There are wonderful places which seem to have remained intact over time, almost surreal, but in reality they tell a story made of changes which are not only natural, but also socio-cultural. The beauty of travelling with kids is going in search of these places that have a story to tell and acting as the protagonists of these stories. All this can be found in Valdarno, in an area enclosed between the hills of Chianti on one side and the Natural Area called Le Balze on the other. This is the area of Cavriglia, in the province of Arezzo. A place that in the last 100 years has undergone a major transformation in economic, social and even landscape level, due to the birth and transformation of lignite mines.
On the traces of the mines of Cavriglia
Through an itinerary that starts from Cavriglia to San Giovanni Valdarno, in the village of the miners of Santa Barbara you can retrace the stages of the history of this area, alternating cultural moments to fun in the middle of nature so that, in this journey both children and parents can feel like miners for a day.
What to see in Cavriglia with kids
The history of Cavriglia began in 1809 with the birth of the town, a village nestled in the Tuscan hilly countryside among vineyards and olive groves. Walking through the streets of the centre, you will encounter some very interesting historical buildings which tell the past of this city. In the area of the ancient village you can admire the Church of Santa Maria with its tower which has remained intact over the years, (an ancient Vallombrosan monastery). Moving across the village, we find the Pieve di San Giovanni Battista, a sacred place that was built on a Roman settlement and in front of it there is still the building of the old town hall. Another fascinating place not to be missed in Cavriglia is Piazza Enrico Berlinguer, where the ancient Municipal Theatre is located and it is the centre which joins the ancient village to the most modern and residential part. In addition to the historical buildings, in Cavriglia there are many parks dedicated to kids. In front of the town hall, as well as behind the Pieve, there are two playgrounds ideal for spending a few moments of leisure, while for those who love walking in nature we recommend visiting the area of Bellosguardo, a pedestrian and cycle path where you can admire from above the whole city of Cavriglia and part of the valley.
MINE: the museum which “tells”
Leaving Cavriglia and continuing towards San Giovanni Valdarno, a few kilometers away there is Castelnuovo dei Sabbioni, a hamlet consisting of a new part and the historical nucleus which is now uninhabited. Right in this historical part, situated on top of a rock spur which dominates the entire valley, we find (next to the church) MINE, the museum of mines and territory, a place suitable for families to discover the landscape and socio-cultural transformation of this particular place and to live an experience as miners.
MINE is a museum created by the community, which tells the life and history of this mining area thanks to the several donations of valuable elements by the population and the reconstruction of events.
Visiting Mine is like taking a journey back in time; the museum path is spread over 2 floors and starts from the birth of the municipality of Cavriglia in 1809 until 1994, the year of closure of the mines.
On the ground floor we learn the discovery of lignite deposits and the path of the birth of mines, admiring some tools of life of the time, while on the first floor there is a reproduction of a mine tunnel. Here you can admire the minerals, the various tools of the miners, hear the noises that were inside and learn the methods of extraction through video displays. It is a very interesting route.
From the terrace of the museum complex you can see the lake of Castelnuovo and closing your eyes you can go back in time and imagine the mines right in front where the lake now stands. Kilometers of underground tunnels were built to extract lignite, a mineral considered very valuable at the time. It was so valuable that it attracted many illustrious political and economic personalities and not only locals. This allowed the industrial development of the whole area combining the working of the lignite mines with the ironworks located in San Giovanni Valdarno and later with the power plant.
The history of the mines in Castelnuovo dei Sabbioni
The mines of Castelnuovo dei Sabbioni do not date back to ancient times like the ones which can be found on the Tuscan coast, and they have a relatively recent history. Already in the Sixteenth-century some farmers of the area perceived something different in the soil: the earth litteraly caught fire. Then, between 1700 and 1800 the scientific studies came. The first to dig were the farmers, owners of the various plots of land using common tools. Subsequently, this area became of interest among various illustrious figures such as Ubaldino Peruzzi and Vilfredo Pareto, up to the point of also involving political and economic figures. The project of construction of the mines of Castelnuovo dei Sabbioni began thanks to the investment of some bankers and also thanks to the opening of the railway line connecting the Valdarno to Florence, useful for the transport of fuel.
This event changed the economic structure of the territory.
The extracted lignite was used by the Ferriera of San Giovanni Valdarno for the production of iron and was also used as fuel for all the industries in Valdarno. In 1907 the arrival of the entrepreneurial Luzzatto brothers from Friuli Venezia Giulia brought a farther change: the construction of the thermoelectric power plant that used precisely this fuel.
The mines reached their economic peak with the First World War, when up to 5,000 miners, between local people and prisoners, were employed. The rapid transformation of industry and the preciousness of this mineral changed the working order of the mine, so that, in 1955 the underground tunnels disappeared, and it became an open pit mine. A new landscape change also led to a shift of people from the old nucleus of Castelnuovo dei Sabbioni to the new town and the mining village of Santa Barbara, closer to San Giovanni Valdarno. In 1983 the ancient nucleus of Castelnuovo di Sabbioni was definitively abandoned but the power plant continued to ensure economic stability for the territory.
MINE: a museum for families
Visiting the museum allows you to enter into the depths of a piece of important history not only for the Valdarno or for Tuscany, but for all of Italy. Every year the museum organizes numerous events aimed at making the history of the territory known, also collaborating with schools with different projects. Next to the main body of the museum, at the Documentation Centre, there is a section dedicated to kids where there are shop windows with fossils found in the area and some tools used in the mine. The museum plans in the coming years to implement a path dedicated to families with kids and to create an even more engaging and understandable experience for all ages. There is currently an entrance ticket dedicated to families at a very advantageous price.
Toward the mining hamlet of Santa Barbara
Upon leaving the museum, you can take a panoramic road to see the area of the old mines because they are now no longer visible since they are covered by the lake and vegetation. Then, you arrive at Santa Barbara, the old Miners’ Village. It is a group of houses (all the same yellow), where you can still breathe “community” life which was there at the time of the mines.
The journey-story of the lignite mines ends in San Giovanni Valdarno where, even today, you can see the exterior of the old ironworks, while the history of the mines continues to live in its population and landscape.