The Troglodyte Caves of the Loire Valley
Caves are not the first style of residence that come to mind when you think of the Loire Valley, but the local soft tufa limestone has housed many of the Loire valley’s humbler residents very comfortably for centuries, with only an occasional bemused glance at the moats, towers, and conceits of the great chateaux. Troglodyte caves can be found all over the region, cut out of cliff faces or dug underground, often carved out of disused quarries, sometimes the only evidence of habitation a chimney poking out of the middle of a field, surreally puffing out smoke. Today’s cave-dwellers, who don’t much like being called troglodytes (which means literally cave-dweller despite connotations of dwarfdom) continue to take advantage of cheap, secure accommodation which is warm and cosy in winter and cool in summer.
Nowadays many of these rough-hewn habitations have been snapped up as idiosyncratic residences secondaires by city dwellers trying to recreate an idealisedvie rustique. The caves also provide ideal conditions for wine storage and most recently for growing the champignons de paris which are a major product of the region.
Along the banks of the Loire from Saumur to Montsoreau there are quite large villages hewn from the soft white tufa, narrow roads snaking round the hillside to bijou little cottages hacked into the face of the stone, doors and windows cut wherever required.
Most whimsical of all are what appear to be the facades of full blown manor houses, complete with turrets jutting from the clifftop. In the fields above well-husbanded vineyards produce the excellent local Saumur wines.
Historically the troglodyte caves have also provided the region with a prodigious underground defence system; the Norman invasions of the ninth and tenth centuries prompted the building of elaborate underground passage ways linking the local chateau or castle to fortified cave dwellings and secret escape routes in nearby woods. Right until the end of the nineteenth century many artisans, weavers and wine growers occupied the caves tuffeaux, romanticised by Balzac as, “these rock caves dressed in coats of ivy.” In his time over half the 800 homes at Vouvray were cave dwellings.
The caves have also been employed for more sinister practices and at Dénezé-sous-Doué the walls of the caves are intricately carved with strange, diabolical sculptures which scholars link to Satanic versions of the mystery plays. Today some caves are still used by secret societies, and particularly by the wine brotherhoods which flourish in the region. At Chinon for example, below the ruins of the formidable castle once visited by Joan of Arc, are the Caves Peintes : here Rabelais’ character Pantagruel went carousing, and although the paintings have disappeared the caves are still used for the annual Rabelaisian rites of the local wine confraternity.
Rochemenier, near Saumur, has a particularly well preserved troglodyte village, looking much as it did at the turn of the century. (An excellent exhibition of old photographs bears this out.) A honeycomb of caves around a central pit provides barns, wine cellars and stables as well as dwelling places, equipped with original rustic furniture, and gives an evocative picture of the inhabitants’ way of life in their dark smoky burrows.
Bread ovens are flanked by carved stone seats, little cubby holes house pots and pans, tiny bedrooms have snug little alcoves dug out for beds; when a new child was born the inhabitants simply carved another hole in the wall. Down a winding tunnel is an ancient underground chapel, a movingly simple retreat with painstakingly carved arches and niches dug out for statues. A larger room provided space for the entire village to congregate for the veilloirs, long winter evenings spent making baskets, spinning flax, and pressing walnuts, singing, even clog dancing, under the earth.
Nearby at La Fosse is an opportunity to visit caves that are currently inhabited; an enterprising hippie family has taken over an entire abandoned hamlet, and now lives there permanently, exhibiting their home and life to visitors. All that can be seen from the field above, apart from the chimneys, is a narrow street with a warren of little caves branching off it, rabbits nibbling away in their hutches and chickens pecking the ground.
Hobbit-like doors and windows are festooned with baskets of bright geraniums and inside is a honeycomb of snug little rooms; a kitchen cosy with stone fireplace and ancient wooden settle, a bedroom with a child’s cradle nestled into an alcove, above it a niche carved to shelter a convenient candlestick.
At Doué la Fontaine it is worth seeking out the Arena, originally a quarry which in the 15th century was turned into a theatre with rows of seats carved out of the rock, still used today for musical and theatrical performances, and flower shows for the roses for which Doué is particularly renowned. Follow signs to Les Perrières, an intriguing modern architectural restoration of troglodyte caves with large sloping windows and elegant wood facades. Just outside Doué there is a zoo which uses the caves and tunnels of a former quarry to house the animals.
Failing an invitation to a holiday cave home you can always visit the troglodyte Chinese restaurant carved out of the tufa cliff at Parnay (north of Montsoreau) or you could stay at Hautes-Roches in Rochcorbon, once a dormitory for the monks of Marmoutier, and now France’s only cave hotel.