THE CAVES OF LA BALME
As accustomed as we are to a hot, humid climate, after having lived for many years in the Piedmont of North Carolina, the prospect of temperatures, albeit dry, in the upper 20°s to 30°s Celsius in Grenoble, France, made us “squinch.” By NC standards, this is nothing, but we don’t have the luxury of air conditioning here, and our windows open only on one side of our apartment—the “trafficky,” noisy side. We have relied on our dirt cheap Bluesky table fan to move air over our bodies, and I’ve pulled the metal shutters closed over the windows to block out the intense heat of the sun that blasts us most of the day. We needed to flee Grenoble this weekend or risk being discovered prostrate over la plus proche camionnette de vendeur de glaces (the nearest ice-cream van).
Our partners in this escape plan were Sheree and Bob, our fellow American friends on sabbatical from Oregon. They sometimes hop on their BMW motorcycle or regularly pile us or other folks into their year-long rented car for day trips outside of Grenoble. On the phone, we batted around some possible destinations for the bright, blue-sky Sunday and concluded we needed to head to a cool place to spend the day together. They had wanted to check out Les Grottes de La Balme (The Caves of La Balme), and we were willing accomplices.
They rounded the corner of our apartment and could only stop long enough for us to jump in for our getaway. Les Grottes de La Balme is about 110 km from our apartment, and if we took the exorbitantly priced toll roads, we could make it in less time, but we preferred the (cheaper) more scenic route and headed for the A 480 and then hit the smaller roads through the little villages. We noted that many of the restaurants were closed along the way as it was Sunday, but in Morestel, we found a parking spot and a resto with outside seating protected from the sun and a soft breeze wending its way past the tables. The other diners seemed to be extended families with a few grand-mères, occupying their time trying to prevent their jeunes petits-fils (young grandsons) from feeding their lunches to Sheree and Bob’s schnauzer, Einzel. As far as Einzel was concerned, what was the problem? It was a win-win situation.
The route from Morestel to La Balme-les-Grottes became more rural, and Sheree and Bob’s built-in navigational system wanted to send us sometimes on rocky, dusty roads that seemed to have tractor tracks embedded in the dirt. We succumbed to one such road that had us bumping along past corn, sunflower, and cow fields that stretched for acres.
Les Grottes de La Balme signage was a little confusing, as is often the case in France, but after a brief turn-around, Sheree located the parking area at the entrance. The lot was full with people who had been struck by the same brilliant idea we had had—head for the coolness of the caves! An hour and fifteen-minute tour was leaving in about 20 minutes, so we stepped up to buy our tickets. Uh-oh! Pas de chiens! (No dogs!) Einzel was not immediately welcome to accompany us in this respite from the heat. But where there is a will and a determined propriétaire de cette chienne (owner of this dog), there is a way around the system! (Don’t ask.)
The tour began, and I was surprised how much I could understand of the guide’s French spiel. Perhaps, it’s because she was accustomed to guiding school children around the caves, and yes, that is my present comprehension level, so I understood her pretty well if she spoke slowly enough. We passed into the Mandrin’s Labyrinth, where 20,000 years ago, prehistoric melting glaciers had carved out a path by wearing away the limestone. She told us to pull in nos ventres (our tummies) to negotiate the narrow passages and counseled those with leanings toward claustrophobia to wait for the rest of us to return for the next part.
None of the resident 14 species of chauves-souris (bats) came out to play, but we did see evidence of their ability to produce beaucoup de guano (lots of guano). They keep company with the jackdaws and swifts that find caves the perfect place to set up housekeeping.
We learned how the basins called gours were formed by calcite crystals and took our turns taking pictures of the 130 meter-long “lake” that maintains an 11°C temperature. Of course, as you might expect, stalagmites and stalactites were everywhere and were christened with clever names like the Monk and the Veil.
The skinniest passage I’ve ever encountered, called the Snail was aptly named for the pace with which we negotiated it. Luckily, everyone sized up their girth and their ability to pass through, and the labyrinth remained unstopped.
The final stop was to view the painting of King Francis I that was made in 1882 by Theodore Levigne, an artist from Lyon. The story goes that “Ted” stopped at the village inn for a few days and was a little short on cash at the end of his stay. The innkeeper was also the manager of the cave and, as payment for his lodgings, allowed Ted to paint a portrait of “Frank” on the wall of the cave commemorating the King’s 1516 visit to the cave. He speed painted it in only six hours by candlelight, using the natural colors of the rock. A bit of fun to this is that no matter where you stand, Frank and his horse have their gaze on you, and because the rock upon which it is painted is concave, the king’s visible leg looks fatter and shorter if you view it from the left side of the room.
Having enough of the cave paintings, we headed back to Grenoble via Crémieu, a little village with 12th century Benedictine priory ruins built high on the cliffs of Saint-Hippolyte. We stopped for a climb that was not too intense and afforded a wonderful view of the medieval houses below and a look at the still intact stacked rock walls that formed the ramparts of the priory.
The prévisions météo (weather forecasts) for the rest of this week are for temperatures in the teens Celsius. That will be a welcome relief not only for us but also for that ice cream man who wants us off his truck—Vite! (Quick!)