Beneath the surface of the Central Valley, a staggering network of subterranean tunnels, chambers, and grottos meanders for some 10 acres, hidden just beneath the surface. This underground maze is the handiwork of Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere. From 1906 to 1946, the visionary builder, using only shovels, picks, and other hand tools, created this catacomb-like compound, allegedly as a cool subterranean retreat from the region’s soaring summer temperatures.
“He just kind of wanted to get out of the Fresno heat,” says Lyn Forestiere Kosewski, great niece of Baldassare and now owner of Forestiere Underground Gardens, which is open for fascinating tours nearly year-round. “He understood that it was cooler underground (from) the cellars back in Sicily.”
Far from a grim underground chamber, this is a subterranean home, with sky-lit rooms, a chapel, and even a fishing pond.
But this is no somber collection of barren caves. Forestiere was building a home, and the hand-chiseled underground complex includes such seemingly incongruous touches as an underground fishing pond and a chapel. There are also open-air skylights, so that Forestiere’s collection of fruit trees and grape vines could thrive and bear fruit, even underground. It’s an ironic achievement, given that the young immigrant originally bought the parcel where the tunnels now hide as potential land to start a citrus empire, yet it proved to be all wrong for growing the lush groves Forestiere originally envisioned. So, with otherwise worthless land, he went down, using no plans other than the ideas in his head.
“Baldassare had to physically dig through this—three to five feet of sedimentary rock—not an easy task,” says Lyn Forestiere. “He got a lot of negativity from people who didn’t understand what he was doing.” According to historic reports, Forestiere once said that the visions he had for building his underground wonderland overwhelmed him. Seeing the results on a guided tour, you can’t help but be moved by the seemingly Herculean achievement of this humble Sicilian immigrant.
Insider tip: Forestiere Underground Gardens are closed December through February, and Monday and Tuesday of every week.
Although it’s in the heart of California’s most productive agricultural region, Fresno is also a sophisticated city of gorgeous gardens and parks, with a vibrant creative community and one unforgettable (and underground) attraction you won’t find anywhere else.
Visit the Central Valley’s largest city and discover the exciting Tower District neighbourhood, with shopping, dining, and a nightlife hotspot named for its centerpiece—a landmark, neon-lit Art Deco theater that opened in 1939. Catch the cultural scene at its most dynamic during the twice-monthly open-art program, ArtHop, held in studio and gallery spaces downtown and in other parts of the city. The Fresno Art Museum is also a must, both for its beautifully displayed permanent collection of pre-Columbian artifacts and also its innovative exhibitions showcasing everything from children’s book illustrations to contemporary works from Mexico.
Along the San Joaquin River, 300-acre Woodward Park, the biggest in the city, truly has something for everyone: five miles of trails, an authentic Japanese garden, and three playgrounds. Speaking of the kids, across town they’ll also love the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, where they can watch marine mammals frolic in Sea Lion Cove and see elephants, lions, and giraffes in the recently opened African Adventure exhibit.
For an unforgettable only-in-Fresno experience, explore a subterranean living space at Forestiere Underground Gardens, a labyrinth of stone walls, tunnels, and courtyards hand-dug by an Italian immigrant, who had decided that living underground was the best way to keep cool during the Central Valley’s hot summers.
For sports fans, there’s Pacific Coast League baseball at Chukchansi Stadium, home of the Fresno Grizzlies. Meanwhile, the teams at Fresno State University have earned one of the most avid followings of any college in the country (Bulldog alum Aaron Judge is a rising star with the New York Yankees).
At some point, be sure to get out into the farmland surrounding Fresno. In spring, drive or bike the 62-mile Blossom Trail, a loop lined by brilliantly blooming fruit and nut trees. During summer, the drive morphs into the Fresno County Fruit Trail, with produce stands overflowing with ripe seasonal fruits and vegetables.