Troglodytes – The Cave Homes Of France’s Loire Valley
In 2013 I had the good fortune to spend a week in France’s Loire Valley. While traveling between destinations there, I was struck the sight of homes carved into the exposed rock along hillsides. Still others were built into existing caves. Ninety million years ago, France – along with most of western Europe – was at the bottom of an ancient ocean. As time passed and the water receded, what was left was a thick layer of limestone.
During the Middle Ages, most of the churches and chateaux that dot the Loire Valley were built using locally quarried limestone. When the above-ground construction was finished, some people moved into the old mines. Consistent temperatures (never below about 55F/13C) and natural protection from the elements would certainly have been very welcome during medieval times. Seeing the benefits, other people began to carve out their own homes, this time away from the quarries. For hundreds of years people have built, worked and lived in these human-made caves. The government of France estimates that, until the 19th Century, half of the population of the Saumur region lived in these dwellings. A French organization, CATP, estimates that there are as many as 45,000 cave dwellings in the Loire Valley.
As you can see, most of these are abandoned, and I didn’t quite have the courage – or international insurance coverage – to go spelunking. But, peering through the windows, I liked the efforts to make living inside as colorful as possible. While having a consistent temperature is good, these types of spaces are also naturally humid and need to be well-ventilated to prevent mold from developing. That was not any easy thing to do back in the Middle Ages.
In the towns of Loche and Amboise, there are signs that the population used the caves as air-raid and bomb shelters during World War II, which certainly make sense.
The really interesting thing about the cave homes is, not all of them are abandoned. It is not legal in France to excavate for a new cave dwelling, but you can convert old ones. With technology, these kinds of homes are much easier to maintain now.
In fact, some of these cave homes are really nice!
Others, not so much.
Others are modest, but with modern amenities. Although it’s hard to see in the photo below, there’s a microwave antenna, and note the chimney coming out of the hill center-right towards the top.
Some of these caves are so massive, they contain wineries, mushroom farms, etc. There are miles and miles of caves throughout the entire region.
Still others are large manor homes.
In France, these cave homes are refered to as “troglodytes“1 and throughout the 20th Century they were associated with poverty and the majority of them were abandoned. But, as you can see, over the last several years, with new heating & ventilation technology, and a heightened environmental awareness, there has been a “troglodyte renaissance” and they have become increasingly popular.
For more information about troglodytes and the cave homes of the Loire Valley, check out this writeup from Smithsonian Magazine.
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