Driving on the back roads of the Loire in France, you can’t help but notice the caves throughout the Valley – many of which have windows, doors, shutters, awnings, courtyards, etc.. Dating back to the 11th century, the soft white limestone, tufa or tuffeau, of the area was quarried extensively leaving deep clefts and caves in the hillsides. These caves or troglodytes represent one of the most dramatic forms of adaptive reuse that I’ve witnessed as they have been converted into homes, stables, storage units and even abbeys, hotels, restaurants, and churches. The abandoned quarries and caves were recognized by the inhabitants of the area for their potential as low-cost dwellings and also in darker times for their defensive potential. Several of the caves are said to have been used by the Resistance during World War II to hide those fleeing from the Nazis to unoccupied, southern France.
I had the pleasure of staying in one of the troglodytes for a few nights last month. The property where we stayed was formerly part of the neighboring castle’s grounds, and the caves were part of the castle’s farm providing storage and stables. The property included two large troglodytes where two sides of the buildings are honed from the rock that was quarried from the hillside long ago. Walls, windows, floors and roofs were all added and the castle’s stable has now been converted into a 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom home. Two additional caves also exist on the site and are currently used for storage and laundry, but have been plumbed for future use as guestrooms. Without intervention, the caves maintain throughout the year a steady temperature of 12° Celsius or about 54°Fahrenheit which for the Loire means that the caves are also used extensively for wine making. Adding to the charm of the caves, you can sometimes see fossils in the walls and remnants of some of the former uses, such as a trough from the former farm which runs the length of one room and now acts as a ledge. For me, I couldn’t help but wonder about the 1000 years of inhabitants who have occupied the space and think of the stories and history they have seen. – Hannah
For more information, see this Smithsonian article on the Troglodytes.