New France excursion: cave spelunking and a pound of fire-heated cheese

Vercors, France.
Vercors, France.

The ice age is back. No, not the movie. The actual time when temperatures dropped and the northern continental ice sheets enveloped most of the earth. You don’t need to bundle up to experience it, however. Vercors, France and its caverns and intricate cave system have preserved some interesting fossils from the period.

A quick two-hour drive from Grenoble, France and you’re weaving through the Rhone-Alps region and its mountains, dodging tall, thin fir trees stretching outwardly from hillsides. The view soon turns flat like the cornfields of Iowa, and you think for a second you’ve been driving in the wrong direction. You weave around a slight bend and suddenly there it is: a gargantuan mountain range and below it the Vercors cave system, the largest cave entrance in all of Europe.

400 miles of stalagmites and 4100 feet at its deepest point, Vercors caves are an intricately connected system of crevasses, hidden entrances and wide, open rooms of limestone rock. And fossils. Many fossils from the ice age are perfectly preserved on the cave walls as you trek deeper into the system.

The Vercors caves are not for the faint at heart. Rope, clips, carabineers, flashlights and a local guide are a must. The depth you can tumble to and the immediate darkness once turning the first corner make this excursion an explorer’s delight (Though to show the caves have a cute side, it does maintain a Facebook page).

Keep your eyes open and flashlights beaming. Peer into any pools of fresh water that have been there for thousands of years and you’ll spot an olm.

A what?

An olm. This snakelike amphibian predates T-rex and is still going strong. Living in complete darkness—and up 100 years—the olm is a blind salamander of sorts. Slimy, pale and pink, it looks like a small, squishy, stuffed carnival conciliation prize. But don’t snuggle with it. Not because it’s slithery but because it sits in pools of water and does nothing. A boring life indeed; you would have nothing to talk about.

A day of cave hiking calls for replenishing an empty stomach. With not much meat on an olm, exit the Vercors caves and head into town for the signature dish raclette, a Swiss-French cheese by the same name.

Originating in the Vercors and Savoy region of France, raclette is a round of cheese heated by fireside and scrapped onto plates. The word “raclette” comes from “racler,” meaning in French “to scrape.” Traditionally the dish is served with a side of pickled onions, dried meat and potatoes.

A comfort food meal best enjoyed after a full day of spelunking.

Tony Amante Schepers

CoFounder, Panrimo

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