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Caves are not the kind of tourist attraction you expect to see in the Loire Valley, known the world over for its fine wines. The land is beautiful, with rolling hills, vast tracts of farmland and magnificent chateaus and castles. It is indeed one of the most stunning areas of France.
Les Hautes Roches is a "troglodyte" hotel — despite being so luxurious.
But if you drive along the Loire River — the longest in France, which bisects the Loire Valley — you will be startled to notice something in the limestone cliffs that front the river. Facades of what look like houses are carved into the cliffsides, often reaching up several stories, with turrets and other accoutrements that seem to mock the nearby castles.
These are known as the troglodyte caves, and not too long ago they were home to the peasants who lived in the area, tilled the land and served the royals who came to visit. In fact, some of the caves are still inhabited today, and not just by the poorer residents of the valley: In the last few years, they have become trendy second homes to city-dwellers in Paris and elsewhere. You can even stay in a troglodyte hotel in Rochecorbon. (Troglodyte literally means "cave-dweller" in Latin, despite connotations of dwarfdom.)
Aside from being inexpensive, weatherproofed housing for peasants (cool in summer, warm in winter), the caves served other practical purposes as well. The interior rooms were often linked together and to other caves in the cliffs, providing an escape from invaders over the centuries. They were often linked to the nearby castles and chateaus as well, so the rich and royal inhabitants could also escape if necessary.
The limestone, or tufa, was often mined and then the abandoned quarries were converted into housing. Limestone is soft and easily cut, but when exposed to the air, it hardens into a concrete-like material, perfect for use as a human dwelling.
Today, many of the troglodyte caves are used for mushroom growing and snail farms, the dank interiors of some proving ideal for those activities. But that only applies to the caves dug directly into the ground. Those used as dwellings, and carved out of the side of the cliffs have, in some cases, been thoroughly modernized, with windows, modern plumbing, etc.
Still, there are some underground troglodyte villages intact and available for tourists. In Rochemenier, near Samur, a maze of caves surrounds a central pit that was created when mining limestone collapsed the ground above. There, visitors can see an entire underground village that looks like it did centuries ago: barns, wine cellars, ovens and even an underground chapel, all carved out of stone. The only evidence to the outside world might be a lonely chimney spewing smoke in the middle of a field.
Visitors to the area can arrange tours of some of the troglodyte villages and even some private homes through the Anjou Tourist Board and other local tourism agencies. Also, some private troglodyte homes can be rented by the week or month through local real estate agencies. Some caves have been converted into restaurants and nightclubs, while others provide ideal conditions for wine storage.
To get a taste of what it must have been like to actually live in these caves — albeit in a very modern way — clients can book rooms at Les Hautes Roches, a four-star Relais & Chateaux luxury property in the Loire Valley, which bills itself as a troglodyte hotel. While it’s great to get an idea of this unique style of living, it’s certainly doubtful that the original inhabitants of those early troglodyte villages would have ever imagined such a grand use of the space.