There is a valley in the Bolognese Apennines where the evolution of nature over the millennia seems to have wanted to give visitors evidence of its rare beauty and the uniqueness of its continuous flow and change.
We are talking about the Val di Zena, fertile with waters, myths, natural phenomena, and extraordinary discoveries that exalted the genius of the great speleologist and paleontologist Luigi Fantini.
A testimony of the prized work made by Fantini opens this itinerary with the first stop at the Museum of Botroidi.
The building is located in Tazzola, in the municipality of Pianoro: an ancient village dating back to 1100, along the beautiful path that connects the Castle of Zena to the Mount of Ants.
Restored in raw earth, the Museum houses a large collection of botroids, the fascinating anthropomorphic-looking stones or animals collected by the pioneer of speleology at the beginning of 1900 along the river Zena. Stones formed in the ancient yellow sands that two million years ago constituted the beach of the sea have found their way to us.
A few kilometers from the Museum and worth a detour is a quick visit to the town Gorgognano where in 1965, a farmer who worked in a field found the remains of a whale about 9 meters long dating back to the Pliocene (between 2 and 5 million years ago) beached on the shoreline of what used to be the Intrappennine Basin.
The extraordinary event is commemorated on the spot by a striking monument to the whale made by the students of the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna, while the fossil remains of the ancient cetacean are preserved and visible at the Museum "Giovanni Capellini" in Bologna.
Returning to the main path you can admire, from the outside, the Castle of Zena, built at the foot of the Mount of Ants, whose origins are lost in the last centuries before the year 1000.
As it turns out, in the Matildica era, Zena was a fortified village, a function evidenced by the remains of the towers and the weapons room, and in the following centuries, it became the home of important Bolognese families.
In more recent times, periods of decadence have alternated with restructuring and modernization interventions, which have profoundly changed the original appearance, but without affecting the feeling of great dignity and beauty that the place still inspires today.
The parish church of Santa Maria di Zena is one of the oldest in Bologna and is also known by the popular name of Sanctuary of the Mount of Ants, on which it stands.
Considered one of the most characteristic places of Marian worship, according to historical information it sits where since 1078 there has been a Christian church, probably built on a site consecrated to pagan deities, as is common for several other peaks of the territory.
In addition to the prominent religious aspect, the current church (rebuilt in the middle of the century following the damage suffered in the last war) with the large arcade and the original bell tower dating back to 1727, is also known for a fascinating and mysterious natural phenomenon: since time immemorial, every year in the first days of September, swarms of winged ants come to the top of the mountain for their nuptial flight, which, once coupled, go to die by the hundreds of thousands in the area of the sanctuary.
A spectacle of great charm accompanied by religious rites that, according to a very ancient custom, see the faithful lay large drapes on the ground in the churchyard to collect the flying ants and end with the blessing and distribution of small colored wraps in which the bodies of ants are enclosed.