Candes Saint-Martin, my favourite spot in La Touraine.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Nothing to be afraid of

The village of Savonnières, at 1 km from the famous Villandry castle and gardens, hosts a natural phenomenon: ’Les Grottes Pétrifiantes’ (Petrifying caves). Don’t worry … there’s nothing to be afraid of. There are neither ghosts nor goblins haunting the old caves. In this case ‘petrify’ simply means ‘calcify’.

Part of the symmetrical gardens of Villandy.
We visited the ‘Grottes’ on a chilly and rainy morning. It was a guided tour as it is too dangerous to wander around on your own. Although there is no risk of getting lost, as the structure of the two caves is rather straightforward, the floor can be wet and slippery in some places.
We arrived in the parking lot along the main road around 10 a.m. The guided tour left at 10.30, so we hung around for a while, waiting for other tourists and the guide to arrive. Half an hour later a small group of about 12 people had gathered near the entrance of the caves.
The guide was a young lady. She advised us to put on an extra sweater as the temperature in the caves was only around 10°C. She took out a large key and opened the door that led into the first cave. Walking in front of us, she turned on the lights progressively while we made our way down towards ‘the heart of the earth’. The descent wasn’t very steep and the floor surface was mostly even. The lady guide explained that the original caves were of natural origin. During Roman times they had been lived in, as showed the remains of pottery, millstones, etc. that had been found. There was even a small Roman cemetery with 7 tombstones.
The best parts, however, are the large formations of stalactites which look like intricate pure white lace curtains hanging down from the ceiling. And then of course, there is the subterranean lake. We were walking through the semi-darkness when suddenly the guide turned on the light that lit up the clear blue surface of the lake, overwhelming us with the sheer beauty of it.
As we walked on, the sound of dripping water became louder. Finally we came to the part to which the caves owe their name ‘The Petrifying Caves’. The dripping sound was made by the highly with bicarbonate saturated water trickling down several small cascades. At the bottom was a small pool in which some objects were lying: an old plastic doll, a plaster figurine, a miniature metal Eiffel Tour, etc. Thanks to a kind of natural alchemy the insoluble carbonate in the water deposits on the objects giving them a ‘petrified’ look. These objects are later polished and sold as unusual ‘objets d’art’.
The visit continued up a slippery staircase leading towards a natural source. Crystal clear water bubbles up from a hole in the rock. The tour guide told us that water was potable and insisted that we’d take a sip. My friend and I were the only ones to do so. As there were no beakers, we cupped our hands and tried some of the ice cold water. It had a very distinctive yet not unpleasant mineral taste. It certainly wasn’t poisonous as I drank it and I’m still here to tell you about it. The other people in our party were probably waiting for the wine tasting that was scheduled at the end of the guided tour!
It was almost 11.30 when our little group reappeared on the surface. Although it was a chilly and overcast day, stepping into the open air was like walking into a heated room. To top of the visit we were guided into a small shop selling the petrified and polished objects. They were very pretty and extremely unusual, and I was really temped. But as none of them were actually useful and only had decorative value, I decided not to waste my money on them.



Jean said...

We have something similar to this in Derbyshire. The county is riddled with caves and some of them are a popular tourist attraction. Locally, in Matlock Bath we also have a "petrifying well" with various "petrified" objects on display.
Or at least it did have - you have reminded me to go and see if it is still there - I haven't been for about 20 years!
Funny how we go hundreds of miles to look at things when there is just the same on our doorstep !!

ladybird said...

Hi Jean, I agree, we tend to forget about the nice and interesting places in our own neighbourhood. You've just given me an idea!! I feel another post coming on ... ;). Martine