Vivienne Mackie takes notebook and camera round homes buried in a hill.
Imagine caves without a single stalactite or stalagmite. Picture caves formed, not by water action, but by human hands. And now imagine those caves along the banks of a river meandering through a bucolic and fertile land. The troglodyte caves along the Loire River’s central area are just such caves. Even more unusual than their appearance and formation are the many varied uses of these caves over the centuries.
Some 90 million years ago the sea, which covered part of France, gradually receded, and tufa ( a type of limestone) formed from marine sediment. In your mind’s eye, fast forward to see the activity in the Middle Ages. Busy artisans and quarrymen dig into the tufa with simple tools, making underground caverns, shelters, escape routes, chapels, and houses. They build beautiful monumental churches, castles and houses above ground with the creamy limestone blocks. By hand, they dig about two thousand kilometers of tunnels in the Saumur region alone.
Now visualize how these tunnels and caves, known as “troglodytes”, are used today. Conjure up caves for wine production, to cultivate mushrooms and snails. Caves as museums, as restaurants and shops, as hotels, and still as living areas. Even imagine a zoo underground!
Don’t just take my word for it – drive here or find some cheap airline tickets and visit these unusual caves yourself, and see all the businesses and homes inside them.
Why “Troglodytes”? The word actually means “cave-dwellers”. Images of pre-historic cavemen spring to mind, and we also imagine trolls and dwarves. Caves such as these would be suitable abodes for these mischievous creatures.
The best way to get an idea of what these fascinating caves were, and are today, is to do a Troglodyte Tour. The Saumur Tourist Office has put together a brochure listing many of the caves, but we preferred to put together our own tour: partly because we wanted to get ‘a feel’ without having to pay an entrance fee at each sight chosen by the brochure tour, and partly because many on the brochure had the markings of theme park spectacle. The zoo, for example, sounded to us over-done and sensational: animals kept underground seems particularly unattractive and cruel.
Our loop, which took a long day, gave us a good representative idea of these troglodytes, and the reality of the Saumur caves systems is just as fascinating as our mental images. We discovered that you don’t even need cliffs to have these caves, as many are way underground.
We experienced these caves as working wineries, as a producing mushroom farm, as a museum, and as a place of shelter. Using Saumur as a base, we drive east along the river road, the cliffs lining it on the right, to the village of Souzay, where the chateau, and many of the houses, project from the cliffs, the back rooms cut right into the rock face. Almost all the buildings are of the warm yellow-sand color tufa stone.
Tourquant, which bills itself as a “Village de Charme” is next. It is indeed a charming place, the buildings of golden stone all decorated with masses of flowering plants, with many Wine Domaines and tasting places along the narrow streets. On the edge of the village is La Grande Vignolle with a chapel, a restaurant, and extensive wine cellars behind its smart facade. We park at the bottom and walk up to the entrance, with sweeping views down to their vineyards. Heading inland, we wind along pretty narrow roads, through meadows and woods, full of wild flowers and birds, and vineyards being tended by the farmers, wheatfields studded with red poppies, and newly-sprouted sunflower plants.
St Cyr-en-Bourg has a large wine co-operative just on the edge of town, which showcases many of the area’s diverse wines. When we approach the buildings at first we think that this can’t be the place, because we’ve heard they have a huge network of caves and tunnels. This is flat. There are no cliffs. But it’s true; the network is all underground in a 10 km maze of galleries. We climb down and discover how the wine-makers make a full range of Saumur appelations in these caves.
The tour begins in a large 12th century vaulted cellar, which was also used as a sanctuary around the 17th century. The bottling hall is the deepest in Europe.
For something completely different we head northwest to the village of Dénezé-sous-Doué for an underground marvel; La Cave aux Sculptures. In the caves, Protestant stonemasons in the 16th century Wars of Religion carved more than 400 figures into the walls, floors and ceilings. The caretaker gives a guided talk, and the main point is that really we’re not sure about the meaning of all the statues, grinning, grimacing, smirking, writhing. She talks passionately about the figures and offers her interpretations, which are often political and satirical. Are these figures really Catherine de Medicis and various French kings?
Next to the entrance kiosk is a small church where supposedly the Catholics and Protestants worshipped amicably on alternate days, so one wonders why the Protestants took to hiding in the caves. Just another part of the mystery. Whatever the story behind these carvings, they are fascinating.
Now for the food part of our tour. We head back to the river, northwest of Saumur just beyond St Hilaire-St Florent, and aim for the Mushroom Museum. To understand more about mushrooms, and later to taste some of them, a visit to a Mushroom “Farm” in caves is a must. The amazing diversity of troglodytic cellars has allowed the Saumur region to become mushroom capital of France, especially for Paris button mushrooms of which it produces about 70%.
The Champignon Museum, opened in 1978 by local growers, is very well-done, both as a museum about mushrooms in general, and as a place to see how and where mushrooms are grown in this area. In these dark caves mushrooms grow best, with a constant temperature of around 15°C and 90% humidity. The tunnels are burrowed right into the cliffs and it would be easy to get lost, without the benefit of modern-day electricity. Would a troll pop out if we went down a dark tunnel?
There’s a great display of many types of mushrooms – more than we’d ever imagined – beautifully set out in display cases, in the Wild Mushroom Museum section. In another section is a collection of old tools used to work the tufa stone and a number of fossils found in the rocks. Further in is the active mushroom bed, where we can see how they actually cultivate the mushrooms. Various mushroom snacks are served at the small cafe on the terrace – our favorite was the galipettes (stuffed mushroom caps), with a glass of dry Saumur rose wine, but coffee and mushroom-shaped meringues are also good.
There’s another operation further along the road which does snails, mushrooms, and wine. Next time, we think it would be fun to see the snail cultivation.
Finally, on the way back to Saumur, the town of St Hilaire-St Florent has a number of large wineries open for visits and tasting. Their tours and focus are different, so we try to visit at least two.
Langlois-Chateau started in 1885, and uses 4 km of tunnels, where they make and store their wine, much of it the famous cremant (sparkling) wine from this region. It’s cool and a little damp down here, with lots of fungal growth on the ceiling and pipes, but perfect for wine. The tour is in-depth and very informative.
At Bouvey-Ladubay the cave floors are more paved and the whole operation seems more commercialized. But the wine is good, and there is an added ‘twist’ to the tour. Many of the caves have been converted into a “cathedrale engloutie”.
A local sculptor, Philippe Cormand, was commissioned to do sculptures in the caves, on the roofs, on corners, at points where passages widen or cross. He sometimes used a modern theme, such as a man with a necktie, but also carved many grapes, and some classical-style pillars. Each is spotlighted, with special music playing as we walk by. It should have been tacky, but actually wasn’t, as it does highlight the potential natural beauty of the caves, and their cathedral-like quality. It’s all under an old abbey up on the cliff, so seemed rather appropriate.
It was a long day, but we were happy and felt we had a good idea now about these troglodyte caves. Who are we to say the trolls are not helping today to make the great wines of the area?
1.Musee du Champignon, St Hilaire-St Florent Tel: 33 (0)2 41 50 31 55 Open 10am-7pm, daily 6th February to 16th November See www.musee-du-champignon.com Entrance fee: E6.50
2. La Cave aux Sculptures, Deneze-sous-Doue Tel: 33 (0)2 41 59 15 40 April, May daily (except Monday) 2-6pm June, July, August daily (except Monday) 10am -7pm September daily (except Monday) 10am-6pm Entrance fee: E3.80, children E2.20
3. Cave des Vignerons de Saumur, St Cyr en Bourg Tel: 33 (0)2 41 06 08 Open 9:30am-12noon, 2:30-6pm (Remember, many places in France close over lunch time). Look at
4. Langlois-Chateau, St Hilaire-St Florent Tel: 33 (0)2 41 40 21 40 Open 10am-12 noon and 2:30-6:30pm daily, 1st April -15th October est of year by appointment. See www.langlois-chateau.fr Small tasting charge, but many hotels and restaurants give out a free tasting coupon.
5. Bouvet-Ladubay, St Hilaire-St Florent Tel: 33-(0)2 41 83 83 83 Daily 8:30am-6pm, June -September; rest of the year, 9-11am and 2-5pm. See www.bouvet-ladubay.fr Small tasting charge, but many hotels and restaurants give out a free tasting coupon.
Recently, Vivienne went back to the Loire and took a longer look at the Cave au Sculptures.