Saturday. We had just returned home to La Tour Desnos after a nice meal out at a friend’s restaurant up the street. The air was clean and cool, but not cold. A lovely Spring evening. So I walked into the séjour (living room) and opened one of the doors to the little balcony which looks out over the Parc du Nançon below. As I swung open the door, I was greeted by the sound of a strong, confident female voice accompanied by a jaunty accordion. There, below me in the park, was a clutch of perhaps fifty revelers gathered in front of a pair of musicians as the glowing light of dusk was slowly giving way to the night. Traditional French music filled the air as it soared in rich waves up to the top of our tower.
What a surprise! A small, informal concert in the park, virtually at the foot of our home. And the music was, at least to my American ears, that kind of arm-swinging, head-bobbing, sing-along, smoky cafe style that is so quintessentially French. To such a degree that I felt compelled to search the crowd for Hemingway sharing a drink (or two) with Picasso and Gertrude Stein at a little bistro table while puffing away at their cigars and Gauloises. I’m almost certain they weren’t there, but it was a nice image that I had concocted in my mind’s eye.
Both the chanteuse and accordion player were top-notch, really talented. So much so that I stood there, on our little balcony, for the next hour, transfixed, swooning with pleasure at the way the music had so taken me. I listened contentedly as the tunes rolled by, clapping my appreciation along with the crowd below as each one finished. The shadows slowly crept in, darkening the scene at my feet. And our resident host of small bats began to fly about the tower, indulging in a moving feast of insects as they careened through the air. The music played on with that particularly French combination of angst and verve.
But nothing lasts forever. Except perhaps Twinkies. At length, the singer closed her last song with a crescendo and the accordionist gave a final flourish to end the evening’s entertainment. The crowd of cheerful listeners began to disperse. And I, with bittersweet reluctance, watched them all go into the night. The park was once again quiet, apart from the excited but hushed voices of a few stragglers who, like me, were unwilling to let go of the musical high. But they were soon gone as well. Eventually, I left the balcony and closed the door, content to have such a special memory of life in France. How lucky I felt to be living here where such magical serendipity seems to happen with such astonishing regularity. My hope for you, dear reader, is that you, too, may someday chance upon your own special memory of a magical moment in France. I promise you that it’s not difficult. You just need to be here.
Until next time, here’s a little taste of the evening:
Le printemps (spring) is in full swing. Lashings of rain are broken by days of limpid blue skies and freshening sunshine. The first flowers have already come and gone and most of the trees are already robed in this year’s new line of greenery. So what better way is there than to celebrate this rejuvenating season than to crawl into a holein the french countryside. Bien sûr.
Cherie’s mother, Valerie, has come to visit us once again. We therefore put her right to work. As you do. In our defense, she asked for it. Seriously, she literally asked us what she could do to help out. Our work on fixing up an old apartment and turning it into a holiday rental continues. And that kind of work is right up Val’s alley. She loves it. Don’t ask me why. But we’re not ones to look a gift mother/mother-in-law in the mouth so we gratefully let her loose on the place. With her help, we’ve accomplished quite a bit. So much so that we are fast approaching completion. Thanks, Val!
Valerie has been laser-focused on renovating the apartment. But Cherie and I finally had to cry for mercy. We needed a break. So we have been taking a day off, here and there, to reenergize ourselves. And what better way to recharge than an afternoon tea? We returned to le Patis in Landivy [see our recent post here] for the full Monty: buckets of tea, sandwiches (without the crust, of course), scones with cream and jam, and scrumptious little cakes. It was so good, but so filling I swore off any more food for the rest of the day.
Our next break was more ambitious. Hoping for no rain, we travelled east to the beautiful lands of Mayenne and the town of St. Suzanne (about which I wrote in more detail in our post here). As you know, we love this little town. And it didn’t disappoint this time either. The weather was lovely and the ville was impossibly picturesque as we wandered its worn cobbled streets, explored the ruins of the Norman keep, and meandered the path encircling its ancient ramparts amidst wildflowers humming with bumblebees and tiny lizards sunbathing on the honey-colored stone walls. Sublime.
Moving on from Sainte-Suzanne, we made our way southward to a rocky gorge near the village of Saulges, about halfway between the large towns of Laval and Le Mans. There, in the cliff faces of the gorge, sit several caves (or, grottes, as they are known in French). A few of these grottes have been utilized by hominids (homo sapiens and, probably, homo neanderthalensis) for at least 29,000 years.
In this gorge on the river Erve is a ticket office and small museum which houses a nicely-displayed collection of prehistoric artifacts. It was interesting to have a close view of the various stone and bone tools used by the early humans who lived here, as well as their items of adornment (beads, pendants, etc) and other bits of evidence of habitation in this valley. It’s with recurring astonishment when I’m reminded that these people lived alongside rhinoceroses, leopards, and mammoths. How different the landscape must have been!
There is a restaurant next to the museum, so one can plan on having a meal here. We had already eaten lunch in Sainte-Suzanne so we didn’t try it. Lots of picnic tables throughout the valley as well – great places to enjoy a leisurely lunch or snack in a peaceful and beautiful setting. There are also a few hiking trails.
But the stars of the show are definitely the cave tours. Two caves (Margot and Rochefort) can be visited. These guided tours can be reserved online or at the ticket desk in the museum. Unfortunately, we only had time to visit one cave (Margot), but it was well worth it. With a small group our knowledgeable guide took us through the ancient, water-worn openings of the cave system, giving us an informative overview of the grotte’s geology and history of human habitation. She pointed out four gravures (figures scratched into the calcified layer covering the limestone) on the walls, rendered by the hands of humans who used these caverns many thousands of years ago. A wonderment to behold. Witnessing these representations forms such a profound visual connection between us and our ancestors – from their eyes to ours across the millennia. It really makes you think. Which is a good thing, in my opinion. There’s far too little of it these days. Thinking, that is.
Something you should know if you’re considering a visit to the Grottes de Saulges: the cave tours are not a walk in the park. If you are a practicing contortionist, then this is right up your alley. But for those of you who find bending and crouching difficult or painful, this might not be the way you want to spend an hour underground. Try the subway instead. Sturdy shoes are highly recommended and avoid wearing white – it’s wet and muddy. You are not allowed to touch any part of the cave surface in order to protect the gravures and rock formations as well as minimize the introduction of pathogens to the several species of bats which winter there.
The ceilings of the passages are sometimes low and irregular too. At one point we had to shuffle through a small opening with a muddy puddle directly underneath it while bending over nearly double. Kind of a reverse limbo, but without the tiki torches and Caribbean music. I’m happy to report that the three of us traversed all obstacles well, but there were a few in our group who struggled a bit. Consider yourself, intrepid adventurer, forewarned.
We emerged from Margot’s cave more thoughtful, enriched, and grateful to see the open sky above us. It had been an altogether good day. Lucky, lucky us. We try to be mindful that our ability to immerse ourselves in beautiful and historic towns, grand estates, mighty castles, dramatic countrysides, vibrant cities and, yes, even dank and dark prehistoric caves, is a true privilege. Something that far too few people ever get the chance to experience. We hope that, in sharing our journeys through our blog, we can spread the joy just that little bit further. Thanks for reading and stick with us for more humble little adventures in France. Take care!