Anjou’s underground world

Caves des Perrières ©T. Joly
In the surroundings of Saumur the subsoil hosts many underground galleries and dwellings. A mysterious world full of surprises, yesterday left in ruins, nowadays trendy, where it’s possible to enter and even to spend the night.

[ Practical ]

Getting there
- By road
320 km from Paris on autoroutes A10, A11 and A85 till Saumur
- By train
TGV Paris Montparnasse – Tours or Angers then TER till Saumur.
Journey takes between 2 h 40 and 3 h.
Best period
From April 1st till September 30th, when all sites are open.
Good to know
A car is necessary to be able to get to all sites.
- Bed and breakfast
La Farfadine, in Doué-la Fontaine.
Les Bateliers, in Cunault.
La Turcane, in Turquant.
- Gites
La Troglo, in Doué-la Fontaine.
Les Troglos Verts, in Parnay.
Gîte Troglodyte, in Le Puy-Notre-Dame.
Centre des Perrières, in Doué-la-Fontaine.
- Hotel
Hotel Rocaminori, in Louresse-Rochemenier
Demeure de la Vignole, in Turquant
La Cave aux Moines, in Chénehutte-les-Tuffeaux.
Les Caves de la Genevraie, in Rochemenier.
Cathédrales de la Saulaie, in Doué-la-Fontaine.
L’Hélianthe, in Turquant.
Saumur wineries
- Ackerman
- Bouvet-Ladubay
CDT Anjou, tel : 0241235151,
Office de Tourisme du Saumurois
Tel : 0241402060
Undulating landscapes. Peaceful rivers passing in front of castles. Country houses surrounded by vineyards… At first glance Anjou gives a peaceful and pastoral impression. However, this area also has a hidden and more mysterious face coming from a sometimes troubled past.

Gites La Troglo © T.Joly
 1 000 km of galleries
For it is here, on the left bank of the Loire, in the surroundings of Saumur and Doué-la-Fontaine that Europe’s most important concentration of underground galleries lies hidden within the earth. More than a thousand kilometres in total !! For the most part these are former quarries from which people extracted two soft stones easy to hollow out and to cut, falun (shelly sandstone) and tuffeau. The latter is better known as it was used to build most of the castles of the Loire valley as well as monuments in other countries like Westminster Abbey. Of variable length these tunnels were then put into use for the cultivation of mushrooms, as wine cellars and sometimes as shelters in times of danger. Viking invasions, the Hundred Years War, the Wars of Religion. In addition, actual houses and even whole villages have also been hollowed out of these rocks, again in order to hide, or else for reasons of convenience or economics.

Rochemeinier © T.Joly
 Underground village
These motivations are perfectly illustrated by the village of Rochemeinier, undetectable until you are right next to it. There, around two courtyards, dwellings, stables and out buildings all furnished with 19th Century objects are cut into the rocks. There is also a vast underground chapel since in the past the hamlet included many such farms. This is a perfect example of troglodytic activity in the region. As are the “Troglodytic Houses of La Forge” whose chimneys are all that are visible from the surface.
More enigmatic is the Cave aux Sculptures de Dénézé-sous-Doué, which dates back to the 16th century, at the time of the Wars of Religion. Its walls are adorned with hundreds of faces and figures cut out of the rocks showing people in daily life as well as deformed and grinning creatures. An artistic creation nobody knows the authors of nor the aim.

Castle of Brézé © T.Joly
 Vaulted rooms up to 20 meters high
Equally surprising is the castle of Brézé. This half medieval half Renaissance building stands on the top of a mound in which lies hidden an older underground fortress. Dating from the 10th century, it is made of many tunnels and rooms including a kitchen, ice-cave and wine cellar with massive presses. The whole complex connected to the deepest dry-moat in Europe, so large king Louis XIV was once able to hide his cavalry there during a military campaign.
But there is an even more spectacular site, the Caves Cathédrales des Perrières, in Doué-la-Fontaine. In the 18th and 19th century, peasant farmers used to become quarrymen in the winter to extract and sell the falun lying under their fields. From a narrow surface opening, they dug wider and wider going downwards thus creating majestic vaulted rooms up to 20 meters high. For a while given over to troglodytic dwellings and mushroom cultivation, they are nowadays beautifully lit and going around is a pleasure. So much so that some couples choose to have their wedding reception there !! And no need to look further afield for a place to sleep as there is also a gite for groups on the premises.

Cave aux sarcophages © T.Joly
 Monolithic sarcophagi
Still in Doué, more than 120 000 monolithic falun sarcophagi where extracted from the subsoil between the 5th and 8th centuries. A production marketed as far as England. Only a small area is open to visits, “La Cave aux Sarcophages”, which later served as a fortified refuge and chapel. In fact, according to historians, the town might not have had any surface housing before the 15th century as the population preferred to live underground for safety reasons. At any rate, it is still possible to see many troglodytic dwellings in several neighbourhoods.
Cliffside structures are more visible and this form of troglodytism served a mainly domestic function. It’s indeed impossible to imagine an invader wouldn’t have noticed all the cavities cut into the cliff face lining the Loire river both east and westwards from Saumur. Many of theses dwellings and out buildings were abandoned in the 20th century when living there became synonymous with poverty. But this is no longer the case. Since artists started settling there these houses have became trendy and more and more are being restored. Now several hotels, gites and bed and breakfasts offer troglodyte or half troglodyte lodging.

La Vignolle © T.Joly
 Swimming pool inside the cliff
At the Demeure de la Vignolle there is even a heated swimming pool set up inside the cliff !!! Cashing in on this trend the city council of Tarquant has decided to restore several ruined troglodyte dwellings. One already hosts a restaurant, L’Hélianthe, another one a bookshop, L'Apart, and several artisanal workshops that joined the leather worker, the wardrobe master and the mosaic maker who settled in the village few years ago. There is also the privately owned “Troglo des Pommes Tapées” which has relaunched a forgotten method to preserve fruits: apples are desiccated in an oven, then flattened by a succession of small hammer blows. A Sisyphean task.
Another difference compared with the plain, in the cliff side quarrying produced long galleries, stretching up to 10 kilometers, rather than vast rooms since the tuffeau was extracted horizontally.

Ackerman cellars © T.Joly
 Wine cellars
Several wineries from Saumur keep on using these galleries as cellars and offer the possibility to visit them. Among others, those belonging to Bouvet-Ladubay where the galleries are still used for winemaking and where an artist has carved 35 sculptures as part of a 600 m scenic path with a music and light show. As to those of Ackerman - the company who first produced sparkling wines in the region - they are the longest and are famous for the height of their vaults. But they are no longer used for wine production. Now, they house an exhibition combining dynamic scenography, information and fun activities that tells the story of Ackerman and how sparkling wines are produced.

Cultivation of mushrooms © T.Joly
 Till the end of the night
They also host temporary contemporary artists exhibitions and, sometimes, cultural events and wine tasting.
Lastly, some underground quarries are still given over to the cultivation of mushrooms even if this activity is declining in the area due to international competition. Visits are also possible and you can learn both the history of the quarries and how to grow shitake, button, blewitt and oyster mushrooms. An underground tour you can extend by eating in the mushroom growers’ own restaurant and even by going to the disco at “La Cave aux Moines”.

February 16, 2014
Thierry Joly 

[ For kids ]

There is no other zoo like the Bioparc of Doué-la-Fontaine, set up in a former falun quarry. Covering 14 hectares, it shelters more than 600 animals from about 70 species, mostly endangered ones, like the very rare snow panther. The part open to the sky part underground quarries with tunnels and caves creates an unusual multi storey zoo with several waterfalls, which allow tropical vegetation to grow in certain spots. Thus each animal lives in an environment closely reproducing their natural habitat. For example, the black rhinoceros is housed in a valley of over two hectares cut into the rock and carpeted with falun looking like the African savannah. The way the zoo is constructed also allows the visitor to have unusual viewing angles of the animals, like the restaurant terrace overlooking the giraffe park.