Marble Mountain

Zipping down a dank, wet, unlit tunnel in a dusty white minibus, grubby headlights blazing, driver incongruously dolled up in a shiny shocking-pink bomber is all somewhat surreal. Five minutes into the pitch-black marble mountain, everyone is told to get out.

It is 16°C (61°F), foggy, dirty and slippery under foot. And far from being a polished pearly white, it's grey – cold, wet, miserable grey. Rough-cut blocks, several metres long and almost as wide, are strewn about the place like toy bricks and marble columns prop up the 15m-high ceiling, above which a second gallery, another 17m tall, stands. The place is bigger than several football pitches, yet amazingly there is still plenty of marble left for the five workers employed at Cava di Fantiscritti, 5km north of Carrara, to extract. With the aid of water and mechanical diamond-cutting chains that slice through the rock like butter, they take 10,000 tonnes of white marble a month.

To learn how the Romans did it (with chisels and axes – oh my!), visit the surprisingly informative, open-air Cava Museo, adjoining the souvenir shop across from the quarry entrance. Don't miss the B&W shots of marble blocks being precariously slid down the lizza (mountain pathway) to the bottom of the mountain where 18 pairs of oxen would haul the marble on carts to Carrara port. In the 1850s a rail network of 24 tunnels and seven bridges was built for trains to do the job – which they did until the 1960s. Cars can drive through many of these defunct train tunnels today (hence the tunnel that quarry tour groups use to drive into the mountain).

Carrara alone exploits 188 marble quarries today: the Apuane Alps safeguard the world's largest marble field, with the best Carrara marble selling for €4000 a tonne (exports alone are worth a handsome €360 million a year). Carrara's quarries employ 1200 workers and another 700 truck drivers who zigzag each day up and down terrifyingly steep, mountain 'roads' transporting giant marble blocks. It's hard, dangerous work and on Carrara's central Piazza XXVII Aprile a monument remembers past workers who lost their lives up on the hills.

In 2014 a Saudi Arabian construction group controlled by the Bin Laden family acquired a majority 50% stake in Marmi di Carrara, buying out the stakes held by four local families for €45 million and prompting fears that the region was losing control of its most prized asset and industry. Environmentalists, meanwhile, fear the mines are being over-exploited and are campaigning for stricter regulations to limit how much of their precious mountains can be carved out. New rules proposed in 2015 and still being fiercely contested would ban quarrying above 1200m and restrict the opening of new quarries.

White Carrara Downtown

There is no finer time to experience local marble culture than during White Carrara Downtown, an annual one-week festival in early June celebrating the town's famous white stuff. Expect music concerts inside marble quarries (brilliant acoustics), marble-carving workshops, open-air sculpture exhibitions, food and wine tastings, quarry treks on foot and by bike, and al fresco art happenings galore around town.