Why seek the unexpected?
There are other things in the Loire Valley in France besides châteaux. Vineyards, obviously, but besides that, too.
It’s not that I wanted to ignore the châteaux. Far from it. It’s just that turrets and ornamental gardens are exactly what you expect. They don’t tell you everything. Those grand estates must have required thousands of workers from craftsmen and blacksmiths to farmers and weavers to create.
Hadn’t I read somewhere that ordinary folk literally lived beneath the wealthy, in caves beneath the ploughed earth?
Determined to see beyond the aristocratic Loire, monsieur et moi drove excitedly toward the village of Rochemenier. There, people who tilled the land once made their homes in dark spaces hollowed into the rock.
You may feel it’s topsy-turvy to go seeking the unexpected in a particular place. At the time, seeing the troglodyte village — now a museum — in a little section tucked away on page 87 of my guidebook felt unexpected enough.
In hindsight it seems a trifle trite and rather short-sighted. But then, how do you try to find something unexpected when by definition you don’t know what you’re looking for
A turn of events
Half an hour into our journey and we hit a road closure.
Our excitement turned quickly to frustration. It was either follow the latest sign to the left toward our umpteenth château or take the next turning on the right and hope it wouldn’t fizzle out into dirt track. Or a ditch.
We decided to risk the ditch.
The route we followed was obviously little-used but nonetheless well-enough maintained. Surely it wasn’t just wishful thinking that the road did look like it actually led somewhere.
An ancient monument
The road twisted hither and yon passing wheat fields and clumps of trees followed by other wheat fields and other clumps of trees.
We were on the point of losing hope and trying to retrace our steps when we rolled past a faded sign. It barely caught our attention but look again and yes, there was something: Dolmen de Saugré.
Not a troglodyte village certainly but, curiosity piqued, we stopped.
We picked our way through nettles on foot down an overgrown trail for what seemed like far too long but when we reached the dolmen, it was hard to miss: a wall of two-metre-high upright stones formed the walls of a tomb, roofed with a final, heavy slab.
The dolmen had sat there quietly presiding over five millennia of changing landscape. I wondered what those who made it had believed. What would make them haul such bulky stones across the land to construct a tomb?
I ran my fingers against the dusty stones and dipped my head inside. It was high enough to stand upright. Bands of light smeared the sombre darkness and lifted the funereal atmosphere. The bodies were long gone, of course. Nothing but sand and long-lost beliefs.
Emerging back into the summer sunshine and into modernity, I tried to picture the landscape as it had been 5000 years before. When the dolmen was built there were no fields, no fences and no poppies.
Or were all these things there then too, in a different, ancient configuration?
I leaned back and took in the swathe of poppies overrunning the field in front of me.
Lurching forward in time
From the ancient landscape I was transported into a nineteenth century painting. Sweeping away from me was a Monet masterpiece of swaying scarlet poppies.
I stepped into margin of the field and into impressionist art. Instantly I donned an imaginary dress with swishing skirts and wore a straw bonnet with a dark blue ribbon. Monsieur’s phone turned into a heavy Daguerrotype camera in my imagination.
A soft breeze disturbed the surface of the field. Shafts of ripening wheat and tall green grasses revealed a polka dance of red flowers.
Time seemed suddenly meaningless
I felt surrounded by the great swirl of past. From the early farmers and dolmen builders, through the Romans and the mediaeval peasants I knew must have been here, past the era of the great châteaux to the impressionist painters and right up to our modern selves with our cars and cameras…
All of it was here.
All of it was now.
The arrow of time seemed to dissolve and I was caught by a moment of harrowing perspective. How endless this landscape seemed and yet how transient it was in the great scheme of the universe.
It hit me that my little life was at once so unfathomably small and yet so enormously precious. I experienced a rare and unexpected zeal to embrace life and appreciate every molecule of oxygen that passed into my lungs. The dreary fatigue of everyday living, the crushing self-doubts and never-ending pressure dropped away in a magic moment.
I lingered, not wanting to step out of history back into reality.
The real discovery
We did make it to the troglodyte village in the end and found that other story of the Loire, the “unexpected” one that we had expected to find. Very interesting it was, too.
But on the way I’d discovered something deeper:
When you go searching for the unexpected, sometimes that’s exactly what you find.