1) What made you up sticks and move from America to a cave in rural France?
After graduating from law school in 1973, I decided to take an extended vacation to Europe. I traveled around the around continent for six weeks but it was the rolling countryside of France, its friendly people and relaxed lifestyle that stuck in my mind. I was determined to live there one day.
During the next twenty-five years of practicing law in my hometown of St. Simons Island, Georgia and later in Jacksonville, Florida, I often thought of that trip through France and I always dreamed of moving there. My wife, Aprille, got tired of hearing me talk about it. She told me to make a decision. We had no children or other obligations to keep us in the States so we decided to make the move. In 1998, I started closing out my law practice and selling assets. By October, we were on our way to a new life in Lavardin, France, a small village in the Loir Valley about 100 miles southwest of Paris. We found a small cave for rent and moved in.
2) How did you find your cave?
I first came to the Loir Valley on vacation about six years ago. I was looking for la France profonde (deep France) and I wanted to learn to communicate with the people in the French countryside. I spent two weeks at the Alliance Française language school in Vendôme and stayed with a French family. I enjoyed the experience so much that I brought Aprille back two months later and we started looking for a possible place to live. I had my heart set on one of the old fermettes in the countryside but Aprille was fascinated with the caves that a handful of people were living in.
When the notaire showed us the cave in this small medieval village, I had my doubts. It looked cold and dark. But Aprille who is an artist saw it from a different point of view. It was unique. Nothing was square or even. Nothing was symmetrical. It had a high arched ceiling carved in the chalky, white tuffeau stone and extended like a gallery for sixty feet into the cliff face. There was a huge oak bean supporting an old winepress in the back of the cave. It had a fireplace for heat and an old stone sink for washing dishes. There was running water, electricity and a small bathroom in the rear. For me it was a hole in the ground. For Aprille, who is an artist, it was a beautiful composition. She declared that we were going live in the cave or nowhere in France. The two hundred dollar monthly rent had a great deal to do with my concurrence but I too was charmed by this idea of living in a cave.
3) What was it used for before?
Starting around the 11th century, the hillsides of this region of France were quarried for stone. Before the invention of concrete, this hard, limestone-like rock called tuffeau in the Loire and Loir Valleys was a sought-after construction material. This stone is soft and cuts easily but becomes very hard when exposed to air. Almost all of the chateaux and cathedrals of France are built with it. In mining the rock, workers left the hills riddled with caves. Some are just a few feet deep, but others extend 20 miles or more. There are thousands of caves around here. The hillsides are like Swiss cheese.
Our cave, like most in this area, was an old quarry that became part of a farm. It was eventually was converted into a wine making cave. There is still an old pressoir suspended from a huge oak beam in the back of the cave. The cave is about four or five hundred years old and was used use as a crude habitation during WWII. It had a fireplace but no running water. After the war it was abandoned until it became fashionable to live in caves again. About fifteen years ago it was outfitted with water, sewer and electricity.
4) Did it need a lot of work?
Our cave is equipped with water, sewer and electricity and was ready for occupation when we moved in.
5) What did it cost and what is it worth now?
We rent our cave for about two hundred dollars per month. The rent is low because it sits on a true goat path with no vehicular access. It can only be accessed after a steep climb. Prices for caves in this region vary widely. Some caves are too humid for habitation but fine for wine storage. Most habitable caves range between $25,000 and $50,000.
6) Is it a completely natural cave or has it been dug out to make it bigger and better suited to living in?
This cave is a very old quarry that was modified to make wine about two or three hundred years ago. About fifteen years ago an area for the bathroom was carved out in the back of the cave but it exists pretty much in its natural state.
7) How is a modern cave equipped?
Each cave is unique and equipped according to need. Our cave is an example. It is basically just one large room fifty feet deep and about fifteen feet wide with a small bathroom in the back. The arched ceiling is about twelve feet high. Other than the front wall, which is made with cut stone blocks, there are no straight lines anywhere. The ceiling and walls are cut out of the rock to form a continuous arch. The floor is paved with square bricks like a chateau floor but the rock walls meet the floor with the gentle irregularity of a riverbank. The rock itself is white washed but pitted with the tool marks of its shaping. In the front of the cave, there is the one door and a large window overlooking the chateau and the Loir Valley.
The front of the room is dominated by a huge fireplace that is large enough to stand up inside. Aprilles favorite part of the front area is surprisingly not the fireplace but an ancient stone sink in the right front corner beside the front door. It is made from a hard gray stone and is constructed with a gentle grade that lets water exit through a small hole into the garden. The sink was made at a time before running water so it is no longer used as a sink but it is still useful as a cool place to keep cheese, wine and haunches of meat. The real sink with city water sits under the window so we can look out at the chateau and listen to the church bells when we wash the dishes.
Another unique feature of cave living are the shelves cut directly into the rock walls. There is a large one with wooden shelves in the kitchen area. There are three more of various sizes in our living area. Like the cave, each shelf is arched. They are great places for books, pictures and for just about anything that sits on a regular shelf. There is a black iron ring in the center of the ceiling with a matching iron hook on the wall. This was for a chandelier of candles. One would thread a rope through the iron ring to raise and lower the chandelier to light the candles. Then you would tie the chandelier off to the iron hook on the wall. Aprille found a black iron chandelier for candles that we have hung but we generally rely on electricity for lighting. The back quarter section of our cave room is a raised alcove where there is an old cast iron pressoir (wine press) that is supported by a huge solid oak beam that is about two feet square. Below the wine press is the old basin where the grapes were squeezed. We have turned this area into a conversation pit with rugs and lots of pillows and cushions.
Behind our pressoir is a wooden door that leads to the bathroom. It has been refitted with all the modern conveniences, but they all have a special cave twist. Instead of a single room, the bathroom is more like a corridor with arching chambers for each function. Directly in the rear most part of the cave is an alcove just large enough for the sink and mirror. To the left is a similar sized alcove that is a closet. To the right, another alcove holds the hot water heater, a shelf for toiletries and our clothes hamper. Where the three areas meet the corridor, it forms a miniature barrel vault like in a gothic cathedral. The front two alcoves in the bathroom are the most important. There is a toilet on one side connected to city sewage. On the other side there is a shower with lots of very, very hot water. Because the roof is low, you have to step down into the shower. Even a shower can be a small adventure.
8) Is it at all damp, cold or dark?
Most caves want to be about sixty degrees Fahrenheit and some are very damp. Our cave is on a cliff face about fifty feet above the level of the river and is very dry. It is especially dry in the winter but becomes more humid in the summer when the moist warm summer air clashes with the coolness of the cave. Condensation is sometimes a problem when it is very warm outside.
All caves are dark after 50 feet of depth but the caves of this region are different. The tuffeau stone is almost white which gives the local caves a somewhat bright cheerfulness when lit up.
9) Do you have fellow troglodyte friends?
Cave dwellers are a de facto fraternity. We all have a common interest. Just last week as I climbed the goat path to my maison troglodyte, I met my neighbor, Jean Michel Noble, who stopped to say bonjour and tell me about the two caves that collapsed on the rue des caves de la violette. There were no injuries but a lot of wine was lost. Except for one other neighbor, we are the only full time troglodytes on our little goat path. The news of a cave collapse is no joking matter for cave dwellers and we all take it seriously. As Jean Michel said, It makes you think. It has rained a lot this year and some of the caves have suffered from the excess humidity. Never before have I been so interested in the weather and the environment that surrounds me.
Such common concerns make us cave dwellers a close-knit group and it has always been a tradition. The caves above have the duty and obligation to ensure that they dont let water infiltrate into the caves below. The caves below must be careful to not undermine the caves above. But it is the neighbors who live side by side who are closest. They see each other every day and always honor the tradition of offering a petit verre to a passing neighbor.
10) Are you in touch with cave dwellers elsewhere in the world?
It is rare to find another cave dweller but my Internet site (www.cavelife.net) has brought some contact with others. I try to link to other cave dwellers when they also have a site.
11) Are there cave dwellers in other parts of France or just the Loire?
There are a number of prehistoric caves in the southwest of France but cave dwellers of modern times can only be found in the Loire Valley around Tours, in the lower Loir Valley below Vendôme and in the region around Saumur in the Anjou.
12) Is living in a cave a good conversation starter?
I live in a cave in France. These simple words never fail to evoke interest and sometimes disbelief. When my teenage niece came to visit, she said, It really is a cave. I thought you were kidding. Everyone is fascinated with the idea of living in a cave. There is a universal symbolism connected to the cave even for those who are not conscious of it. In almost every culture, the cave subconsciously represents the maternal matrix and is the symbol of the return to the beginning. On a conscious level, people are more interested in knowing if we have bats, spiders, snakes or dragons.
13) What did the locals think when you moved in?
There is only one thing more important to the development of the collective personality of the people of the bas vendômois than the cave. It is wine. We live in a wine-growing region where it is rare to walk by a cave in the afternoon without being invited for a glass of wine. The cave is an integral part of the winemaking process and everyone has a cave for wine storage. So while there are only a handful of fulltime troglodytes on our goat path, there are dozens of caves dedicated to storage and consumption of wine. This in turn creates an atmosphere of conviviality and acceptance from which we have profited. We were accepted immediately on our path and eventually everywhere in the village. Many small rural communities are closed to foreigners but not where wine smoothes the way.
14) What are the advantages of cave living?
Temperatures stay even, which is why theyre so good for storing wine. Most people are surprised to learn that caves are easy to heat. Caves require 40% less energy to heat than conventional houses because they are well insulated and there are no leaks for the heat to escape. In the summer, the cave is naturally cool and a perfect place to escape from the heat.
15) What do you most like about living in a cave?
I like the fireplace and the fires that can be built almost everyday of the year. There is something about a fire that changes the whole atmosphere of the cave. Of course the tangible benefits of heat, ventilation and light are immediately apparent, but there is also the sense of security, cheer and companionship that the fire brings to the cave. Without the fire, the cave can present a crushing silence that one feels from the tons of earth that while offering protection also threatens with its sheer weight.
16) Is there anything you dont like?
The cave is always a little bit cool and a little bit humid. This is only a problem when not moving. When sitting at a desk writing a letter, I feel the coolness of mother earth in my legs. Moving in front of the fire or donning a blanket solves this problem but the sense of raw nature is always there.
17) What do you enjoy about living in France, and are you glad you made the move?
The quality of life is very high in France. If you measure quality of life by things such as cars, boats and houses, life in the States is far superior. But the basics things of life such as food, wine and living without stress are much better in France. We are very happy to be here.
Karen Tait, Editor
French Property News
6 Burgess Mews
Wimbledon, London SW19 1UF
Tel: 0208 543 3113
Fax: 0208 540 4815
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