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Le troglo


Cave Dwellings in the Loire Valley

An important part of our heritage

Wherever geology has provided stone that is workable and accessible, people have used this to their advantage by extracting materials or even digging homes. This kind of house is found on all the continents and is especially popular in China, where it's estimated that millions of people still live in cave dwellings.


In Europe, most of these sites are to be found in Spain and France, but the number of people who live in them year-round is relatively small these days. However, in the 19th century half the population of the Saumur area lived in cave dwellings!

Rochemenier.jpg

The village of Rochemenier

 

The phenomenon is noteworthy in the Loire Valley and in particular in the province of Anjou, for two reasons:

  • the density: the substratum of this region is a veritable Swiss cheese that was dug out over the course of centuries to extract two limestone rocks, both of which are soft and easy to work with:
  • tuffeau: This is the white rock which has been used in the construction of churches, châteaux, the most elegant mansions and the most modest homes of the Loire Valley. It was extracted in underground quarries for centuries and shipped along the Loire and its tributaries.
  • falun: This is a more recent shell limestone. Its provenance is much more limited (primarily the Doué-la-Fontaine basin) and it is less prized for construction. Its extraction, however, has left impressive vaulted underground quarries.

perrieres.jpg

 

 

  • the variety of shapes: the presence of a plain carved by river valleys bordered by an often abrupt cliffs favors a concentration of the principal types of cave dwellings in the region. Cave architecture is essentially substractive: material is extracted to create the form (as opposed to surface architecture, which is additive in nature). 

 

Cathedral caves of the Perrières, in Doué-la-Fontaine

 

 

Thus we find, in the cliffs along the Loire, horizontal cave dwellings, created by digging perpendicular to the rock walls. In the plain one finds vertical cave dwellings, from digging into the earth. There can also be overlap between these two styles. While there are not many examples of natural caves or shelters under rock overhangs, we do have many semi-cave dwellings: a house backed up against the rock wall.


Our region is also rich in underground refuges: some caves were created especially for this purpose during times of trouble (barbarian invasions, the Hundred Years War, wars of religion). These form an ingenious system of defense deep in the earth with passages leading in from the outside and leading to several large rooms. A series of obstacles impeded the would-be attacker.


In times gone by, in some towns, almost everyone lived in caves and there were few signs of human presence visible on the surface. This kind of habitation is often associated with poverty. It's true that for centuries these were the homes of those of modest means: peasants, workers in the quarries, sailors on the Loire... but there are also lordly mansions in caves, large dovecotes (symbols of aristocratic privilege), religious edifices, underground chapels.

All this testifies to a veritable underground society with a life dominated by the stone and dominating the stone: an adaptation to the dark & damp that comes along with these places, a symbiosis between economic activity on the surface and family life below-ground.


Troglos_a_Mirebeau.jpg

An abandoned cave hamlet, at Mirebeau (département 86)

 

A period of abandon


Life in a cave no longer provided the same comforts to be found aboveground, and the habitations were abandoned, bit by bit, over the course of the last century.
When they weren't kept up, they gradually fell into disrepair. Those few people who continued to live in them did so for reasons of age or poverty. This explains the negative image often found among the local people.

Renewed interest


The first economic reincarnations of the quarries:

  • in the middle of the 19th century, wine caves: many companies and individual winemakers made the regional wines in immense underground galleries.
  • at the end of the 19th century, mushroom growers, who lost their mushroom caves in Paris when the Métro was constructed, started using the caves of this region. These enterprises are still responsible for most of the worldwide production of the mushrooms known as champignons de Paris. For economic reasons, the mushroom growers have since left the caves to work in buildings on the surface.


The restoration of monuments (in particular the abbey at Fontevraud) and of traditional habitations of the Loire Valley required large quantities of tuffeau, so quarries were reopened in the 1970's. These are the Lucet quarries, in Saint-Cyr-en-Bourg.

It is above all the upsurge in tourism which has permitted the preservation of this heritage, which has become a major factor in the economic development of the region: the zoo at Doué-la-Fontaine, old farms and hamlets transformed into museums, restaurants, art galleries and workshops, accommodations...

There are new dwellers in the stone now. In the Saumur region, the first "repatriations" started in the 70's. In Touraine, they hadn't been so completely abandoned, especially on the banks of the Loire, thanks in particular to the fact that many were vacation homes.

 

             Manoir de la Caillère, Coutures (R. Rak)

Richard_Rak_Manoir_de_la_Caillere.jpgThis kind of home is becoming very much in vogue, because it represents a certain number of modern-day social values: ecology, nature, economy, esthetics, authenticity...
This goes hand in hand with the utilization of new materials and new heating and ventilation techniques. These new cave homes contribute toward changing the image of this way of life. The local population is interested in them again and wants to promote this heritage. Local municipalities bring their support and encouragement to these projects, particularly insofar as they are related to lodgings.


Our cave heritage is an important element of the "cultural, living, evolving landscape" in recognition of which our region has been classified as a worldwide heritage site (for further information on the inclusion of the Loire Valley: www.valdeloire.org).




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