Explore the oldest troglodyte site in France

Underground quarry vaulted by the cathedral

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Thousands of people in France lived underground in caves and one region has one of the richest collections of cave sites in Europe.
As early as the 5th century, tunnels were dug in the rock – first for digging in stone and later, from the 18th century until the 1950s, for building houses.

In the 18th century, of the 4,000 inhabitants of the town of Doué-la-Fontaine near Saumur, in Maine-et-Loire, half would have lived underground.

There are around 1,500 km of galleries, cellars and old dwellings covering an area of ​​almost 600 km² – although the majority are no longer accessible.

The oldest site open to visitors with evidence of human activity dating back 1500 years is Troglodytes et Sarcophages, Doué-en-Anjou.

Historic monument historic monument in Doué-en-Anjou

It is classified as a historical monument and is maintained by Didier Chabot.

He said: “In our region, cave sites are not natural caves formed by geology and therefore were not inhabited by prehistoric man. Instead, they are openings and tunnels later created in two types of local rocks that are quite soft and easy to dig.

“On the banks of the Loire, there is a local type of limestone called tuffeau and here the troglodyte activity is known as from the hillside, which means that galleries have been dug into the hillside. This is where the stone from the famous Loire Valley castles was mined.

“In the region where I am, the stone is Falun, for which there is no exact translation. It is a sandy, crumbly rock full of shells, formed 10 to 15 million years ago when the sea covered the land.

“Here, the troglodyte activity is known as plain, where people dug flat plains to create a large open pit.

“From the bottom, they started digging horizontally in the rock. It’s extraordinary. Everything was done by hand with picks. They would have needed pulleys to spread the cut rock. ”

The site of Troglodytes et Sarcophages was explored for the first time by archaeologist Michel Cousin 27 years ago. He spent five years examining galleries covering a hectare of land.

The Troglodytes and Sarcophagi dug an open pit in the plain above to then dig tunnels and underground chambers

He discovered that in the 5th century, the rock was used to make graves, found in churches as far as Normandy and Brittany, and it is possible that they were taken across the English Channel to UK.

It is estimated that 25,000 people were made here. “It was the time of Clovis, the first king of the Franks, who converted to Catholicism, which led to the development of Christianity,” said Mr. Chabot.

“The graves were two meters long and weighed around 500 kg when completed.

“It must have been a gigantic task to get them out into the open air, then back up into the plain above. They were reportedly transported by river and sea to their most remote destinations. You can still see where they were working underground. ”

The second use was as a refuge from war from the 8th century. They would have been a haven of peace when the Vikings traveled up the Loire in the 9th century.

“A text from the 12th century testifies that in the 11th century the inhabitants of Saint-Hilaire-Saint-Florent were hiding underground from the Norman assailants.

Another find was a chamber with Roman and Gothic arches, showing that it was probably created as a chapel in the 12th century. There are niches carved into the rock wall, which could have contained statues. Above was a castle, which has since disappeared, but the lord who lived there had to find the perfect underground space for worship.

There is also evidence that part of the underground area could have been used as a farm in the Middle Ages as there are traces of a dovecote and places where animals could have been kept.

However, these caves were not later used for housing, as was common in other underground complexes. Instead, it was used as a quarry for building stone.

Workers began to dig from the top and, moving downward, they blossomed, creating a vaulted ceiling that would keep the structure strong and prevent collapse. It makes these rooms look like a cathedral.

The site was later used by a winemaker and it was not until Mr. Cousin visited and began to explore the tunnels that go back underground that its entire history was revealed.

Elsewhere in the region, people began to create underground dwellings in the 18th century. “The people were poor and they were digging in the plain to create a yard,” said Mr. Chabot. “From there they were able to dig in the rock to make a room with alcoves for the beds and closets.

“Usually the family lived in one room and the animals in others. They used some of the stone they dug to create supporting arches on the interior and walls on the front.

“There would be a fireplace and a fireplace which, to people crossing the countryside above, was the only sign that someone was living below. The advantage was a constant temperature of around 14 ° C throughout the year. The downside was the lack of light and high humidity, and lung disease was common.

“The dwellings are not rich in detail because they were simple houses hewn in the rock for the poor, but they are our own specific architecture without equivalent anywhere else in France.

Underground quarry vaulted by the cathedral

After World War II, as living conditions improved and more modern housing became available, housing began to be abandoned.

Some continued to be used for wine cellars and by mushrooms.

Recently they have been rediscovered. Some have been restored and renovated to integrate modern comfort and converted into homes, even unusual restaurants, guest rooms and hotels.

There are also other museums to visit. Maisons Troglodytes de Forges, between Saumur and Doué-la-Fontaine, shows how a 19th century family would have lived in their house carved into the rock.

The village of Rochemenier has two old farms, with houses and outbuildings, made up of 20 rooms over five hectares and an underground chapel.

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