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.
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!