As I stand alone, marveling at the enormous rock formations in front of me, the guide sidles up. “Look, do you see him? I find him so beautiful,” she remarks. She is wearing a puffy green parka and shining her enormous flashlight up into the cavern. I squint, peering hard until I see where her beam of light has landed. High above the cavern, an old, wizened man watches over the rock formations of the cathedral room. Roughly one hundred and sixty million years of water and minerals have built up, nanometer by nanometer, to form the rock into the perfect semblance of a cross between Galdalf and Dr. Fu Manchu.
I laugh and agree with her. We have been underground and in the dark for an hour, and, thus far, she has used her flashlight to point out monsters and alligators and all sorts of other creatures in the rock. Essentially, we are in every little child’s nightmare. If there is anyone who could find Jesus on a stalactite it is the guide. And, in fact she has. The crown jewel of the tour is a white stalagmite whose shape conjures up the Virgin Mary, holding her bambino.* Time has carved it to Michelangelo standards, the subterranean Pieta formed millions and millions of years before the cavemen ever road those dinosaurs out of the cavern.
The holy sculpture of the rock is not just the guide or a marketing scheme that La Grotte des Demoiselles has conjured up. The legend about finding supernatural apparitions in the cave goes back to the Middle Ages when a shepherd noticed one of his sheep had disappeared into a hole. Fearing the wrath of the sheep’s owners, the shepherd climbed down into the hole as well to rescue the miraculously unharmed sheep. The shepherd slipped and fell 50 meters to the cave floor, somehow surviving impalement by the stalagmites. When he awoke all around him were dancing little maidens. Somehow, he climbed out, reported the magical cave to the townspeople, and they christened it the cave of the maidens, Des Demoiselles. I picture the shepherd as a cartoon character who rubs his head while little birds chirp in a circle around him.
What happened to the sheep is unknown, but inside the cave have been found skeletons of several animals, including a prehistoric cave bear, which went extinct during the last ice age. (Side note, listen to this TED talk by Stewart Brand about genetic modification of extinct animals. Thank you NPR TED talk hour.) At various points during the wars of religion, it also served as a hiding place for the Huguenots.
Today, in addition to an information attraction, the cave also serves as a concert hall due to its impressive acoustics; it even has its own built in percussion system, which our guide showed our group, inviting me to bang on the stone drapes as hard as I could, the cathedral room reverberating with the sound of stone bongos.
Located a bit south of La Grotte des Demoiselles is its sister cave in the Herault region of Southern France, La Grotte de Clamouse. We visited Clamouse with a group the same day we visited the Pont du Diable, located perhaps 1 km south of the cave. The men “oohed” and “aahed” at the cave, confirming it was the highlight of their trip.
Unlike des Demoiselles, de Clamouse is still growing due to the river that runs through it, a river so powerful that after a storm the cave is shut off as it fills with raging, eroding and reforming water.
Though located in the same geographical area of France, the two caves could not be more different. De Clamouse feels more rustic, more dirty, and larger. Des Demoiselles, with its funicular and stone-carved steps and strategically-placed lighting feels more modern. Cathedrale room aside, it also feels overall smaller, though, given that the tours are carefully regulated, the true size of the caverns is difficult to tell. Perhaps the difference is due to the river as it must be difficult to control and keep modern the interior of a cave that is constantly being flooded. The natural feel, in fact, adds greatly to the experience.
De Clamouse was a fascinating experience for its various formations that are unique to the cave, including fistulas and aragonite crystals that explode from the rock like little sea urchins. There is also an area that looks like grated parmesan cheese and an albino, eyeless cave lizard though he has only been brought into the cave for show and tell purposes.
The caves have been a surprising and unexpected part of our French adventures. And, they have proven so fascinating we have began to look into caves around Toulouse as well. Gouffre de Padirac looks to be the most interesting with its underground boat tour. Though, like des Demoiselles and unlike de Clamouse, it is not accessible by public transportation, a fact I did not realize about Demoiselles until I had jumped off the regional bus only to find out that the cave is located several kilometers up the mountain side, and the once-a-day bus does not return to Montpellier for five to six hours.
After the sweaty hike up des Demoiselles, I ordered a cold double (a/k/a American normal sized) beer from the bartender. He looked at me, surprised, and inquired whether I planed to drink the entire beer myself. I gawked at him, questioning whether I should feel guilty about my beer and confirming that it was at least lunchtime before directing him to the table of aged picnickers next time mine, each person with their own bottle of wine. It was both a cool down and a warm up, I told him, reminding him that unlike the tour guide I did not have a parka.
*When we were in Italy, all of the museum artwork descriptions list Jesus as the “bambino,” which continues to amuse me.