Loire Valley Towns Explore Troglodyte Culture

SAUMUR, France -- Cave living is back. At least along the Loire Valley west of Tours to Angers.

The troglodyte culture is being brought back by conservationists who are restoring the traditions, activities, gastronomy and architecture of cave life. Part of the troglodyte "renaissance" includes caves refitted for summer vacation homes, gites (small inns) and restaurants.

The most distinguished cave conversion is Les Hautes Roches, northeast of Tours in Rochecorbon. The hotel has a noteworthy restaurant and is a Relais & Chateaux member. The former cave dwelling has 12 imaginative rooms and three suites with canopy beds and grand fireplaces. Its lounges and dining room are housed in a 17th century villa above the rooms, and the hotel has a pool. Les Hautes Roches is closed from Jan. 10 to mid-March. Prices in high season start at $170, double.

The ancient inhabitants of the area, particularly around Saumur and Angers, extracted stone destined to become construction material for the chateaux and manor houses of the western Loire Valley. An entire society was clustered in the caves, where limestone galleries, carved out of the cliffs by quarrymen, provided homes and lodgings. Underground galleries also were ideal for stocking provisions, winemaking and mushroom cultivation.

On the plateau above the river are more hidden cave dwellings. Dug straight down into the earth, these caves are detectable by the chimneys that trace the roofs of the underground chambers. From single cells to warrens of small rooms, thousands are still are in use, as wine cellars, mushroom farms and chapels.

The fascinating Mushroom Museum outside Saumur is open to the public from mid-February to mid-November. It occupies caves hollowed out in the 10th century. On view are miles of underground galleries dedicated to the culture of over 200 species of forest mushroom. Part of the guided tour includes a tasting area serving various mushroom dishes and wine.

In the Turquant district (between Chinon and Saumur), Troglo'Tap is a renovated troglodyte house, decorated with historical farm implements. The cliff cave dwelling highlights the local agricultural heritage with its Museum of Pommes Tapees, or dried apples, which are oven-dried, stored and then eaten in a preparation made with local red wine flavored with cinnamon.

Also in Turquant is an exceptional site: a 16th century pigeon house carved out of the rocks and open for tastings of Saumur-Champigny wine.

The sculpted cave at Deneze-sous-Doue features hundreds of faces and figures cut into the walls, offering a powerful and vivid collection of personalties who probably were alive at the end of the 15th century.

The Rochemenier Village comprises two ancient farms of dwellings and outbuildings cut into the rock. On view are several hundred agriculture tools, furniture, a farmyard with animals, an underground chapel and a modernized troglodyte house illustrating contemporary uses for this kind of dwelling. In all, there are 20 rooms that cover 2.5 acres.

Aboveground at this end of the Loire is Chateau Angers, a fortress perched high on the River Maine and home to the famous Apocalypse Tapestry. The tapestry's 70 enormous panels document the Book of Revelation in needlepoint.

Another not-to-be-missed monument in this region is the Chateau Saumur, which stands majestically above the town of Saumur on a high promontory.

Visitors then can stop in town for a wine tasting at the Maison du Vin, the house of wine run by the producers' association.

Relais & Chateaux, Phone: (800) 735-2478 or (212) 856-0115, Fax: (212) 856-0193.

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