Cave dwellings or “les troglos”, date as far back as the Medieval Period, stretch across Maine et Loire, Indre et Loire, Loir et Cher, Vienne, Sarthe and Deux-Sèvres in western France according to the association Carrefour Anjou Touraine Poitou.
Passing along the Loire in the area of Anjou alone, the association Histoire Architecture Découverte Etude Sauvegarde identifies major troglodyte villages like Gennes, Trêves, Cunault, Chêne-Hutte-les-Tuffeaux as well as Dampierre, Souzay-Champigny, Turquant and Montsoreau to the southeast of Saumur. Further down south on the way to the Fontevraud Abbey there are Saint-Cyr-en-Bourg and Doué-la-Fontaine. Dénezé-sous-Doue, Rochemenier, Louerre, Grésille and Coutures are found north of Doué-la-Fontaine.
Underground Accommodations in the Loire Valley
These underground accommodations were created when tufaceous limestone (tufa) and falun were extracted over the centuries and used as building materials. Tufa, the finest white rock, was mined for the construction of châteaux, abbeys, churches and the most elegant mansions of the Loire Valley. Poorer families then took up residence inside the craters left by excavations. Falun, another soft rock less prized for construction, is a more recent shell limestone primarily found in the Doué-la-Fontaine basin. Its extraction has left behind impressive vaulted underground quarries.
Some of these caves were created as underground refuges during times of trouble including barbarian invasions, the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of Religion, among others. In the 19th century a substantial part of the population in the Loire Valley of Anjou lived in troglodytes, which were either carved into the river valley cliffs or into the vertical edges of old quarries.
But the inhabitants abandoned life in a cave throughout the 20th century because it no longer satisfied the need for comfort. Only the mushroom growers at the beginning of the 20th century appreciated the hillside caves carved out of the steep cliffs above the Loire of Anjou. Moving from Paris when the Métro was constructed, they found these caves the ideal sites for the cultivation of whitecap mushrooms. Production has flourished to account for two-thirds of French present output.
Reviving the Troglodytic Heritage in the Loire Valley
In recent years, the upsurge in tourism has allowed the rediscovery and preservation of the largely unknown troglodytic heritage: the zoo at Doué-la-Fontaine, old farms and hamlets transformed into museums, wine cellars, restaurants, hotels, holiday cottages, art galleries and workshops. New dwellers have returned in the Saumur region since the 1970s.
Rochemenier, 35 km from Angers and 80 km from Tours, is one of the most visited troglodyte villages in Anjou. The cave dwellings in Rochemenier are typical examples of “les troglos” dug on level ground around old quarries. The troglodyte village is well concealed on the surface except for the chimneys.
In the village of Turquant in Anjou, 10 km from Saumur and 58 km from Tours, the troglodytic houses were turned into a village of art in April 2009. More than ten artists have set up their ateliers and workshops in the village.
In the province of Touraine, “les troglos” were not so completely abandoned, especially on the banks of the Loire where many are kept as vacation homes until today. One of the best preserved troglodytic sites in the area is Trôo, a picturesque village cut into the river cliffs made of tufa in the Dormouse Valley, 50 km north of Tours. Many French artists, celebrities or even foreigners keep troglodytic houses as permanent homes or vacation properties in the village of Trôo.
Located 3 km from Azay-Le-Rideau Castle and 28 km from Tours on the north bank of River Indre, the Troglodytic Valley of Goupillières presents three farms dug into the tufa stone with their wells, baker’s ovens, cattle sheds, grain silo and medieval underground refuge. The troglodytic dwellings were opened to public in 2000 after 15 years’ restoration by the owner Louis-Marie Chardon.