What do you do when your vacation in the south of France is hit by rain? We locals were happy for the rain a couple of weeks ago–it had been too long and our gardens were wilting from thirst. But for vacationers, so many of the attractions involve outdoor activities–wandering around old villages, hiking through the countryside, exploring châteaux ruins.
With some recent visitors, we went underground. The mountains, like Emmental cheese, are full of holes. These holes were carved by water, not bacteria (in case you wondered how those holes got into the cheese–they’re bubbles formed by gases emitted by bacteria).
The Grotte de Limousis, just north of Carcassonne, is particularly pretty, and easy to walk through, making it appropriate for most ages (but not those in strollers or wheelchairs–there are some narrow spots and some steps). The series of caves are big and well-lit, so you don’t feel claustrophobic.
The cave winds a kilometer underground through three “rooms.” The first is the Column Room, because of how many columns there are–columns where stalactites (the ones that hang down) and stalagmites (the ones that rise from the ground) grew together.
The ballroom got its name because the nearest village, Limousis, actually used it as a party room for the annual village dinner, held in October to close the grape harvest. The acoustics are amazing, and the floor is naturally flat, having formed when the room was half-filled by a lake. Limestone deposits crept across the lake’s surface like ice, then hardened. The water drained away, leaving the bottom hollow, hence the drum effect. The floor is as smooth as the surface of an icy lake–one unperturbed by wind or anything.
There are two “lakes.” In one, the level of the water rises and falls. It never rises above the tallest stalagmite, with the highest level in summer–after all the rains of winter and spring have had time to filter down. By November it’s dry–the effect of our typically rain-free summers. The other lake has a shower pouring into it. It’s green, which indicates it’s at least two meters (six feet) deep. Limpid water is the same temperature as the cave–14 Celsius, or 57 Fahrenheit–but the falling water is colder–8 Celsius or 46 Fahrenheit–too chilly to take a dip! The water is potable, but not too much–while it doesn’t contain bacteria or any living organisms due to the lack of light, it does contain lots of calcium, so you would get kidney stones.
The final room–spoiler alert–contains a huge crystal of aragonite, four meters tall and 10 meters wide (13 feet tall and 32 feet wide). It grew thanks to perfect conditions that were undisturbed for millennia. It’s unusual, not only for its size but for the variety of shapes, from snowflake-like crystals to round bulbs. I’ve been to the Grotte de Limousis five or six times and it still takes my breath away. I never would have put it on a top 10 list until I actually went. Also a great respite on a hot summer day!
As part of the U.S. gets hit by snowstorms and Australians start thinking about winter, here’s a ray of hope: some pretty spring pictures. Since there isn’t much to say about them beyond their captions, today you get completely random pictures while I write about a topic for which I don’t have photos: the quirks (at least in my eyes) of French elementary school.
In France, universities appeared before primary schools: The University of Paris opened in 1160 and the one of the world’s first medical schools opened in 1181 down the road from us in Montpellier. It wasn’t until 1698 that Louis XIV ordered French children to attend school until they were 14.
I won’t write about secondary education until I have the value of hindsight. But for the lower grades here are things that blew my mind.
They start young–two years old, as long as they are potty trained (propre–clean). It’s preschool, with an emphasis on learning to be civilized, and it’s free. And it’s all day. I thought, how dreadful, but my kid could not wait to get in there, and loved being there all day. As one mother told me, “They get to do all the messy things you don’t want them doing at home” like painting and playing with clay.
The government tries to have a preschool and primary school in each village, close to home. For small villages, that means combined classes. In our village, each classroom held two grades. In tiny villages, a single teacher might hold down the fort with kids ages two to 11, like Laura Ingalls Wilder.
In our village, about half the kids go home for lunch, and the lunch break is two hours long. That means kids get out of school around 5 p.m., which seems so late. But it’s good for working parents; their kids can eat at the cafeteria. Before and after class, there is also government-subsidized and -organized daycare, often in the school building or an adjacent one (no transportation issues). Tariffs for the parents’ share are based on hours spent in daycare, family income and number of kids, and range from €5 to €13 a day around here.
They learn more than manners at the maternelle, or preschool. Our kid’s teacher in grand section (five-year-olds, like kindergarten), or GS, had the kids make a “passport” and they spent the year filling it in with different countries: they learned about counting and colors and the alphabet via a trip around the world. They were read stories from different countries, cooked and tasted foreign foods, sang songs from other countries, built huts…it was wonderful. One day when we were in Carcassonne, our kid, still in GS, spied a black man and got all excited. “Do you think he’s from Africa? Which country? There’s Cameroon. And Congo. And Senegal. And Côte d’Ivoire. And a lot of others. I wonder whether he likes winter here. And the food….” On and on it went. Not fear of “the other” but interest, curiosity and excitement. (Our little village isn’t exactly diverse.)
The grades are not 1, 2, 3, etc. There are, in typical French fashion, a bunch of acronyms instead: The two-year-olds are in TPS for très petite section (very small section),followed by PS, or petite section, then MS, or moyenne section (medium section), and GS. How wonderful to be grand–big–when you are just five years old.
It gets more confusing as you climb through the grades. First grade is CP, for cours préparatoire. This is where they learn to read. Second and third grades are CE1 and CE2, for cours élémentaire 1 and 2, the idea being that the second round is a revision and deepening of the first. Fourth and fifth grades are CM1 and CM2, for cours moyen 1 and 2. Then they go off to middle school, called collège, where sixth grade is sixième–6th—but seventh grade is cinquième–5th–and so on through lycée, or high school. All these mental gymnastics now can’t help but ward off dementia in my old age.
Here’s what really shocked me: already in maternelle, they went on overnight–TWO straight nights–field trips. The first one was to the beach (I thought: are the teachers out of their minds? A pack of preschoolers by open water??? Not to mention keeping them slathered with sun block and hats on). The next year they went sledding in the mountains.
In CP and a few other years, they went cross-country skiing, also in the Pyrénées. (This sounds illogical, but there is no snow here unless you go up in altitude; around Carcassonne, this winter’s snow arrived between 7 and 8 a.m. two Saturdays ago; by 8:30 it had melted.)
In CE1 or CE2, I forget now, they went rock climbing, with ropes and helmets and everything. In CM1 or CM2, they went spelunking, not just to the pretty cave that has nice paths for tourist visits but also to caves that are wild and unlit (everybody had a helmet with a lamp), where a false step in a dark corner could send one plummeting in a gaping hole to the middle of the Earth. And no cell phone service.
All I can say is that when I was in elementary school, one year we went to the natural history museum and another we went to a pasta factory. There was none of this adventure stuff, and no overnights.
As PTA member/room mother, I got to accompany many of my kid’s class outings. The last night would usually involve a boum–a loud dance party–and the kids would get to stay up late. By design!
On the cross-country ski trip, we stayed in a dormitory, girls on one floor, boys on the other. Dinner was in a big cafeteria. I figured we parents would have to keep an eye on things. Far from it! The kids were at their own tables, and the cafeteria ladies set out big dishes at each table; the kids were expected to serve each other–no help from the cafeteria ladies nor the parents. This should not have been so surprising; it’s how the school cafeteria operates. The parents, meanwhile, were at a separate table on the far side of the room (not in peace because two classes of kids–about 50 in all–create a deafening noise even when well-behaved), furnished with carafes of wine. The meal, just like at school or at any restaurant, had a starter, main course, cheese, dessert, and for the adults, coffee–I forgot the exact menu, because it’s been years.
Unforgettable, though, was when one of the dads took a sip of the wine, grimaced, and left. He returned with a jerry can of his own wine; he’s a winegrower and never leaves home without a supply of reliably good stuff, I guess. I could not imagine this scenario playing out in the U.S., not even in Napa Valley.
Is it just that the school I attended was bare bones and that such activities were wild and crazy back in the ’60s and ’70s? Do all schools have field trips like this nowadays? I suspect that the French, and perhaps other Europeans, are far more laissez-faire about letting their kids experiment with independence. They don’t do helicopter parenting; it’s more like autopilot, taking control only when there’s a crisis. It seems to work OK.
I never thought I’d get into speleology. For one thing, where I grew up, it’s flat. No caves that I know of. Well, John Brown’s cave, but that was pretty far away. For some reason, I dreamed of seeing Carlsbad Caverns, but that was even farther.
Turns out the mountains in France are Swiss cheese. Caves galore to expore!
I wouldn’t say I’m “into” speleology, but when it’s as easy as the Grotte du Limousis, it’s hard not to at least check it out. Limousis isn’t adapted for wheelchairs or strollers, but we took elderly mother-in-law, who managed the short hike through the garrigue from the reception to the cave entrance, after which, you’re in a more or less flat cave at 55 degrees. Which is fabulous in the middle of summer. Or winter.
As a room mother, I had the honor (?) of visiting an unmarked, “wild” cave nearby. There is nothing quite as terrifying as being cut off from mobile phone reception (duh, underground), with a lamp on your helmet (already, we have to wear helmets? It’s that dangerous?) and a squirming bunch of third graders who are harder to herd than cats and a guide who says, “keep a watch over there,” pointing to a dark corner of the cave, “there’s a hole that goes down 20 meters or more.” Because that’s the room mother’s job, keeping stray cats, I mean kids, from falling into bottomless holes in the middle of the earth.
Saving grace: while there were bats, there were no spiders. It occurred to me to be afraid of the bugs only after I was well underground with the class and no longer allowed to panic, and it was a huge relief to discover there were no bugs at all.
Limousis is nicer because (1) it’s well-lit, (2) you can walk through it comfortably—no wiggling like a snake through a chatière (definition: “a very difficult and tight passage that you can only get through by crawling”—ha! as if a chatière were big enough for being on all fours! no, you squirm like a worm, plus it’s wet), (3) no puits or deep drop-offs or holes, at least not on the tourist route, (4) it’s beautiful, (5) they serve wine.
So if you’re into caves, just curious, or want to taste some good wine, Limousis is for you.
The cave was discovered by people who could write in 1811, or maybe 1789. It was discovered much earlier by people who didn’t write, but who left skeletal remains, thank you very much. A bear left its marks, too, near the entrance.
There’s a room that’s rather large with a nice flat floor that the nearby village of Limousis used to use as a salle de fête—a party hall, like for wedding receptions—and it’s naturally air-conditioned (summer) or heated (winter)! Plus the acoustics are awesome. The floor was created over millennia by calcium deposits on an underground lake, which eventually hardened, while the lake water receded, leaving the floor stretched like the cover of a drum, and a hollow space below that produces the resonance.
There’s a pretty green pool and stalactites (the ones hanging from the ceiling) and stalagmites (the ones growing up from the ground), not to mention columns where the two meet, all over the place. Don’t touch or you’ll “kill” them—oils from our hands changes the special chemistry. It would be a shame because they grow drop by drop, about a quarter of an inch to almost an inch per century. Math quiz: if a stalagmite is 3 feet tall, how old is it?*
In the last room, there’s a huge formation of aragonite, which is pretty cool.
In the first room of the cave, the wine cooperative Alliance Minervois ages some wine, called l’Amethyeste—what better place, right?