Stories and Culture

Naours, France: Biking and Touring the Underground

“It’s not flat!” “It’s a lie!” “It is not about ‘geometric’!” “I know how to read the elevation on Google, I know topographical maps!” “There is no other interpretation of flat!!”

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I’ve read our child-selves will emerge regardless of age. For me, there’s often a physical cause.

IMG_2147When I have to buckle down for an uphill push, I am, internally, violent. An inward curl, I can’t help but hear destruction. Ripping, shredding, I remembered the time I butchered a rabbit. More of it is heat, buzzing, than anything; some of it words, to follow those images; sometimes loops of sound, or staccatoed song.

 

And my girl-self. I’m sure she’s the same one who whinged and whinges now. I’ve found it better to breather out the curses, tossing blame on my partner who can’t stand complainers. But when he’s too far in the distance, and I’m surging too hard to vocalize, the girl rages. Her again, I think it’s the resistance of childhood marches, and my cries that went with no response (other than their irritation, such a powerful ploy; I nagged to evoke it). Less of a gripe, now, I’ve indignation. It was a choice, there’s nothing to do.

Though I learned that to be close is to be calm. I asked my partner to slow, and a distance of two meters soothed. When no one is out-running you, is there reason to rage?

Biking from Amiens

Our bike trip to and from Naours was just about 25 miles round-trip (around 40 kilometers).

Though we left that morning bundled and cold, it took around 10 minutes to adapt. After we were halfway along, I thought this chill day may have been better than a summer’s effort. There were panting hills the whole way, and I imagined starting with the naked sun would have been a hellish omen.

We first biked through an industrial zone on the outskirts of Amiens. Always peckish, I noticed the scattering fauna – there were hares, hares everywhere, frolicking! One lot, with a building extending hundreds of meters, seemed abandoned. The leporids were all over the lawn. I counted more than twenty at once. One panicked furrball crashed himself into the chain gate, trying to escape our wheels – and, I thought, dinner! Good prey, too – for he was only 5 meters from the entrance that could have separated him from the humans.

After the industrial zone, we wound through many fields and some forest, alongside a cemetery, and finally passed through a few villages before arriving in Naours.

The predictable end came with predictable relief: we had made it! (half-way!).

Our goal, beyond the ride’s challenge, was to visit the ancient underground city of Naours.IMG_2184When you arrive to the site of Naours, you see the blades of a windmill halo the entrance. Up the stairs, and into the building, you find an attendant who will sell you tickets (a few Euros per person), and provide you with a handheld audio tour.IMG_2187

History of the City

The Romans allegedly excavated the cité souterraine de Naours sometime between the 2nd and 3rd centuries for its limestone. After the Romans left, local residents began using the recesses to flee the upheaval and invasion of the Middle Ages. At one point in its history, the city housed around 3000 residents and was equipped as a true settlement – not just rooms for residents, but chimneys, chapels, a treasury, a room for fetes and sacrifice; monuments, traps, storage rooms, holds for the dead (animals); rocky pastures and other large meeting spaces. In total, she has 300 rooms, runs for about 2 kilometers, and held up to 3000 people in her heyday. The grotto was only discovered again in the late 1800’s, and developed slowly into the tourist attraction it is today.

The tour takes you through 20 stations, starting on the surface…IMG_2195There is a small house, walled in cob, with models of WWI nurses and doctors, and WWII German soldiers. The city was a hospital for British soldiers during World War I, and soldiers would come to visit the renowned site. In the Second World War, German soldiers purportedly used the hideout as a base.

Visiting the underground city…

You enter and see a staircase, and your electronic mistress will note the 33 meter descent.IMG_2203Noting the “décor,” you may decide that part of the charm of the place is its presentation. Her signs look like they were curated in the 50’s – and all hand-drawn, too.NaoursLife

The first space you see in the city is a long hall with staggered living quarters. In the center of the hall, you find one of the city’s 5 “chimneys.” A large hole in the ceiling opens above the sites where the city dwellers would cook and warm themselves. The genius of the construction was the exit points; that windmill you saw gracing the hilltop sits directly over an opening. The blades would disperse the smoke from the fires, hiding the city from enemies and others unwanted.

The rooms vary in size, though some are far more spacious than what might have been in a more solid quarry. The caves were dug from a soft limestone – one you can brush away lightly with fingertips. Every meter or so, there is a layer of flint (this goes for the whole subterrane); the presence of the glassy material must have assured the city’s jagged ceilings.

IMG_2219You will also see that the tunnels have road signs. My partner noticed that one tunnel had the same road name as the surface street we took to get to the cave’s entrance. As I researched the underground city, I read that the cavern stretches directly under the village; perhaps the subterranean roads reflect those on the surface.

Near the living quarters is a chapel, where columns divide the many rooms. Citizens would often huddle in this space when armies marched, or invaders attacked.

The residents were obviously Christian. One chapel, graced with a small Virgin, could hold hundreds. During periods of invasion, villagers would come together in this space. There are a few symbol carved into the walls, too – the alpha, and the omega, representative of the divine; the beginning, and the end.

You will find more evidence of Christianity deeper in the dwelling. In one central room, your eyes may grace the far wall, following her contours as you would gaze at the flow of a well-executed painting. You see the Virgin perching, the Child crooked in her arms and her hems brushing a mound studded with fossilized sea urchins, and large scalloped shells. Her halo is structure, and shadow; and she’s protected. Years before, the surface collapsed into her lap. The villagers built a faux chapel to suture the gap. This is the only place in the cave where you can see evidence of the outside.IMG_2237

This room also holds way to the treasure hold – rumored to have coins still hidden!

IMG_2238You will follow the road through another slim entrance where salt smugglers used to make their way through the caves.IMG_2241Your next stop, after descending still farther, is a “party” room where the village leaders would record future events. Below the calendar is a slaughtering block. The villagers took their livestock for every descent, and they’d bring them to the block from the holding rooms.

One chamber holds a plate with a question of anthropology: did the men of France fall so short in stature due to war? After all, they lost more than 2 million strongest; of the best; of the most beautiful men in the terrors of Louis XIII, Louis XIV and Napoleon’s wars.IMG_2262You will see another morbid reminder. There is a storage room where strings of bones hang from the ceiling’s jags; but they’re not human. If a man died, his friends would rally for a time when they could transport his body to the surface. This space was the animal cemetery, where villagers placed carcasses after meals.

As you continue, the caverns wind further below. Not all entrances are lit. There is a trap with low ceiling, where the villagers had filled a pit with small stones. The village children, who knew the area by heart, would lie in wait listening for trespassers, then rush to alert their elders of the interlopers. Another trap overlays a hole. The locals would pull a wooden board from beneath an intruder’s feet. One area, cordoned off but visible, was the sheep pasture. Others included steep tunnels to nowhere; and a more open space ended in a cliff, where two tunnels flowed further to darkness.

You will leave with the sense that you saw only a fraction of the subterranean city of Nours.

In the final room, you will find a final reminder of reverence. You walk in on a monument to the Son, and to the left a cement wall. This, according to your electronic tour mistress, is the original entrance of the city. This is where villagers would flee with their children and their chattel when invaded.

Museum of Picardie

When you leave the underground, you will walk a short loop through a small museum of the crafts and lifestyles of long-ago Picardie. The wax figures are freaky – if they’re true likenesses, I wouldn’t want to encounter any ghosts of that past.

The White Horse (Le Cheval Blanc)

We stopped at Le Cheval Blanc, a small restaurant in the center of the village at around 4:30 to warm ourselves. Like all over France, there was nothing filling at that hour – they take their lunches long, and stop serving – but it was a satisfying stop for snacks and coffee. Sugar did the trick for our long ride back.IMG_2289We took a different route home at the suggestion of Le Cheval Blanc’s chef. It was more country, which meant one-lane roads, but fewer speeding cars. The route was also mostly downhill, except for three notably tough slopes – I was only strong enough to walk these. But it was a refreshing change after our earlier encounters with semi-trucks. (We witnessed only one near-collision.)

As an American, I am still astounded by the history you can experience in a nondescript European village. There is knowledge crystallized in millennia, in records and writing. I generally think about war; the more I travel in Europe, the more I hear of destruction and sacrifice. I understand the burning and razing and bombing, and that – even if the architecture looks older than that of the United States – the buildings may only be copies, restored after either Great War.

But I know there has been life, and there have been children; craftsmen honed their skills, and people gathered to lose themselves in drink and food. They strived and they loved and they worked and the survived.

It’s a delightfully rich understanding. If we could only have known so much more about those communities razed when Europe extended, further across the Americas, to Manifest.

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