We spent 10 days in the Loire Valley. It’s close enough to Paris that in centuries past, nobility built summer chateaus here to escape the city. Before that, French royalty ruled from Blois and elsewhere in the valley. More than 300 chateaus dot the river valley, many of them open to the public for viewing. But the valley also saw a different kind of housing – cave dwellings. The contrast between the two could not be more different.
Cave dwellers are called troglodytes, though this name has gotten a bad rap from a rash of bad movies and the urban dictionary. The rock in the Loire Valley where troglodytes made their caves is the creamy-white colored tufa (tuffeau), laid down 100 million years ago as the sea that covered modern-day France receded.
Tufa is a soft easily quarried stone that can be dug with hand tools. The troglodytes quarried the stone, digging caves and tunnels. By the 11th century they were living in the caves, and later, added rooms with windows and doors to the front using the stone that they had dug out of the caves.
These dwellings are cool, maintaining a temperature of 54 F year-round. So the caves are also frequently used to store and age the famous wine from this region, and to grow mushrooms.
We visited Turquant, a well-known troglodyte community with cave homes, ateliers, and restaurants. Walking along the town road, one can see these buildings dug into the cliffs, occasionally sporting a vent to a deeper part of the cave. We enjoyed the contrast of the troglodyte caves with the antennae and cable dishes sprouting from the rooftops.
As for the chateaus made from the tufa, I definitely saw too many of them. At times the crowds were overwhelming. But that’s what you get when you travel in France in August.
On the Saumur side of the valley, we saw the Château d’Ussé, supposedly the inspiration for the story, Sleeping Beauty. The present owners have made the most of the Sleeping Beauty connection, setting up the story on the third floor of the castle to engage children on the tour.
We also walked from our villa to the Château de Saumur, originally a fortress to protect the inhabitants of the town against marauding Normans in the 10th century. But upon arriving at the bottom we decided that the walk up might kill us, so skipped this one.
On the east side of the Loire Valley, we stayed in Blois, and traveled out to see the Château de Villandry, the Château de Chenonceau, and a couple others I missed, opting to stay in the flat and write.
While the Chateau at Villandry is beautiful, what I really I loved was the immense gardens, covering 22 acres! The elaborate designs are meant to be seen from the windows of the chateau and the walkway above, though they are equally beautiful at eye level. And it’s not just visual; the music garden is predominantly lavender and the fragrance almost overpowered me while walking through it.
My personal favorites were the herb garden and the nine Renaissance kitchen gardens, each with a different color pattern based on the vegetables growing in it. Chateau owners in the 16th century were very interested in all the new world vegetables making an appearance in France, such as squash, pumpkins, and tomatoes. The Château de Villandry is still innovating. Recently they switched to organic gardening.
The Château de Chenonceau has been the site of some major history. In 1547, King Henry II gave the chateau to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. She made major renovations, including extending it to the other side of the Cher River. But before she could finish the work, Henry died. His wife, Catherine de’ Medici, forced Diane out, though she gave her another chateau. (I don’t think I would have been so generous.) It was she that added the two story building to Diane’s bridge, making a long gallery.
During WWI the then owner, Gaston Menier, turned the gallery into a military hospital at his own expense, complete with operating room. After being treated in the field, soldiers were moved here. A story is told that many fished in the Cher River below their windows with simple strings and poles, some from their beds.
The opulence and scale of these “homes” is interesting for a while. But I much prefer to visit the kitchens in the basement and the kitchen gardens. That’s where I’d be working if I had been born back then. In fact I’d have been lucky to have a position working at a chateau during those times, and living in a cave dwelling.
I thank God I’m living today. I also appreciate the ability to step back in time at my convenience.
For other essays on our rural France journey, see:
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