Running the Marmore Rapids

Mamore Falls. July 20, 2019. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Dear Blog Readers,

If you are thinking of coming to Italy, forget “Under the Tuscan Sun”  and lounging around olive groves sipping white wine, eating pasta and dipping your bread in fragrant olive oil.  That’s for namby-pambies. It is time to get yourself a few goose bumps and an adrenalin high UNDER the Marmore Falls.

The Cascate delle Marmore (Marmore Waterfall) is the highest waterfall in Europe, pummeling down three levels for a total of 165 meters (180 yards). 

Legend has it that a handsome shepherd named Velino fell in love with a water nymph named Nera.  The Goddess Juno, who had a soft spot for the shepherd, became fiercely jealous and turned Nera into a river.  In his desperation the poor shepherd Velino threw himself off a cliff to follow his love, linking himself to her in a turbulent embrace, and that is how the Velino river comes smashing down over the Marmore Falls to become the Nera river.

Legends aside, the Romans, who had a knack for water engineering, created the Marmore Falls by building a trench to divert the waters from the Velino river that were flooding the area, creating a swampy marshland that was a malaria risk.

 It was eventually channelled  through the Galleto hydroelectric power station that was built in 1929 to provide power from the falls to the iron factories in the nearby town of Terni.  The factories were the primary weapons producers for Italy during the two World Wars.  

While today the falls are off the beaten track for tourists, Marmore has been a destination for painters, poets, scientists and politicians.  Plinio and Cicerone were among the well-known Romans who visited,  Gallileo Gallilei, Camille Corot and William Turner,  Percy Bysshe Shelley also wrote about and painted the falls.

Lord Byron stopped by in 1817 while on the Grand Tour and dedicated a Canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimmage to the waterfall.  Reading a couple of verses, I wondered if perhaps Lord Byron had tried out the rafting himself.

“The roar of waters! From the headlong height 
Velino cleaves the wave-worn precipice. 
The fall of waters! Rapid as the light 
the flashing mass foams shaking the abyss. 
The hell of waters! Where they howl and hiss, 
and boil in endless torture; while the sweat 
of their great agony, wrung out from this 
their Phlegeton, curls round the rocks of jet 
that gird the gulf around, in pitiless horror set, 
and mounts in spray the skies

Lord Byron

Canto IV – Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

Rafting below the Marmore Falls. July 20, 2019. Credit: Rafting Marmore

Last week my daughters and I decided it was time to visit the falls and try our hands at rafting.

After an hour and a half drive through the rolling countryside from Lazio to Umbria, we arrived at the rafting center ready for a fun little bounce down the river.  I had gone on a short rafting trip once in Colorado and I thought I knew what I was getting into.  

It took just a few minutes at the rafting center for me to realize this was something more serious.  Rows of wetsuits stood dripping on racks outside, a shed housed water shoes and there were baskets filled with different size yellow helmets and life-jackets.

On one side were three big rubber rafts with some soon-to-be rafters all decked out in their wetsuits practicing while an instructor\ guide yelled out “AVANTI!”,  “INDIETRO!” “SU LE PALE!”, “PESO DESTRA!”, “PESO SINISTRA!”, “STOP!”.  With each instruction, the soon-to-be rafters threw themselves and their paddles in one direction or another.  The looked like they were training to be slaves manning the oars on a roman ship.

It was not long before I was squeezing myself like a sausage into a damp black wetsuit.  Chiara, Caterina and I pushed and shoved, stretched and pulled in the changing room to get ourselves into them.  Once we were decked out, we waddled out to get our lesson and stood around a raft in the yard.

“This is not Disneyland,” barked Andrea, one of the many buff guides, “you are not on a little boat on rails splashing in the water,”  he continued, as he showed us how to grab people by the life vests and drag them back in if they fall out.  “And I don’t want to see any Pocohantas paddling,  these are serious rapids and we have to work as a team, and you have to obey instructions!”

My daughters and I began eyeing each other.  I was wondering if I should have opted for a Pocahantas, Disneyland waterpark option.

Jumping off point for rafters below the Marmore Falls

My doubts about both my abilities and those of my daughters only increased when we got to the waterfall.  It comes thundering down,  the roar of the crashing water making it hard to hear anyone speak.  We were enveloped in a refreshing cloud of spray with little rainbows reflecting around us.

As I stood there staring at it and  getting nervous, up came Camillio Dall’Oglio, our fearless guide.  “Come on, you three are with me,” he said.  “Can we do the EASY version?”  I asked, “you know, something EASY.”  He just smiled and said “Let’s go!” as he hopped over the fence and headed down a steep, narrow staircase to the launching area below.

River Guide Camillo Dall’Oglio at the Marmore Falls, July 2019

He placed Caterina and Chiara at the front, gave us a few more instructions on how to paddle, where to shove our feet to hold us in,  and how to lean out and keep our balance.  Then we were off, our bright yellow raft flying past rocks, swinging to the left and right, Camillo yelling out instructions, “AVANTI!” “INDIETRO!” and we desperately tried to keep up but were mostly flapping around with our paddles being fairly useless.  But Camillo was in control at the back and despite our dangerous floundering about with our paddles, he was so confident he made us all feel safe.

At one point he wedged our dinghy against a big rock and told my daughter Caterina to get out on it.  Apprehensively, she climbed out only to have Camillo pull the raft away slightly and say, “Now, jump in the river.”  She looked frightened, but I think she was more worried about being left in the middle of the rapids, so she took the leap before we flew off.  In a millisecond Camillo had whipped the rubber raft around and dragged her back inside.

“Refreshing, isn’t it?”  He said, “Now, back to postition,  AVANTI!”  And off we went speeding down the rapids, zooming over little waterfalls, dropping into pools, swishing through rushes. 

“PALE SU!” (paddles up), he shouted and we threw our paddles into the air as we swept through a narrow gorge.

The area below the falls is dense with vegetation – the humidity from the falls gets trapped in the gorge creating jungle-like growth around the river.

Over the course of several kilometers Camillo, frequently swirled us around into larger pools and made all of us jump out and take turns dragging each other back in.  It was a sheer adrenalin rush.

For a few hours during the day the water from the Velino river is partially stopped by a dam.  So in the morning it is coming down at 15 cubic meters per second and then once the dam is closed it drops down to three cubic meters per second.  Which creates a hell of a lot of water that cascades down down at certain times to a calmer but still plentiful flow of water during a few hours of the day.

So, once we survived the rafting, we thought our adventure was over.  But no….Camillo said we were getting a 45 minute break and then we would be called for the river-walking.

We had just enough time to un-sausage ourselves – no easy undertaking – grab a slice of pizza and then it was back into wetsuits and helmets to return to the bottom of the waterfall and jump in for a swim, climb, rock-scramble, float back down the Nera river.

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