As the Nymphea
rises to the top of Vallagon lock on the River Cher, the hillside of Bourré appears to the left, and once the gangplank is down our little group crosses the road and starts the steep but thankfully short climb to "La Magnagnerie".
The flower lined alley gives onto an oasis of semi- tropical vegetation, with banana and mulberry trees growing in profusion on this rocky terrace , overlooking the calm waters of the Cher, flowing westwards to meet with the Loire, sixty miles downstream. We are greeted by the owner, Laurent Coquillat, who has just started to realise the interest that his extraordinary residence holds for visitors who are used to living in houses, and explains that the word troglodyte is derived from the greek, 'troglo' or dwellers in the hill.
The whole hillside of the village of Bourré is a four kilometre long limestone cliff, honeycombed with openings, and smoking chimneys emerging from the hillsides while the living stone walls are regularly punctuated with plate glass windows and lace curtains. From the 12th to the 17th Century , locals quarried blocks of the creamy white 'tuffeau' stone to build the public buildings and churches , and later the chateaux of the Loire Valley.
Once opened , the hillsides were quickly colonised, often on all three levels of gallery.
At ground level , the temperature is coolest, 12 degrees C all year round; and at the back of the high ceilinged cellar , the 17th century, human powered wine press dominates the room, its cast iron workings bear the name of Montrichard, 3 kilometres away and the slatted grape container runs the juice directly into vats carved out of the rock, including a bowl shaped depression in the base of the trough which was used to receive the ladle which took the final litres of a pressing, habitually reserved for the local curé.
Shallow steps lead us past several other caverns where Laurent grows mushrooms on the mixture of white quarry dust and manure, and we emerge into the quarry itself, its high ceiling shows that two vertical five foot blocks have been cut over the whole surface, and while cutting proceeded in the rear half, the front 'room' was used as a grain store and stables for the donkeys which used to transport the cut stones down to the waiting barges for onward transportation.
Numerous stone eyes in the corners of the rooms show where the animals were tied while waiting for their next load, and various bored quarrymen's children have carved good representations of the 17th century 'gabarres', or Loire sailing barges ,easily distinguished by their enormous 'piautres' or rudders appearing on this early graffiti.Nymphea cruise enquiry
Laurent has a good collection of the original stonecutters tools, the foremost being three different types of axe to cut the top, sides or bottom of the wall to release the block, and an acetylene lamp which used in conjunction with a stick, cast a vertical shadow in order to cut a straight block.
Once the cuts have been made on the edges, boxwood wedges are driven in and a few hours later the stone breaks free, to fall flat on its face on a bed of sacrificial 'bougies', triangular shaped 'candles' of the same rock , arranged to absorb the shock. The massive stones are then cut into seven blocks , and if destined for a chateau, will then spend up to ten years on the bed of the river, while the rust coloured impurities leach from the stone, leaving a block fit for a kings mansion.
The rooms are airy and dry, due to the impervious layer of clay soil above, and as we rise to the third floor
we realise that it's a natural sun trap, with a constant summer temperature of 17 degrees C. Its ideal for raising silkworms , a thriving industry in the 17th and 18th C when the nobles of the land needed an endless supply for their robes.
There's a small factory still weaving in Tours and they are proud of the fact that Pope John Paul II ordered a chasuble from the area.
One hundred and thirty one niches carved in the walls hold thousands of the green caterpillars, this is the nursery or Magnanerie after which the dwelling is named. The silkworms on their diet of mulberry leaves increase their weight a thousandfold in a month, before nesting on broom branches and spinning a cocoon, two kilometres long made from a single thread of saliva.
Just before hatching the cocoons are placed in a bucket of warm water and unravelled onto a devidoir or unwinder. One thread is one denier, the measure used habitually to gauge the sheerness of silk stockings. Nothing is lost, the corpse of the silkworm goes to be crushed and bottled as the main ingredient of a household fashion product, one never buys a bottle of shampoo again without checking whether 'made with silk protein' is on the back of the bottle !
The barge blows its horn below and we have to wend our way back to our floating home so that it can move on to its nights stop before the locks close, and we have to say our adieus to Laurent, perched precariously on his old wooden ladder, gathering armfuls of mulberry leaves , destined for his hungry charges above.
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