What lies beneath these French subterranean sites

Away from the prehistoric caves that lure visitors in their droves, France has plenty of lesser-known underground sites to explore. Samantha David selects some of her favourites

26 September 2018
By Samantha David

France has some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe, but is equally beautiful under the surface. Some underground spaces are natural, others man-made, and they are used for an unexpectedly wide variety of activities.

The largest and best known is perhaps the Lascaux caves in Dordogne, which are visited by upwards of 250,000 people per year. But the biggest and most-visited is the Grotte Chauvet (Caverne du Pont d’Arc) in the Ardèche, which gets nearly 600,000 visitors per year. The Catacombs in Paris are also popular, but there are many other underground attractions in France.

The massive ‘Gouffre de Padirac’ cave in the Dordogne Valley in the Lot, is a natural cavity 75 metres deep and 33 metres diameter. You get to it via a massive vertical hole in the ground which you can either walk down 543 steps or take the lift. The visit covers 2.2kms, but what makes it extra fun is that around 1km of that is travelled by boat. The river at the bottom of the caves flows through a series of caves, allowing up to 8,000 people per day to marvel at the rock formations.

Various activities which are periodically organised inside the caves including classical music concerts and music for the Fête de la Musique. You can also join a guided visit conducted entirely by the light of old fashioned oil lamps, just as Edouard-Alfred Martel discovered them back in 1889. He subsequently explored the caves with colleague George Beamish, whose great grand-daughter manages the caves today. The Gouffre closes on November 4 for the winter, but October is uncrowded (around 480,000 people visited last year) and a great time to visit for those who just want to see the caves in all their natural glory.  See www.gouffre-de-padirac.com.

The Grotte des Demoiselles, a massive series of limestone caves in Hérault, is accessed by an underground funicular railway. It is particularly known for a massive cave called la cathédrale which is around 120 metres long and 52 metres high. Traces of human occupation have been found here dating back to all eras; it was particularly known as a Huguenot refuge during the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries.

The name ‘Demoiselles’ comes from an old tale about a shepherd in the Middle Ages who climbed down into the caves to rescue a ewe, started exploring, fell 50 metres, and lost consciousness. Once safely back out with the ewe, he told everyone he had seen hundreds of fairies dancing in a circle, led by a lady in white. In the local dialect at that time, ‘fairies’ was damaïselas’, which isn’t very different from ‘demoiselles’ in French.

The visit is not for the faint-hearted; visitors enter the cathédrale on a small balcony 70 metres above the floor of the cave, and continue over a suspension bridge spanning a steep drop. A hugely popular Midnight Mass used to be held in the cathédrale every Christmas Eve, but that has been abandoned now. However, the Grotte being open all year round, it is possible there will be a Festive Concert in December 2018. See www.demoiselles.com.

Unusual spaces

Not all underground sites in France are filled with prehistoric artworks (like Lascaux and Grotte Chauvet) or underground water and extraordinary rock formations like the Gouffre de Padirac and the Grotte des Demoiselles.

The Grottes de Bétharram (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) has amazing rocks, an underground river, and the guided tour includes a ride on a vessel shaped like a Viking longboat, as well as a ride on a miniature steam train. See www.betharram.com

And if all that sounds like a lot of walking, the Grotte du Mas d’Azil (Ariège) has such an enormous entrance that you can drive into it on a tarmac road. Prehistoric people lived in these caves, Huguenots took refuge in them, and the remains of rhinos, bears and mammoths have been found in them. Click through www.sites-touristiques-ariege.fr for more information.

Underground spaces in France have been used for all sorts of things and some have been excavated by human beings.

The caves in Roquefort are used to refine and mature the famous Roquefort cheese, and you can take a free guided tour around them to discover how the cheeses are made, how the temperature (8-10°C) and humidity are maintained, and, of course, then enjoy a tasting before leaving via the boutique.

The Boves d’Arras in Pas de Calais, are 22kms of galleries excavated from the limestone under the city of Arras. It is estimated that tunnelling began on the ‘Boves’, which are just 20 metres below the pavements of the city, during the 10th century, originally in order to mine chalk. Since then they have been constantly extended, and at various periods have been used to store wine, beer, vegetables and cereals.

You can also visit a more recent extension, the ‘Carrière Wellington’, which was excavated in just five months during the winter and spring of 1916/1917 by the New Zealand Tunnelling company during the First World War (which is why it is named after the capital of New Zealand). It is now a memorial to the Battle of Arras which began in April 9th, 1917.

The carrières (quarries) were used to shelter the civilian population, as well as 24,500 soldiers and were equipped with gas-proof doors, electricity, phone lines, kitchens, latrines and even a hospital. On the walls, visitors can still see the doodles, drawings and graffiti left by the troops. For more see www.ot-arras.fr or www.carrierewellington.com

‘La Mine Wendel’ in Moselle is a coal mine which was exploited from 1856-1986 and has been entirely preserved. (Since the La Houve mine closed in 2004 there are no working coalmines in France and most of the other abandoned ones have been dismantled and the entrances permanently sealed off.)

The guides are ex-coalminers and the visit starts by taking a cage lift down into the pit, which gives a real idea of what coalmining was like. Visitors see the veins of coal in the rock walls, walk through the galleries, and inspect the massive machines which were used by the end
of the mine’s productive life. The visit takes two hours, and you need solid shoes. It ends with a film documenting a day in the life of a Wendel miner.

Make time to visit the Carreau Wendel Museum first (within the same ‘Parc Explore Wendel’ complex.) It is housed in the ex-administration building of the mine, where miners also changed, left their clothes and showered after each shift. It documents the history of mining in general as well as the history of Wendel, and in doing so the history of Lorraine, so often fought over by France and Germany and so often at the heart of European industrial progress. There are ex-miners on hand to give first-hand accounts of what it was like being a miner – not just at work but at home too.

Permanent and visiting art exhibitions expand the theme to industry generally, and the whole museum is curated in French, English and German. More information on visiting is available at www.musee-les-mineurs.fr

The region around the city of Saumur in Maine-et-Loire abounds with troglodyte sites, including houses, restaurants and mushroom farms built into natural caves. One of France’s lesser-known attractions, the local tourist office is launching a major campaign to attract more visitors, constructing a cycle tour around all the sites.

Troglodyte sites were hewn out of the tufa stone of the slopes and cliffs of the Loire Valley. The stone was sold as a building material, and the resulting shallow spaces were used as dwellings, workshops and storage spaces. Sheltered from the elements, troglodyte spaces have the same temperature, 12°C, all year round, making them ideal as wine cellars.

The Perrières caves are massive and today house an illuminated, animated show called Le Mystère des Faluns, which you walk through. It’s set in the caves as if they were underwater, as they would have been 10 million years ago.

If food is more your thing, the caves in Saint-Hilaire-Saint-Florent house a mushroom farm which produces 12 tonnes of mushrooms a year. (Closed from November 11 2018 to February 10 2019.) Le Puy-Notre-Dame also has a mushroom producer in a troglodyte cave who offers visits to find out more about cultivating mushrooms but it is now closed until March 3, 2019.

La Grande Vignolle at Turquant features extraordinarily beautiful mansions built into the rocks, and there are more of them in Souzay. The village of Louresse-Rochemenier is well worth a visit too, as the museum there has preserved part of the original troglodyte village complete with farms and farm buildings carved out of the rock, an underground chapel and a modernised home. There is also a collection of agricultural implements, old photographs from the area and a chicken run.

Other sites offer sculpture, ceramics workshops and shops, cafés, painters and their paintings, even a snail farm. If you have a yen to stay in a troglodyte B&B, or eat in a troglodyte restaurant, consult the tourist office in Saumur.   

The Grottes de Naours in Picardie form almost an entire city beneath the city. Originally 3rd century stone mines, as they were worked out, the resulting spaces were used as hiding places during the invasions and counter-invasions which have swept to and fro across the region. Local people stored their valuables and crops in them, and took refuge there with their livestock. They were used by the French during the First World War and the Germans during the Second World War.

An interesting feature is the heating arrangements, as the temperature in the caves is around 9°C. Obviously in order to spend any amount of time in the caves they have to be heated, so chimneys were built which conducted the smoke away from the chimneys and into the chimneys of nearby dwellings, so that no-one could see smoke coming out of the caves. The graffiti left over from the First World War forms a poignant collective souvenir of how the soldiers felt as they waited to go into action. For more information see www.grottesdenaours.com

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