Life in the Shadow of the Castles

Chaumont-sur-Loire, the castle with one of my favourite gardens.

Castles like Chaumont-sur-Loire cast a long shadow.

It was my last day in the Loire and I had a few free hours.   Maybe I could visit a vineyard or two after all.  As I strolled around the little village of Azay-le-Rideau, pondering this idea, I stumbled across the Office de Tourisme.  The lengths they go to, to hide these things, never ceases to amaze me.  Same thing in Italy, which, despite all the wonders France had to offer, I was beginning to long for.

I went inside, thinking I might find a couple of brochures, maybe even a map to the vineyards.  There was nobody around.  Then a young woman rushed in, carrying a sign that had been discreetly placed where tourists were unlikely to see it.  She looked at me in surprise.  What was I doing in there?  (To be fair, she didn’t actually say this, but the look on her face gave her away.)  The office was fermé (closed).   Rather than heading politely to the door, I followed her as she went around closing up shop, and asked about the vineyards. After a while of this she relented.  But instead of vineyards, she urged me to visit another kind of place, that was, she assured me,  très intéressant, and was only a 10-minute drive from Azay.  Much closer than any of the vineyards.  It was a village of troglodyte dwellings called Goupillières.

So far, all the places I had visited on the recommendation of locals had turned out to be well worth a change of plans. I decided to follow her advice.  Besides I didn’t know what troglodyte (troag-low-deet) meant.  Turns out it’s the same word in English.  I didn’t know what that meant either at the time.   It means ‘cave dwelling’.


First view of Matera, inhabited by humans since the Palaeolithic era.

I had seen cave dwellings several years earlier in Matera, on my way to Puglia from the Amalfi Coast.   In late October the sun sets surprisingly early in southern Italy, so I made sure to leave so that I would arrive while it was still daylight.  I hadn’t counted on a traffic accident. By the time I arrived it was pitch dark.

When I got up the next morning, I was dismayed to see … nothing.  The city was covered in a thick blanket of nebbia (fog).


On my way to the breakfast room – everything is better after a cappuccino or two – I stopped by the reception desk.  Just out of curiosity.  I had never been to this part of Italy.  Maybe the Amalfi Coast was so consistently sunny because the moist air never got past the mountains surrounding Matera?   The signora was remarkably cheery – and polite – when I asked my ridiculous question.   She was probably used to inane questions from tourists.  “Non si preoccupi!” (Don’t worry.)  By noon the fog would have lifted and it would be cielo azzurro (clear, blue sky) all around.  Given how thick the fog was, this seemed highly unlikely, but I certainly couldn’t go anywhere by car, so I decided to explore the parts of the old town I could still see.

Matera has been occupied by humans since the Palaeolithic era.  It is in the middle of nowhere, which was its big attraction.  The other attraction was tufa, a soft limestone which made carving caves to live in back-breaking, but possible.  For anyone fleeing persecution it was ideal.  During the Middle Ages, when various armies from northern Europe were rampaging up and down the coasts of Italy, it became a refuge, first for hermit monks, then entire monastic communities, primarily from the east.  Over the centuries these monks dug out over one hundred Chiese Rupestri (Cave Churches), one of the main attractions nowadays.  But it was hard to get around in the fog and I didn’t want to fall on the uneven, slippery alleys.  The tourist site closest to my hotel was a refurbished cave, done up to look like a typical dwelling.  I set out for Vico Solitairio.


The chimney of a cave dwelling below pops up in the middle of the front door terrace of the dwellings above.

Like Positano on the Amalfi Coast, Matera is vertical.  The similarities end there.  The houses are laid out according to a plan called ‘Spontaneous Urban Design’, a fancy name for higgledy piggledy.  To get anywhere is like playing ‘Snakes and Ladders’ in real life.  You go up and down narrow stairways that lead to small flat areas which are the roofs of the dwellings below.


Interior of a cave dwelling in Vico Solitario – typical except for the fresh coat of whitewash, electric lighting, as well as the total absence of mould or stench from the animals that lived side by side with the human inhabitants.


In the mid 1930’s Carlo Levi, a doctor, writer and painter from Turin in northern Italy, was banished by Mussolini’s Fascist government to a village in this remote, desolate region.  In 1945 he published his memoir of life during that year of internal exile – ‘Cristo si è fermato a Eboli‘ (Christ Stopped at Eboli.)  Eboli is a town to the west, not far from the eastern border of the Amalfi Coast.  The title is a metaphor for the mind-numbing destitution and depravity of life in a village that Christ, and with him, civilization, never reached.  After World War II, of all the villages in Italy, Matera was one of the most problematic for the country.  Overcrowding, unsanitary conditions – the cave dwellers still lived side by side with their animals – and the lack of running water or electricity finally led the government to evacuate the remaining inhabitants in 1952.


As the signora at my hotel knew it would, the fog eventually cleared.

This drastic measure – many of the inhabitants had to be forcibly removed – eventually led to renewal and a measure of prosperity for the town.  In 1994 the cave dwellings were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  As one Italian journalist proudly wrote, “The Sassi are no longer a symbol of misery and national shame, but a testimony of an ancient civilization now open to the eyes of the world.”


That lumpy bit to the left with the cross on it is a church – Santa Maria de Idris.


Mel Gibson filmed ‘The Passion of Christ’ in Matera, which is also known as la Città dei Sassi (City of Stones).

Matera may have been perfect for those seeking refuge from wars and religious persecution in the past, but it is a strange place for a garden lover to visit today.  Apart from moss and a few plants growing out of cracks, it is utterly devoid of greenery.  After just one day I was glad to leave.


Palaeolithic caves on the other side of the ravine.

So when I set out that last afternoon in the Loire Valley, I was looking forward to see what cave dwellings à la française would look like.  My heart sank when I arrived at the very large, very empty parking lot of Goupillières.  Maybe I should have gone to the vineyards after all.


A plaque at the entrance sets the tone.

The division of Medieval society into those who worked and paid taxes (90% of the population – sound familiar?), those who fought and those who prayed struck me as somewhat original.  The sympathies of the writer were obviously with the first group, the peasants, who were écrasés (sounds much more compelling than ‘crushed’) with taxes.  Calling the taxes for the use of the mill, oven and wine press (all owned by the Seigneur) ‘banalités’ seemed particularly mean-spirited.

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If I were to go back in time, there was only one class that looked at all appealing, despite the off-putting subtitle  – ‘those who fought’.   Have a look and see which group you would have wanted to belong to.

When I first heard the word Troglodyte, I took it for one of those words that get what I call the ‘phonetic translation’ treatment.  You take a French word – say – autarcie, tweak a vowel or two to give it more of an English look and Voila! you have ‘autarcy’.  I had never come across ‘autarcy’ either, but there it was on the plaque.   Am I alone in not knowing this stuff?…

Unlike Troglodyte, ‘autarcy‘ was a good try, but no cigar! (or maybe that expression has joined the rather long list of current politically incorrect expressions.  Not sure.)   In any event, in the interests of keeping an open mind about such things, I plodded through the online dictionaries in search of ‘autarcy’.  (Sorry to disappoint the purists out there, but it is so-o-o much easier than flipping through the pages of the mammoth real thing;  besides, so many of the biggies are online now anyway –  Merriam Webster, Collins, Larousse, Dizionario Garzanti)  After a while I came across ‘autarchy’.  Never heard of that one either.  Apparently it’s a synonym (obsolete?) for ‘autocracy’.   Eventually I found ‘autarky’.  It means ‘self-sufficient’, which is what those cave dwelling Troglodytes were. (But I’d be careful throwing that one around.  It can also mean ‘reactionary, deliberately ignorant (people are deliberately ignorant?!) or old-fashioned’).


Nature had been given carte blanche here.

This French village of cave dwellings was eerily similar and yet drastically different from what I had seen in Italy.  For one thing, unlike the desolate landscape of Matera’s cave dwellings, these were set in a fantastically lush valley.  True, the rain which had started on the way over made everything seem even greener, but even if it had been a hot sunny day the dominant colour would have been, not grey, but a wonderfully vibrant green.


There are lots of animals, typical of the ones that would have been raised centuries ago, which makes Goupillières a popular destination for school field trips.  Hence the enormous parking lot.

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The caves were discovered fairly recently, in 1962, by a 10 year-old boy who was playing in what was then a neglected, overgrown valley.  Over the next twenty years Louis-Marie Chardon would return to the valley whenever he could.   His explorations would lead to the discovery of three ancient Troglodyte farms.  After he inherited the family property in 1984, he began to clear the valley in earnest and in 2000 he opened the site to the public.


The stark contrast between these cave dwellings and the magnificent castles nearby was unsettling.


Apart from the lushness of the surroundings, the other thing I liked was there had been no attempt made – or as little attempt as is hygienically possible – to sanitize things. But perhaps that had something to do with the fact that there was nowhere near the sense of national shame associated with the cave dwellings in Matera.



Iris were planted on the roof to hold the soil. On the left, barely visible, steps carved in the rock allowed access whenever the rooftop garden needed tending.


Doesn’t the roof look like it’s going to cave in any moment?



There was something about the goose in the foreground that caused me to linger a moment.


Ah hah! Who knew they were born yellow? (not this city girl!)


Nature probably has some very good reason for the bright yellow feathers of the chick. To make them easier to see? But it’s not as if they’re in a snow pile…


There had been no sign of life when I went by this cave earlier.

There had been no sign of life when I went by this cave earlier.


Not at all shy.


Even posed for the camera.

I’m always up for a wine tour, but I was glad that I had instead decided to spend my last few hours in the Loire Valley here, in this lush valley, surrounded by the caves that had provided the building material for all the castles I’d visited.

Normally my next post would be of the gardens I next visited on my way south to Provence. But as wonderful as the French gardens, people, food and wine were, when it came time to return to Canada, I found myself pining for Italy.  This yearning only got more intense in the days after my return and eventually, I took Oscar Wilde’s advice for dealing with temptation.  I gave in.  I booked a flight to Rome and started looking at agriturismi and simple hotel rooms along the Amalfi Coast. Places where I could mingle with the locals, take a couple of cooking classes, visit lemon groves, see what the gardens look like in fall and generally immerse myself in the local culture.

So … since I travel without a computer, or any other electronic gizmos, I won’t be posting anything for the next couple of weeks.  Until then, Arrivederci!


Bay of Naples and Vesuvius from Sorrento, the first stop on my journey to the Amalfi Coast..


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