Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Troglodytes. France 2007

I have been caving once before. It was in Bulgaria. The cave was the size of a cathedral, with its climbing, descending, and crawling tracks slippery and dangerous.
The only pleasure that I found from this minor expedition was getting out of the cave in one piece to breathe real fresh air.
I suppose that there is pleasure to be gained from mucking about in caves, but it is not my idea of fun.
So why were Margreet and I about to spend two nights in a cave, with me being such an anti-troglodyte?
One reason was recommendation, the other that it was in the Loire, in France, and about half way between Dieppe and Frontenac, in Entre Deux Mers where our hosts lived, and Saint-Emilion where wedding celebrations were about to take place.
Up at 3.10 am to pack the car, we were away from the port of New Haven on England’s south coast by 5.15 am.
In the lea of chalk cliffs the sea was fairly calm as we set forth across the Channel toward Dieppe.
Out at sea we encountered large, white-topped rollers, coming from the direction of the North Sea. So the ship rose on the crests and sank into the troughs, corkscrewing just across them as we went. There was a crash and a shudder as we hit the wake of merchantmen crossing our bow.
In a cabin we were able to lie down and be rocked by the motion of the ship over waves. And, without the incessant Tannoy messages delivered to the public areas, we were able to enjoy the isolated and comparatively silent experience in spasmodic sleep.
It was wet in France as we slogged away, mostly on motorways, southwards to Rouen (where we got a bit lost), and then past Alençon and Le Mans.
Then, what looked on the map as a nice cross country drive through Loire countryside, turned out to be a landscape of rather ordinary forests and farmland.
To find our cave when we reached Trôo (pronounced Trow) was a matter of several askings and misunderstandings. But after conducting our car up a narrow cliffside track, which started with a No Entry sign, and past cliffside houses and steps to caves, we were greeted at the roadside by the owners of our Gite.
Our cave, with access steps cut into the sandstone cliff face, had its own front door, window and small balcony. The inside was impressive, with its multi-vaulted ceiling and undulating walls apparently hewn by ancients with deer antlers.
The cave however, had been re-modelled and modernised with stove, fireplace, crucifixed alcove, microwave, bath, shower and WC.
I could quite understand cave-dwelling, had I been dressed in bearskin, cudgel in hand, and dragging Margreet inside, safe from a dinosaur who might then peer through the entrance to see what was worth eating. But why go to so much trouble and expense, in a more comfortable age, to live inside a rather damp and dark cave? (Disney might see a theme park in it.)
Friends, from New Delhi, who had rented a nearby cave with reinforced concrete roof, had more comfort, and even television. So we drank together there before walking down the cliffside track to eat a meal off square plates (square plates now seem to go with Nouvelle, or Nouvellish Cuisine). The local Vin Gris had charm and the Loire’s red Chinon even more so.
As “trogs” do, Margreet and I climbed steps and goat tracks to see the cavities of others and the fine and simple Norman-arched church and fortifications at the summit above. In the church were proper wooden seats for the worthies and tiny protuberances on which the choristers could rest their bottoms.
At a rather charming restaurant hard by the church we drank local cider, and decided to return for lunch. The blackboards of dishes on offer looked inviting.
We were the first to arrive at the restaurant. No one appeared to greet us or offer a menu, but there were noises coming from the kitchen behind. Madame was there, cooking what appeared to be the only main dish available – the plat du jour of guineafowl.
She had only cooked four portions and a table for three had been booked in the restaurant.
We soon realised that we were not only the guests but the waiters as well, as Madame was rather large and too lame to do more than cook and hobble. The guineafowl was delicious. The other three had to share what remained in the pot. A chocolate cake, made by the Patronne, was quite superb. Lame and alone, she made up for the deficiencies by being a great cook. Because what she had prepared had now been ordered, people were turned away. We learned later that those who ate there in he evening had to stack away the chairs and tables when they had finished their meal. The experience was one of charm, gastronomic excellence, and friendly eccentricity.
Beside the rather damp atmosphere of our cave, there were particular smells attached to it. There was the pleasant one of wood smoke from past fires, the other was something more obscure and not very nice.
It was not until we were sitting outside on our cliff-shelf balcony that the origin of the other smell was revealed. In its own little cave, accessible only from our balcony, lived a black rabbit. Kept in by a metal grille, dark in its cave and of dark fur, the creature was visible only by its blinking eyes. Perhaps caves of the long past were as smelly as this rabbit’s.
In the evening our kind host and hostess came with local Vin Gris and bites, which we enjoyed, squeezed together on the balcony. After they had left we ate our picnic half way between the rabbit’s den and an alcove for its food, where mosquitoes lurked.
I must be in a minority with my views of modern trogloditism, for the visitors’ book was full of enthusiastic praise for the uniqueness of the experience – and unique it was.
A friendly dog, who liked to roam our accommodation and bit its fur with venom, scratching mightily, may, or may not, have been the provider of fleas that then befriended us.
We were now off to take part in the objective of our journey, a lovely wedding in Montagne Saint-Emilion.