Ducking Underground – les Grottes de Saulges

Now THAT’s an Old House! – Rochefort Cave

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 hole in the french countryside. Bien sûr.

Where’s Her Work Visa? – Valerie in Her Element

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!

Our Happy Place!

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.

Wisteria Doorway: Sainte-Suzanne

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.

Valley of the Caves

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.

Are they Judging Me? – Artifacts in the Musée Préhistoire

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!

Trail Along the Banks of the Evre

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.

Cherie and Val at the Entrance to Margot’s Cave

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.

Can You Spot the Rhinoceros? – Prehistoric Gravure

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 Living Rock

[N.B. Photos are strictly forbidden inside the caves. Those included in this blog are from their website.]

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!

Before the Gateway of Château Sainte-Suzanne

Rising From Ruin: Abbaye de Clairmont

An Aged Face – The Nave of the Abbey Church

Today, a quick post for a quick outing. About 45 minutes to the southeast of us, just inside the Pays de la Loire, sits the old Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Clairmont. It’s not too far from the city of Laval, which we have also visited (see our previous post about Laval here: A Light Late Lunch in Laval). It’s not the easiest place to find. Especially if you are coming from the less well-travelled direction. Google Maps got us lost down an old dirt track. But we were determined to find the abbey so we hit the main road between Laval and Ernée where we had seen a historical marker sign for the site. From there it was fairly simple. There were yet more signs leading us down some pleasant country lanes and, finally, down a graveled drive to the abbey itself. Piece of cake!

A Bit of a Fixer-Upper

We had been under the impression that this was a working abbey. Boy, were we wrong! The only work going on at Clairmont now is the work to save it from crumbling into the ground. And even that seems to be intermittent at best. Still, it is an evocative place and there is much to see. As we exited our car were greeted by a couple of volunteers who were on their way out. They cheerily directed us to the billetterie (ticket office). Much more grand than it sounds – especially in French – the ticket office consisted of a small, room with limewashed walls storing, amongst a seemingly random collection of household items and old furniture, an old gentleman with a table. He greeted us with a reserve customarily extended to invitees of a tax audit. The day was chilly, and so was monsieur.

After taking our payment for the nominal entrance fee, the man launched into a fifteen-minute recitation on the history of the abbey. Despite my instinct to eject myself from this uncomfortable situation, the old man’s well-rehearsed speech was interesting. I held fast. At one point during his spiel, Cherie attempted to improve the connection with monsieur by injecting that we were familiar with a location he had just spoken about. But he was having none of it. Ignoring her attempt at warmth, he simply continued on, displaying admirable breath control for someone of his age. At length, he came to the end of his presentation, handed us an informative pamphlet and directed us out of his room toward the rest of the abbey grounds. We might well have been his only visitors that day. I think he had things to do.

The Lay Brothers’ House

L’Abbaye de Clairmont was founded in 1142. Established by monks of the Cistercian order, the monastery was initiated at the behest of the baron of Laval so that he and other lords of the region might have a sacred place of burial secured by the daily prayers of its inmates. At its height, Clairmont was home to 40 monks and 60 lay brothers, active in their rigorous religious devotions. It was a thriving and wealthy abbey until decline set in toward the end of the 17th century. By 1791, the last few monks had left. The abbey became a working farm, with even the church converted into agricultural use to store hay, grain, carts and tools. It remained a farm until 1952. But by then the buildings had fallen into ruin. Two friends, beguiled by the history and romance of its medieval heritage, purchased the entire site and initiated a program of restoration which continues up to today.

La Porterie: The Porter’s Gatehouse

From what we could discern, most of the monastic building are from the 12th century, except for a large dormitory which was added in the 17th century. Much of the complex remains in a partially- or fully-ruined state, though much work has clearly been done to shore up and stabilize the various historic structures. Despite this, there is definitely a rough beauty to this place, highly evocative of its rich and interesting history. The architecture is simple, functional and solid. But it is also, in its own way, graceful, elegant in that early Cistercian style of design which pleasingly weds form and purpose to a sense of the divine.

Inside the Abbey Church

We spent a good hour wandering around the monastic buildings, letting our imaginations mingle with the tranquil atmosphere, interrupted only by the rustle of wind in the trees and an occasional plea from the small black sheep which meandered furtively within and without the cloister. We truly had the place to ourselves. In spite of its ruinous state, there is much to see. And it is not difficult to gain a picture of how it must have once looked.

There are Still Halos to be Found Here

On our way back to the car, another volunteer appeared and offered to show us into what we think was the old chapter house. It now serves as a repository for any remaining stone or wood carvings, decorative tiles, and other ephemera from the time of the active monastery. There are just enough items in here to hint at the former glory of the place. It must have been really something. We were also shown an old chapel room. Small, dark, with a vaulted ceiling, it is little more than a cave. But it still, apparently, serves as a place of occasional worship. This volunteer was very warm and inviting and we ended up chatting with her for sometime in the afternoon sun in the carpark. At length, we said our goodbyes and she returned to her work.

A “New” Addition: The 17th Century Monks Dormitory

Although it wasn’t quite what we thought it would be, we enjoyed our visit to Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Clairmont. It tugs at our souls to see such a once-magnificent monument reduced to a sad ruin. But seeing the continued efforts of volunteers to restore it gives us hope. It’s perhaps impossible to save everything – there is so much around here to save – but it is good to see that people do care. Saving some of this remarkable cultural heritage is surely far better than allowing it all to disappear. What a sad and empty world it would be without these beautiful and important reminders of our past.

The Old Chapter House, Now an Exhibition Hall

Jublains – From Rome to Ruins

A Gem Amongst the Stones – Cherie in the Roman Fortress of Jublains

I hope you’ll agree. The Romans accomplished some pretty amazing things. As a whole, they weren’t the kind of people to lay in hammocks, drink iced tea, and wait sleepily for dinner time to roll around. Nope, they had energy to burn: aqueducts to build, peoples to conquer, orgies to, er, organize. Multifaceted, they were – probably more mult-y and more facet-y than any other culture to ever stomp their way around this planet at any time in history. So much so that they left a lot of their stuff behind. Just laying around.

Bathroom Envy – Heated Walls in the Fortress Baths.

Of course, the Roman stuff was so good, that anyone who came after them preferred to bury it. I mean, who wants to have to live up to those show-offs, eh? Better to just cover up their pretentious under-floor heating and get on with slapping up your mud walled hut where you, the wife, your twelve kids, the sheep, the cows and the pigs can all huddle together for warmth. And thank goodness they did. Because now we get to dig it all up and learn how this scrappy group from the Italian peninsula developed such a remarkably sophisticated material culture. One from which we still benefit today.

Example of Excavations at Jublains

Cherie and I are fascinated by the ancient Romans and we jump at the chance to explore their history as often as possible. So when we happened to discover that there was a major site of Gallo-Roman ruins not too far away from our home, we carved out a day from our surprisingly busy retirement life schedule to go see them.

Model of Noviodunum With the Fortress and Theater in the Foreground

The ruins are part what was once an important Gallo-Roman town known as Noviodunum. They are now situated in the village of Jublains in Mayenne, Val de la Loire where the village and its partners have set aside and carefully maintained generous portions of land to allow visitors to view the extraordinary remains of the ancient town. The primary archeological remains in Jublains actually run from the Bronze Age through to the 4th century A.D. (or C.E., if you prefer).

There is also an excellent museum filled with hundreds of fascinating artifacts. All of the displays, descriptive plaques and visual aids are well thought out and executed. Well-done, Jublains!

The Church With Roman Baths

Highlights of our visit were the civic baths which were discovered underneath the chancel end of the village’s church, the vast temple complex on the edge of town, the legionary fortress, and the amphitheater. There is a lot to see and this entails a bit of walking to and fro. We got plenty of exercise in without realizing it. But the sites appear to be well set up for those with different mobility challenges. One can also drive and park quite close to most of the areas, so it seemed to us that accessibility was actually quite good.

Ville de Jublains

Sadly, the village itself felt just a little bit in need of a boost. It is clear that Jublains is not what you would call buzzing. The museum and historic sites are the main – well, only – attractions. But, to be fair, we visited on a Sunday. Stupidly, we assumed that we would be able to get something to eat at lunchtime. The village does have restaurants and a boulangerie. However, none of them were open. Only a bar-tabac was serving. But only drinks. “Just up the street is pizza, though,” offered the server, helpfully. Trudging up the street we found the pizza restaurant. Closed. But sporting a hot pizza vending machine which is becoming so popular in the rural parts of France these days. Sigh! Well, we had to eat. So we consumed our robot pizza for lunch and carried on with the cultural enrichment.

If you take the time to visit Jublains, you will not be disappointed. Unless, of course, you aren’t interested in history, culture, and how we all fit in to the rich tapestry of life. In which case, I really can’t help you with your terminal Kardashian infatuation. But the rest of you beautiful and intelligent people will find what the people of Noviodunum left behind to be fascinating and thought-provoking. We had a fantastic time!

Remains of the Temple Complex
Carving From the Temple Area
Decorated Roman Wall Plaster
Section of Defensive Wall From The Vast Roman Fortress