Le vie delle Foto in Trieste
2 April 2024
Le vie delle Foto in Trieste
2 April 2024

The Befana in the Grotta Gigante in Trieste

The Befana becomes a speleologist and descends into the Grotta Gigante: the atmospheric Guinness cave hosts the event ‘that all holidays take away’

For over 30 years, on the afternoon of 6 January, a unique spectacle has been taking place in the Grotta Gigante cave.

Waiting for the Epiphany in the Grotta Gigante is a quite exceptional experience: the place is perfect for staging ancient stories.

Usually, Epiphany celebrations are linked to the burning of brushwood on which a puppet dressed in rags stands, symbolising the old year that has just ended. Here, on the other hand, a group of dozens of spelunkers dressed as the Befana, the Three Wise Men and other picturesque characters descend in a thousand pirouettes from the top of the cave’s high vault to the bottom on long ropes. Children and adults follow the acrobatics, which begin a hundred metres above their heads, over which a giant red stocking dangles the whole time.

Everyone’s attention is captured by the expectation of the Befana: an ancient figure, whose myth affects the whole of Italy, but which here, a few kilometres from Trieste in the locality of Sgonìco, discovers a unique declination thanks to the setting in which it takes place.

Legends and truth about the formation of the Karst caves

There is a legend about the origin of the Karst and its caves.

At the end of the creation, the good God is said to have found himself with a huge pile of leftover stones. Not knowing what to do with them, he allegedly instructed an angel to gather them in a sack with the intention of throwing them into the sea. As he was nearing his destination and was flying over a beautiful land covered with woods, he was seen by the devil, who had his abode here. The devil, thinking that a treasure was hidden in the sack, cut its seams: a cascade of stones cascaded over the land below, burying woods and meadows and generating the deep underground cavities.

The place where the apparition of the old woman bearer of gifts takes place today is the largest cavity open to the public in the world: the natural hall is 98.5 metres high, 167.6 metres long and 76.3 metres wide.

It has been estimated that the vault inside could house the Dome of St. Peter.

The formation of the Giant Cave began about 10 million years ago: underground rivers carved their way through it for 6 million years, until the flowing water channelled itself into a deeper path, leaving the spaces we can walk through today.

History of the Cave and its discovery

The fast-growing city of Trieste in the mid-1800s was suffering from a severe water shortage, and it was the attempt to remedy this by locating the hidden course of the Timavo – a subterranean river – that led to the first adventurous explorations of the cave.

In 1890, the Club Touristi Triestini undertook the complete exploration of the cavity, soon realising the extraordinary opportunity that would come with its opening to the general public.

More and more people from outside speleology were showing a growing interest in visiting the underground world.

The tourist trail was started in 1905 and within three years a staircase with ramps was built to allow visitors to reach the bottom of the cave. On 5 July 1908, the opening to the public was solemnly celebrated.

The atmosphere was to be fairytale-like: the majestic cavern was lit by thousands of candles, lanterns and torches and a 100-flame chandelier was lowered from the vault, while the town band sang Wagner’s ‘Siegfried’.

The amazement that certainly accompanied the first visitors at the beginning of the 20th century is no different from that which grips those who witness the events that come to life in Grotta Gigante today.

The story of the Befana is an ancestral myth, bearing the imprint of female figures celebrated throughout Europe with vaguely similar names: Bertha in Britain, Berchta in Austria, Switzerland, France, Holda or Frau Holle in Germany, Frigg in Scandinavia. Speleologists bring back her original identity: the Befana we meet in the cave is an old woman shrunken by age and cold, wearing an apron over her long, cheerfully patched skirts. She wears heavy socks and comfortable shoes, and warms her hunched shoulders with heavy, colourful woollen shawls. Her head is covered by a kerchief knotted under her chin, but she allows a glimpse of her headlamp, an unmistakable accessory for cavorting enthusiasts.

But the Befana does not descend alone from the high vault. The Muccocervi, imaginary creatures that inhabit the underground, recklessly accompany her: resembling little dragons with green coats and yellow polka dots, they were created by the ingenuity of Susanna Martinuzzi, the second female member of the E. Boegan Commission of Trieste, a speleological group of the Giulie Alpine Society (the Trieste Section of the Italian Alpine Club), which is today entrusted with the tourist management of the cave.

The cavers dress up as the Christmas characters par excellence: Father Christmas, the Comet Star, the Wise Men with glittering crowns… They grab the children’s attention and hand out sweets and candy, while the adults are comforted by the secret recipe forGran Pampel.

Perhaps due to the effect of the warm alcoholic beverage prepared by the druid and his helpers, the grown-ups blend with the children and, leaning on the railings, watch the spectacle enchanted. They also seem to be waiting for the fateful question: “Have you been good? Or do you deserve coal?”.

The suggestive gloom of the grotto, the Befana and the fantastic characters of the winter festivities project us into a magical atmosphere in which to stay for a few hours, forgetting what has been left on the surface.

After all, we are justified, these are the last flashes in the company of her ‘who takes all the festivities away‘.

The event has limited admission: access is guaranteed only after booking, check www.grottagigante.it

Borgo Grotta Gigante 42/A, Sgonico, Trieste 34010, Italy

+39 040327312

+39 3296877903


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