The Ancient Romans were brilliant engineers. You only have to look at the Coliseum in Rome or drive along one of their dead-straight roads, many of which are still in use today, to see it. But did you know they also built the world’s tallest man-made waterfall over 2280 years ago? Pretty impressive eh? And not only can you can still see it for yourself, just as the Romans did, but you can also kayak, raft and canyon down the lower rapids too! Prepare to be amazed!
The incredible Cascata delle Marmore, or Marmore Falls, in Umbria stands at 165m or 541 feet in height with 3 massive drops making it Italy’s biggest man-made waterfalls (although there are taller natural falls). That’s taller than the ancient Great Pyramid of Giza and around the same size as the Washington Monument or Singapore’s modern Flyer ferris wheel.
But it wasn’t originally built as a decorative water feature. It was designed to solve a problem.
Back in ancient Roman times the Velino River flowed from the Piediluco lake through mountain highlands near the city of Rieti creating a boggy swamp in the Sabina or Reatina Plain. The marsh was believed to be a source of illness, probably malaria, and so the Roman Consul Manius Curius Dentatus ordered that it be drained in 271 BC.
The famously inventive Roman engineers solved the problem with an ingenious hydraulic invention – the Curiano Trench – to channel water out of the bog. The water was then directed over a natural limestone cliff at Marmore and down into the Nera River, one of the greatest tributaries of the Tiber that flows through Rome. And so was born the Cascata delle Marmore – a monumental beauty spot created to drain a disease-ridden swamp!
Sadly the canal gradually fell into disrepair after the fall of the ancient Roman Empire and by 1422 the original swamp was starting to form again. Successive Popes Gregory XII, Paul III and Clement VIII tried to remedy things but it wasn’t until 1787 that the falls took their current form when architect Andrea Vici slightly modified them to finally resolve water flow and flooding issues.
Today the waterfall is considered one of the most beautiful and evocative spots in Italy and still leaves visitors awestruck more than two millennia after the Romans first created it. Now that is impressive!
Art, literature & grand tourists
Since their construction the powerful beauty of the falls has inspired writers, painters and poets down through the centuries.
The first person to write about the cascade was Roman poet Virgil. His epic Latin piece, the Aeneid, written around 19 BC, tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan warrior. The hero escaped to Italy after the Trojan war, becoming one of the founding fathers of the country and an ancestor of Romulus and Remus who later founded Rome. In the seventh book of the Aeneid Virgil tells of the Cascata delle Marmore describing a “valley of dark woodlands and between the trees a river that roars and falls over big stones.”
Dante Alighieri, poet and father of the Italian language, also wrote about the falls in his book of Paradise with one chapter revealing “I seemed to hear the murmuring of a river – that goes clear down stone stone – showing the affluence of its mountain.”
Later, in the 16th century, the falls captured the imagination of painters including Neapolitan Salvatore Rosa. His landscapes would go on to inspire aristocratic grand tourists and the 17th century romantic movement including poet Lord Byron who described the waterfall in the “Pilgrimage of Child Harold” –
Turn again and look! She comes forth
like eternity, to consume
all that she meets, with a shocking
and frightening look, unparallel cataract
The waterfall was one of the must-see sights for visiting kings, princes and nobles, its wild, crashing, roaring beauty considered equal to Pompeii or Vesuvius. And it continues to draw visitors from around the world, but they no longer have to trek in on donkeys and don’t just come for the view.
The Cascata delle Marmore today – hydro-electricity, hiking and water sports
The sheer height and volume of the Cascata makes the water fast-flowing and an ideal source of hydro-electricity. The steel factories in Terni originally used the cascade to power their engines back in the late 19th century. Today much of the water is diverted through a hydro-electric plant to provide power for the surrounding area.
But don’t worry, water still flows over the falls, to give you an idea of the scale of the Romans’ engineering genius. And if you want to see the waterfall at full tilt you’re in luck as the full flow is sent over the cascade twice a day – once in the morning and once in the afternoon – especially for visitors.
As the 7 clifftop dam gates are opened the water flow over the falls goes from 15 cubic metres per second to a whopping 200 cubic metres per second! The immense head of water gathers pace, cascading and crashing over the 3 limestone drops, roaring down the valley and projecting a cloud of spray and mist high into the sky. It is a truly awesome sight!
And if you want the maximum impact of the wonderfully scenic waterfall there are a number of gentle trails that offer some great vantage points. Six routes include Lovers Balcony, the Balcone degli Innamorati, at the top, various paths climbing up through the woods alongside the great drops and even one leading behind the water if you fancy a shower! If you want to see the full height of the Marmore Falls in their entirety take path 4 to the Belvedere Pennarossa platform for a full frontal view!
Guided tours are also available and can be booked by phone or email (Details in the Useful Information below). There’s even a tour for children to tell them all about the pesky pixie or gnefro who lives in the woods surrounding the waterfall. Great fun!
But there is even more to the falls than the stunning landscape and views.
These days, while it’s forbidden to swim in the Marmore Falls, you can still experience the power and potency personally. Just jump in one of the inflatable rafts for hire at the bottom and let the rapid waters propel you like a cork down river. Adrenaline junkies can also kayak, canoe or canyon the lower reaches of the fabulous fast flowing River Nera. It’s a great way to cool off after a hot, humid climb to the summit although I decided to leave it to the experts this time – I didn’t have my wetsuit with me, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!
Personally I could gaze at the raw power and might of the raging waterfall all day! There really is something beautifully mesmeric about watching this wonder of ancient engineering pouring over Mother Nature’s wonderful limestone cliffs! It’s enough to inspire a person to poetry! OK, I won’t! But there is plenty here to see and do, so you can easily spend an entire day exploring this spectacular beauty spot from both dry(ish) land and water! Just make sure you have flat, sturdy shoes or boots as the paths are muddy, mossy and slippery in places from the mist clouds kicked up by the falls. And you might also want to pack a rain mac too, unless you need the spray to cool you down on one of those glorious sunny afternoons that Umbria is famous for! Delicious! Leave me a comment with your favourite watery beauty spot and make sure to pack your camera, canoe and coat when you add the Cascata delle Marmore to your Italian wish list – you won’t be disappointed!
PS I am super, super-excited to confirm that DreamDiscoverItalia has been shortlisted for Italy Magazine’s 2015 Blogger Awards in the “Best Art & Culture” category! Thank you for all the nominations! So if you’ve ever enjoyed reading this blog now is the time to vote for DreamDiscoverItalia to win by clicking below and then clicking on the vote bar under DreamDiscoverItalia
Voting runs until Christmas 2015 and you can vote from any mobile device – each one counts as a separate vote, from what I understand, so you can vote once from your laptop, plus once from your phone, plus once from your iPad, once from your work PC etc etc, you get the picture! Grazie mille!!
Official website – http://www.marmorefalls.it/home.php
Facts – the Cascata delle Marmore was constructed in 271 BC, has 3 drops the tallest of which is 82m or 272 feet high and is a total of 165m, or 541 feet, high. It is the tallest man-made waterfall in the world and one of the largest waterfalls in Italy. It is also a protected area due to the rare mosses that grow on the banks of the cascade.
Where – The Marmore Waterfall is a short, 20 minute drive from the centre of Terni in the central region of Umbria or around 1 hour 40 minutes from the capital, Rome. Directions by car are available here
Opening hours – Peak season
Monday to Friday open 10am to 7pm with water released from 12pm to 1pm and then again from 4pm to 5pm.
Saturday open from 9am to 10pm with water released from 10am to 1pm and then again from 3pm to 10pm.
Sunday open from 9am – 10pm with water released from 10am to 1pm and again from 3pm to 10pm.
Opening hours – Off peak season
Monday to Friday open 11am to 5pm with no water released.
Saturday open from 11am to 5pm with water released from 12pm to 1pm and then again from 3pm to 4pm.
Sunday open from 11am – 5pm with water released from 12pm to 1pm and again from 3pm to 10pm.
Ticket prices – Standard entry to the Cascata delle Marmore park costs €10. More information is available on the official website here
Access – Most of the paths are easily accessible on foot as long as you have appropriate footwear, a rain mac and are reasonably fit although its not recommended that you climb to the top if you have heart problems or are pregnant. Path 4 – the Belvedere Pennarossa is a bit more strenuous than the lower reaches but it does offer the best view of the entire waterfall.
The post Umbria’s Cascata delle Marmore waterfall – a great day out for all the family first appeared on DreamDiscoverItalia.