We head for the flatlands west of Saumur the next day, where miles of caves lie under planted fields and tidy stone villages. Here, some of the quarrying began with an opening on the surface that fanned out, creating vast cathedral-ceiling rooms below. Other quarries cleared a space on the plain, then opened long, labyrinthine tunnels along the sides where entire villages lived. The stone is younger here, not tuffeau but faluns—darker, coarser and a mere ten million years old.
In Doué-la-Fontaine, we visit La Rose Bleue pottery studio, heading down stone stairs into a courtyard while goats peer from the field above. Fifty years ago, parts of the studio’s cathedral-ceiling caverns were inhabited; now the potter plans to move herself and her two children into the space. We visit La Cave Vivante, a sprawling underground mushroom farm where the champignonniste plays New Age music for his fungi and offers an Omnimax-type show in one of the cave’s rounded chambers. We eat at Les Caves de la Genevraie in Rochemenier, a troglo restaurant where the waitress recommends that we amble between courses through what was once the underground home for a community of farmers.
Finally, we turn back to tuffeau and arrive at Le Manoir de la Caillère, the gallery of artist Richard Rak. I’ve seen many uses for the troglo caves over the last few days, but Rak’s work—painting combined with found objects to create images of mysterious portent—complement them best. As he takes us through a maze of white tunnels opening into the grottoes that display each piece, he tries to explain what drew him to this place.
“I’m nourished by the silence and introspection of the cave,” he says. “It is as if ancient things are lying dormant.”Yes to all that.
Author’s Note – Troglo Travel
From Paris, take the TGV train from the airport to the St. Pierre des Corps station at Tours, where you can rent a car. Les Hautes Roches in Rochecorbon is just a few miles east of Tours—stay for dinner, if you can, as I had possibly the best meal of my life there. Just outside Saumur, I stayed at the charming, comfortable and very reasonably priced Ami Chenin, a troglo bed and breakfast in an 18th century winemaker’s house. Hosts France and Xavier Amat are also winemakers.
For information about and direction to troglo sites in the Saumur area, contact their tourism office: Carrefour Anjou Touraine Poitou (CATP), an association that preserves and promotes the region’s subterranean heritage: http://www.catp-asso.org/web
On June 13-14, CATP will host Rendezvous in the Caves, a weekend in which cave homes and enterprises usually closed to the public will welcome visitors.