Mention the word “Troglodytes”, and pre-historic cavemen spring to mind, or we conjure up images of trolls and dwarves. I think of the folktale of “Three Billy Goats Gruff” and can imagine the trolls in the story retiring to caves such as these.
The area around Saumur is literally riddled with miles of caves, and the reality is just as fascinating as the images we conjure up. We discover that you don’t even need to have cliffs to have these caves, as many are underground.
Some 90 million years ago the sea, which covered part of France, gradually receded, and tufa (soft limestone) slowly formed from marine sediment. In medieval times, wine growers, artisans, quarrymen, bargemen of the Loire river, or people fleeing persecution dug the tufa to make underground caverns, shelters, or houses. Or they extracted the creamy stone to build churches, castles and houses above ground.
Today the caves, known as the “troglodytes” (“troglo” for short), are used in many ways—for wine caves, to cultivate mushrooms and snails, as museums, as dovecotes, as chapels, as restaurants and shops, and still as living areas.
The best way to get an idea of what these fascinating caves were, and are still, used for is to do a Troglo Tour. One of the highlights of a Troglo tour is an underground marvel, a mystery church, 22 km west of Saumur, in the village of Deneze-sous-Doue. Or was it a church? We actually don’t know enough about the history of the cave to make a final judgement.
On the surface the village of Deneze-sous-Doue is rather dull, but dig a bit deeper and a unique subterranean sculpted world lies below in the cool, damp caves. One brochure says it’s a controversial popular work of art. One guidebook calls it Pagan art. Another theory says that Protestant stonemasons during the 16th-century Wars of Religion chiseled more than 400 figures into the walls, floors and ceilings. Whoever those anonymous artists were, they carved hundreds of truculent sculptures, and caricature bodies in the tufa rock in these underground caves.
This is the Cave aux Sculptures, which is absolutely fascinating.
It’s not that easy to find, as the signs are small and faded. Go down a narrow lane to a mini car park with a tiny kiosk at the side. A small church is at one side of the car park (where we walked first, not realizing where the caves are). In this church Catholics and Protestants supposedly worshipped amicably on alternate days, so one wonders why the Protestants took to hiding in the caves. It’s all just part of the mystery.
At the kiosk a woman sits, selling tickets at the top of the stairs. The land around there is flat, so it’s a huge surprise to climb down underground and be in deep caves. She promises to come down and give us a tour, which she does. And that is how we meet Annie Brethon, the curator, who talks passionately (in French only on that day) about the carvings. She’s been involved in their care and upkeep since the caves were rediscovered and then made public many years ago. We hear her romantic interpretations, which are often political and satirical, loaded with great symbolism, intertwined with history, guesswork and supposition.
The caves were hidden for hundreds of years and found by chance by school kids in 1956. There are probably more caves behind these caves that we see, as they had collapsed. But there’s no money for more excavation right now. At first, after the kids found them, the local villagers put a tin roof over the top, but it got too hot and the carvings started to crumble. Now they have a concrete roof, so it’s evenly cool. And damp. We can also imagine the high humidity slowly helping to dissolve the sculptures.
The carvings are all in relief, not free-standing, so were easier to sculpt. The art is a bit primitive, and rather crude, not fine stonework in the classic sense, so it could have been done by ordinary people, whom Annie speculates the stonemasons were. She feels they were Protestant masons meeting underground, for safety.
We look in amazement, as the figures are clustered up and down the walls, along the ceilings, on the floors, executed with amazing detail. They are grinning, grimacing, smiling, smirking, writhing. The figures are big, small, separate, intertwined. She tells one story about a figure, who was an Indian from Brazil. Is it true, or far-fetched? Are some of these figures really Catherine de Medicis and various French kings, such as Francis 1? Did the stonemasons satirize Catherine, who was Catholic and supposedly notorious for over-indulgence and even crime?
Annie points out what she mockingly calls a “Pieta”, with an ax instead of a cross, and tells a complicated story of women’s underwear: how wearing long, pretty underwear allowed women to ride their horses more freely. Whatever the story behind these carvings, they are fascinating.
The series of carvings is a ruin really, so what we see is fragmented and the mystery remains as to when it was done and what it actually was. We also see the remains of an oven down there. Built by whom? For what?
Local people who care have applied for historic monument status, but lots of paperwork and money is needed so the sculptures are still waiting to be saved. Annie is so enthusiastic and talks so passionately about the sculptures that we hope her arguments for their salvation will be heard.
Definitely worth making the effort to find this unusual sight. The day we were there no flash photography was permitted and the lighting underground was rather dim, so it was difficult to really capture visually what these sculptures are like.
La Cave aux Sculptures, 1 Rue Principal, 49700 Deneze-sous-Doue, Loire
Tel: 33 (0)2 41 59 15 40
Hours for 2012;
April 1-Oct 31, daily except Monday (but open If Monday is a public holiday) 10:30am-1pm and 2-6:30pm
Now, languages offered are French, English and Spanish
Tariffs for 2012:
Adults €4, children 6-13 €2.50, groups €3
Cash or credit card
Inhabitants of the Commune, free.
Read the account of Vivienne’s earlier trip to this region, which covers other subterranean wonders.