Latest update: 17 June 2022
The Apuan Alps, near the Tuscan coast, are rugged. Turns are sharp, mountains are steep. Heavily loaded trucks drive back and forth. Everything is covered with a white, chalky layer. Welcome to Carrara, the marble capital of the world.
The contrast between the chic marble in kitchens, halls, or museums and the place where it is mined could hardly be any bigger. In the mountains around Carrara, the Apuan Alps, trucks and excavators rule the day. The landscape is rough. Desolate even. The men who work here have a hardened glance and rugged look. Working in a marble quarry is not for the faint of heart – nor flabby muscles.
What is marble?
Different types of marble come from the marble quarries, from stark white to marble with green and blue veins. But what exactly is marble? It is a type of limestone; through years of enormous pressure and sometimes extremely high temperatures, the limestone has turned into marble. So it is an entirely natural product. The Italians like to use it on the facades of churches; you may know marble kitchen tops, and sculptors are also fans of this natural stone.
Marble Mining in Carrara
The marble industry is significant in the region. There are about 300 marble quarries that together extract more than 5 million tons of marble annually. And then there are hundreds of companies that make their money in one way or another with marble, from marble processing to repairing excavators. Marble is even brought to Carrara from other parts of the world because it is cheaper to have the marble processed here. Thanks to the enormous volume, the machines never run out of work.
The marble is mined from within the mountain. All kinds of calculations and measurements are made to ensure that it’s safe, without the risk of collapse. For example, there is a pillar every 30 meters for stability in the marble quarry I visit. In this particular quarry, two companies have a contract of no less than 29 years to excavate.
Michelangelo’s marble obsession
The Romans discovered marble in Carrara in the second century BC. Previously they mainly got the marble from Greece and Turkey, but Carrara was, of course, much closer. This is how the first marble quarries arose in Tuscany.
In the Middle Ages, marble mining came to a halt. Still, in the Renaissance, Michelangelo was commissioned to work with it. His David is made of marble from the marble quarries here. He reportedly visited Carrara regularly and even lived here for a while. During that period, he went into the mountains with his mule to select the best marble for himself. Now that’s dedication. Many artists still like to work with the world-famous marble. You’ll see their work and ateliers in towns like Pietrasanta.
Marble Tour: visit a marble quarry in Carrara
Driving between the marble quarries is an experience in itself, but it becomes more fun if you also visit such a quarry. I join a tour by Marmo Tour. I buy a ticket on the spot, but during summer you’d better reserve ahead. Another option is to look for a jeep tour.
I race into the marble quarry in a small van – I tell myself that the driver does this several times a day and knows exactly whether he can expect oncoming traffic. In the marble quarry, it is fresh, and cold even compared to the outside. So take a sweater or cardigan with you; it’s definitely not an unnecessary luxury.
From a distance, I watch how the marble is extracted. First, a massive block of marble is cut in half with a steel spiral cable. This is very precise because if you do this at the wrong spot, there is a chance that the marble will split incorrectly, and you can’t use it anymore. Meanwhile, the guide explains in clear English how the marble quarry came into existence, and how the marble is extracted and processed.
There are a few more perks to the tour. We pause for a moment at a painting by Ozmo, made based on a work by Michelangelo. We also admire a few bottles of Extraordinary wine in marble bottles. But what I like most is that concerts and events also take place in the marble quarry. For example, David Bryan, the pianist of Bon Jovi (both nostalgia and a guilty pleasure for me), played on a marble piano here.
If you’re visiting in the quieter months, you do not need to book a marble tour with Marmo Tour. Just drive by, and the cheerful ticket counter will indicate when the next tour departs. A van fits 8 people, so you usually don’t have to wait long. So put on your helmet, vest, and go! In high season it is wise to get there early to avoid the worst crowds, but it’s even better to make a reservation. Marmo Tour is open from March to October.
The tour lasts about 40 minutes and costs € 10. Once outside, you can visit the Cavamuseo, where you can see marble statues and see which materials were used to mine marble in the past.
How do you get to the Carrara marble quarries?
Set your navigation to Marmo Tour, and you will soon cover your (rental) car with a thin layer of white dust. You drive right through and next to the marble quarries. Left and right, you can see the impressive mountains with white marble tops. No, that’s not snow. Pay close attention as the road is tricky at some points, and the seasoned freight forwarders steer full-speed into sharp turns. From the marble tour, you continue the road into the tunnel. Also watch your speed here because the road is bumpy, and there may be loose pieces of marble. You will automatically leave the Apuan Alps via this route. If you prefer not to drive yourself, book a jeep tour.
Tip! If you want to rent a car in Italy, check Sunny Cars. I have had very good experiences with them.
More travel inspiration for Italy
Useful links for your Italy trip
- Travel guides. I love the practical travel guides from Lonely Planet, buy them at Bol.com or Book Depository. The latter has longer delivery times but is often cheaper.
- Flights. Be sure to check out Transavia, but do compare all your options! Definitely check out Momondo, Skyscanner, and Kiwi.
- Trains to Italy. Travel by train to Italy from the Netherlands with NS International.
- Local transport. Book busses and trains in Italy with Omio or Busbud.
- Accommodation. All-time favorites: Booking.com, Natuurhuisje, and Airbnb. Or try BelVilla. Rather stay in a hostel? Try HostelWorld.
- Activities. You book the best tours and activities with GetYourGuide and Viator. For tours with locals, go to WithLocals or Hi,hi Guide. And for bike tours, try Baja Bikes.
- Car rental. My go-to car rental companies are EasyTerra and Sunny Cars as they have all-inclusive / worry-free offers.
- Travel gear. Buy your gear at Bever or Decathlon, or simply at Bol.com.
- Package deals. Rather go on a catered trip? There are plenty of choices. For the Dutch, try: ANWB vakanties or Tui, Sawadee, Corendon or will you choose Vakantie Discounter?
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First published: July 2019. Updated since!