On Castles and Chasms (or a Weekend-End Trip to South-Central France)

“Looks like you’ve made the American version,” said my oh-so-hilarious doctor at my 32-week scan. He’d just informed Matt and me our petite not-so-petite little girl was already weighing in at an estimated and whopping 5.7 pounds. Yep, our feisty, little, French-made bebé, who punched at the ultrasound wand while the doctor was trying to take her measurements, is in the 96th percentile for babies in the same week of gestation. It seems like she may be taking after her daddy’s size and her mommy’s temperament.

I can’t lie and say I’m not a little nervous about the high likelihood of giving birth to a big baby, especially given my towering stature of just under 5’4”. Thankfully my doctor is onboard to let things progress as naturally as possible and avoid a C-section unless absolutely necessary. His pragmatism is much appreciated, especially in a country where it’s perfectly acceptable to smoke with small children in tow, but where the pharmacist will scold you for picking up a doctor-prescribed vaccine that she feels you shouldn’t take during pregnancy. True story.

Third Trimester

With all the extra weight piling up in my belly, I sometimes find it amazing I can even drag myself from bed and walk upright these days, but somehow I managed to pull it together this past weekend for a fun adventure with our Irish friend, Fio.

I first met Fio five years ago in Atlanta and we quickly became close friends. She was there for work, but unfortunately her job sent her back to Ireland after a couple of years. We’ve stayed in touch since she moved back home and she even came to Atlanta a couple of times. Matt and I finally made it to Dublin to visit her last August and she returned the trip this past weekend.

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While pondering how to entertain her, I saw an advertisement in my French class for a trip to Rocamadour and the Gouffre de Padirac. Our hotel had also been advertising both locations as great day-trips from Toulouse and the pictures of the Gouffre (which translates into “gulf” or chasm”) promised a visually stunning experience. They weren’t wrong.

The Gouffre de Padirac is a cave that features a giant chasm (the rim measures 325 feet around) and visitors can descend approximately 246 feet via stairs or elevators to admire the sky through the gaping hole above. A statue by Belgian sculptor, Isabelle Thiltgès, calmly watches over guests passing through the chasm into the cave.

Legend has it the devil formed the Gouffre with the kick of his heel in a challenge to Saint Martin. He told the saint, if he could cross the abyss, Lucifer would gift him the souls of the dammed peasants he was about to drive straight to hell. St. Martin, filled with faith, spurred his mule who made a tremendous leap and miraculously made it to the other side. His hooves left an imprint in the rock that you can still see today.

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Look closely and you can see the hoofprints.

 

After checking to ensure the Gouffre was pregnant-lady friendly, the three of us decided to go ahead and book tickets online. If you go visit the Gouffre, I recommend doing the same. By the time we got there on Saturday morning, there was a long line just to buy tickets—and the tickets are time-stamped to allow only a certain number of visitors in at a time. So you could end up waiting around all day for your tour if you don’t plan ahead.

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The drive to the Gouffre took us about two hours and, along the way, we drove through some incredible and ever-changing French landscapes. Lush farmland turned into rocky hills dotted with heather and a gorgeous, flowering yellow plant I don’t know the name for. Eventually those hills and deep valleys became covered with vibrant, green trees and the rolling landscape stuck with us until we reached the Gouffre.

Getting to the Gouffre was pleasantly easy. There were plenty of signs directing us as we got closer and luckily parking there was plentiful and free. Since we already had tickets in hand, we ate a quick picnic lunch in our car before heading up to the Gouffre. Our tickets were for the 1:15 timeslot, so we had a few minutes to stare down into the gaping chasm before descending, via lift, 246 feet to the first observation point.

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After admiring the incredible view of the blue sky above us, we descended via the stairs the rest of the way down into the gently lit depths of the cave. Water splashing and pooling at the foot of the stairs formed a stream that we followed as it widened into a crystal-clear subterranean river. Ancient stalactites and stalagmites sprung up from the cave ceiling and floor like massive statues.

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The cave, which reaches a depth of about 338 feet, was cool and peaceful, even with the number of people walking through it. Cave temperatures are a steady 13ºC year-round (which must feel amazing in the dead of summer) and the waters in the cave are a brisk 12ºC (that’s about 53ºF).

Our walk eventually took us to a boat dock where we hopped onto a small, metal boat for a guided float down the river. The tour of the river and the area of the cave that followed was conducted in French, though you can request a guide book in English. After a week of intensive French lessons, I understood a bit more of the guide’s description than I probably would have before, but we definitely haven’t covered scientific and geological terms yet. Luckily our guide was kind enough to translate some of his description into English during gaps in his spiel.

After about a 10-minute float down the river, we reached another boat dock and got out of our boats for a guided tour of some of the chambers deep within the cave. Photos and video are not allowed after getting in the boat, but the Gouffre website has some images to give you an idea of the pure beauty of the cave (though they honestly don’t give it full justice). This is the only part of the visit where a lift is not possible and visitors have to climb 150 steps up and down to view what is called the “Salle du Grand Dôme.” The guides stop along the way to provide information, though, so even at nearly eight months pregnant, I was easily able to keep up.

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We don’t normally get souvenir photos, but since we couldn’t take pictures at this point it was worth the 9€.

The formations in the cave in these chambers are absolutely breathtaking and the water is so gorgeous, it begs to be swam in (though it would probably result in a shockingly cold experience). We all agreed it was an amazing experience.

It’s hard to follow such natural beauty, but after we left the cave we decided to take a short detour on the way home to see Castelnau-Bretenoux Castle. Perched high up on a hill, the 13th century castle looked like it had hopped from the pages of a fairytale onto the French countryside.

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Once a grand and lordly home for the Barons of Castelnau de Bretenoux, it was abandoned in the 18th century. It wasn’t until 1896, after a fire destroyed some of the living quarters, that it was purchased and revitalized by Jean Mouliérat, a Parisian opera singer. He donated the castle to the State shortly before his death.

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Today, visitors can meander through the courtyard, peek into the castle chapel and climb the artillery tower to take in beautiful views of the rolling hills and valley surrounding the castle. Guided tours lead visitors through Mouliérat’s living chambers that have been kept exactly as they were when he and his wife lived there.

Though it certainly didn’t have the stunning natural beauty of the Gouffre, who can say no to a quick tour of a French castle? Definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.

That concluded our long day (and my energy). Miraculously I managed to stay awake the entire drive home, but dinner was definitely takeout pizza picked up by my sweet and sympathetic husband. Perfect end to a perfect day.

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