowded e.g. on weekends. The hill is covered by a lush wood on this side, and there is a small nature trail that goes on the steep slope near and over the raging springs on nice wooden bridges and paths. I am always amazed to see how abundant the water volume is, apparently coming out from nowhere, from deep inside the mountain. The water is very cold (try to put your feet into the stream! Very healthy!) and slightly mineralised. And of course, one can venture onto the nearby river bed to find a swimming spot.

The hidden side, however, is what is probably considered the most valuable by specialists: a complex system of caves, the bowels themselves of the Emilian karst, with its own ecosystem, a dark and inaccessible world. Normally one experiences it only indirectly by means of the karstic streams and the informative boards; I don't know to which extent speleology is possible here for the layman, if at all.

As far as I know, this component of the TWHS is only of natural value and has not yielded any particular archeological results; probably the description refers to the other components on this regard. But this might just be my ignorance on the subject.


How to visit it

This component is most easily reachable by car (there are ample parking opportunities) or similar coming from Reggio Emilia/Modena in the north and taking either the road to Castelnovo ne' Monti and then going downhill passing by the Pietra di Bismantova (nice easy hike to the summit plateau if you don't want to climb...), or the road that goes all along the Secchia passing through Sassuolo and Castellarano: just before the bridge to la Gatta you will have to turn left (there is a sign).The river road in this last part was paved some years ago, not without controversies. If you want to come from Tuscany or Liguria from the south, well, you can, but be prepared for a mountain pass (Cerreto) over an infinitely winding road, and then some kms more! There is a bike trail on the riverside and bicycle is surely an option here, but one needs some training for all the ups and downs. Public transport exists, but is very sparse: your best bet is to find a bus to Castelnovo ne' Monti (timetables might be ungenerous, e.g. there at 7 and back around 13-14) and then do an easy but lengthy (and nice) hike, which is recommended anyway in one of the many possible variants (like this one). 

Once you are there, you might take advantage of the restaurant at the springs! Gnocco fritto (~ 'fried dumplings') with cold cuts (salumi) is the regional specialty! And if it is summer, bring a swimsuit with you. Apart from the small trail at the fonti, another nice hike from there goes all the way up and around to the other side of the mountain and the small village of Poiano and beyond (starting right behind the restaurant). And finally, in the last years, the area has been offering more and more accomodation opportunities, such as B&Bs in the countryside, beyond the already existing small hotels in the surrounding "main towns".


Universal value

Now this is probably one of those (T)WHSs whose ultimate value is destined to remain cryptic to non-specialists. An important part of it, the anhydrite caves (no less than world's deepest!!), will probably never be publicly accessible (at least not in the Upper Secchia valley). So we must take it for granted, and the comparative evaluation on the UNESCO website seems to be extensive (interestingly, judging from it, for many similar sites very little seems to be known about their geo- and ecosystems). As for the "perceivable part", it surely is remarkable. The distinctive character of this small area with respect to the rest of the region is clearly felt. There is a kind of majesty coming from these rocky cliffs and the graveled, ample riverbed, and the roaring karstic springs can be quite impressive (and refreshing). The gessi triassici and the fonti di Poiano are surely one of the highlights of the region (not to talk about other kinds of more historical attractions), and this feeling seems to hold also in the academic field (at least locally, this aspect is quite renowned). So, I want to trust them by giving this site thumbs up, and dream of it some day being dug up from the tentative list. Let's bring some geological awareness to the world!

But if it will ever make its way into The List, I suspect something will have to change in its fruition. For example, the meadow in front of the springs is also home to interesting endemic vegetal and animal species, and a part of it should be theoretically off-limits, but this is never respected by the crowd. Some intervention had been carried out to improve the once critical situation, but probably more is needed. Will its current status as a playground and towel field still be compatible with the WHS one?

And finally, I wonder if the whole site might gain value from an extension that also includes the Stone of Bismantova and other geological phenomena in the area.


Photo: the Triassic anhydrites and the valley as seen from the peak of mount Ventasso (1727m) on a summer afternoon (springs are on the right side).

Site Info

Full Name
Evaporitic Karst and Caves of Northern Apennines
Unesco ID
Natural landscape - Karst landscapes and caves

Site History

2023 Advisory Body overruled

ICOMOS advised Referral for mgt issues

2023 Inscribed


The site has 9 locations

Evaporitic Karst and Caves: Alta Valle secchia
Evaporitic Karst and Caves: Gessi di Zola predosa
Evaporitic Karst and Caves: Gessi Bolognesi
Evaporitic Karst and Caves: Vena del Gesso Romagnola - M.te Penzola
Evaporitic Karst and Caves: Bassa collina reggiana
Evaporitic Karst and Caves: Evaporiti di San Leo
Evaporitic Karst and Caves: Gessi di Onferno
Evaporitic Karst and Caves: Vena del Gesso Romagnola M.te Casino
Evaporitic Karst and Caves: Vena del Gesso Romagnola M.te Mauro