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  -   Allan Fraser

During a recent vacation on the Italian Riviera I decided to do some rockhounding whilst enjoying the beauty of Italy. Driving inland from the coast, the elevation increases rapidly as the narrow road winds through small villages with names like Capre, Ballestrino, Bardineto, Calizzano and Caso. Between villages I stopped at interesting looking tilted layers of rock exposed along the road. On examination, the layers were made of limestone, varying from dark to light grey with some layers containing small cavities lined with calcite. Occasionally we came across a reminder of geological forces at work - a large pile of jumbled rock on the roadside, evidence of a recent frana (landslide). A number of limestone quarries are found in this area and they provide a beautiful dark grey building stone, of which many buildings in the area are constructed.


Limestone deposits making up the range of mountains along the Italian coastline


Tilted rock layers composed of limestone and dolomite

At Calizzano over a cup of espresso my brother-in-law, Roberto, mentioned that he had found on the beach, near Loano, white crystals within large boulders which he thought may have had been dumped there from one of the quarries. This interested me immensely and Roberto did not need to convince me to venture to the crystal site he had found.

Sicilians and Espresso
The next day we loaded hammers and chisels onto our mountain bikes. The plan was simple: step 1. espresso stop at the Sicilian coffee shop, Café Giardino, as it offered the best espresso coffee in town; step 2. then proceed to the beach for rock exploration; step 3. have another espresso stop for renewed fortification required after step 2. With our priorities in place we set out into a crisp sunny Italian spring morning with high hopes of finding spectacular minerals and enjoying the best espresso in town. The Café Giardino was filled with folk taking their first coffee of the day and above the din one could hear strains of Pavarotti’s ‘O Sole Mio’. Roberto explained that mainly resident Sicilians frequented this Café. A large number of southern Italians have moved to northern Italy due to the commercial viability of the area. The Sicilian owner looked like a very serious guy and initially glared at me somewhat suspiciously until Roberto explained that I was his cognato (brother-in-law). The espresso was smooth, thick and sweet with a golden extract only obtained from the best of coffee blends. The day was looking even more promising! We greeted the Sicilian owner and promised to be back.

Let's go to the Beach
We reached the beach within 15 minutes and Roberto quickly located the site where the boulders had been dumped. On first inspection the boulders were vastly different in composition, some were grey limestone with crisscrossing layers of white calcite, others composed of a brown gritty-like material and some appeared dolomitic with numerous large cavities filled with white calcite. I found one cavity as large as a football. One boulder contained three well-preserved fossil shells. I had seen this Mesozoic shellfish, called Pecten, in Peruvian limestone whilst fossil hunting as a boy. I was excited at the prospect of removing the fossils but the rock matrix was extremely hard and in the process of removing one of the shells I broke off a section.


Early morning, the Italian Riviera at Loano. The rocks we explored are in the foreground


Calcite from one of the cavities


Three Pecten fossils


Cavities up to 50 cm in size lined with white calcite

I managed to find a loose fossil and decided to keep it as a keepsake. With both of us hammering away at the rocks we had not realised that we had drawn some attention from passersby. After we explained to an old man who had asked what we were doing he replied that on such a fine day any sane man would rather be fishing than breaking rocks. After a while we had removed a few good pieces of calcite and I had spent some time breaking the fossil bearing material as it bore numerous small cavities with intricate filament-like pink crystals. Whilst hammering away at the rocks I was consciously aware of the lapping of waves onto the rocks and the warm breeze coming off the Mediterranean. Could life get any better for this rockhound? Around mid morning we decided that it was time for our next espresso.

Ugly Fossils
A few days later I took the shell fossil to the local Museum of Paleontology hoping that I could learn more about the fossils in this region. The curator had one look at the fossil and said “what an ugly fossil”. He explained that the "ugly" fossils were from the dolomite deposits, which were from the Triassic period.


The ‘Ugly’ Fossil - A pectin fossil shell of Triassic age

He showed us several cabinets containing fossil ammonites and various other shells from the Jurassic limestones in the area and indicated that they were better preserved than those of the Triassic. He told us that the Jurassic deposit was at the Tersero River some distance away. He added that we were allowed to collect there provided that we did not break open any rocks – we were only allowed to collect whatever loose material we could find. A few days later Roberto and I found the Tersero River, however access to the river was not possible due to impenetrable terrain. We had some time so I searched another area of exposed rocks for fossils but none were to be found. I searched several interesting looking layers and I found one composed of a jumble of angular rock fragments, which I thought may be of glacial origin. My next trip to the Riviera will include a fossil collecting trip to the Tersero River. Perhaps the fortification of a few additional espressos will help to negotiate the terrain at the River Tersero.