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The Underground City of Naours (Naours, France)

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Address: Les Grottes de Naours / 5 rue des Carriéres / 80260 Naours / France

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      26.11.2012 15:34
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      Underground network of caves open to the general public in Northern France

      La Cité Souterraine de Naours sounds rather more exotic than the Underground City of Naours, but whatever you call it, it certainly sounded like a rather intriguing place when we spotted it on the list of things to do in the Pas de Calais region of France. It quickly climbed to the top of our list of "must do" things for at least half of our party of nine when we holidayed in Northern France in June this year.
      I'm a bit of a part-time enthusiast for visiting caves, and if there are some underground caverns, catacombs or strange rock formations somewhere near my holiday destination, you can bet I've been there. There is something very magical about wandering around underground looking at the strange, almost mystical workings wrought by nature (or in this case, man) over the course of thousands of years.

      La Cité Souterraine de Naours is actually a real city situated 33 metres under the ground below the town of Naours in Picardy in Northern France. It's the largest underground hideaway in France and is quite a well known show mine. They describe it as an underground city, but in all honesty I'd actually describe it as more of a town than a city; it's nowhere near big enough to be a city, but it is quite large and sprawling. There are some 300 different rooms and 26 galleries under the ground as well as chimneys, wells and at least three chapels. There's room enough for 3,000 people plus the various cows, goats and sheep they took underground with them to keep them feed.



      ~~~ A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY ~~~

      La Cité Souterraine de Naours has been used since the third century when locals first started excavating the chalk from the ground. Someone obviously hit upon the bright idea that the holes left beneath the ground would make an excellent hiding place from their enemies and invaders, though one does wonder how safe the underground caves were from a health and safety point of view in those days :o( The galleries left behind after the chalk was extracted were known as "muches", which means "hiding place" in the Picardy dialect of yesteryear.

      From that first third century foray underground, continuous generations throughout the ages managed to develop a huge network of caves, galleries and rooms that spread some three kilometres underground, resulting in enough living space for 3,000 people as well as their livestock. There are some 300 different rooms of varying sizes designed to accommodate families of all different sizes. The caves are divided up into streets and neighbourhoods. Evidently the richer and more affluent you were, the deeper into the caves you were allowed to reside. The poorer and less well-to-do had to make do with the caves nearer the entrance...so they'd be more likely to be picked off by any invading enemies.

      The caves were used as a hiding place from the Barbarian invasions of the 3rd and 4th centuries and then again in the 9th century when both the Vikings and the Normans decided Picardy would make a nice addition to their territory. Over the centuries Picardy was used for many an invasion or war and the residents of Naours often used the caves as refuge.

      During the Thirty Years War in France (1618 to 1648) the caves were used almost continuously by locals intent on avoiding the bloodshed. No doubt young men also used the various tunnels in order to avoid being press-ganged into fighting. During more peaceful times the caves were used by local salt smugglers to hide their contraband from officials and avoid paying duty on it.

      By the late 19th century the caves were largely unused and mostly forgotten. They were rediscovered by the village priest Abbot Danicourt in 1887, who set about making them habitable once again. Being a keen archaeologist, Abbot Danicourt spent all his spare time underground excavating and enlarging the caves. He retranscribed many of the underground inscriptions and gave names and numbers to the various tunnels and galleries so that the city under the ground became less maze like, and it was easier to find one's way around. Abbot Danicourt also found many objects underground such a coins, animal skeletons and pots and pans, some of which you can still view at the entrance point to the caves. Sadly the tour failed to explain why Abbot Danicourt felt the need to expand the underground network of caves, nor why he felt the need to label and signpost the various galleries. Was he expecting an imminent invasion or was he just doing it for fun?

      Being located in Northern France, it's no surprise that the caves played a part in World War I. Evidently the caves were occupied by the allied forces - mainly Australian forces, and you can see evidence of their stay with graffiti on the walls. Initially the caves were used to stock British and Allied fuel reserves during World War II. However, after the German occupation of France, the caves fell into enemy hands, and the Germans moved in from 1942 to 1944. The Germans used the caves as an ammunition dump and turned them into a station of command. After the war the caves were cleared out and opened to the public in 1949 by Raymond Martin, and these are still largely the section of caves you can visit today.



      ~~~ THE CAVES TODAY ~~~

      The underground city is very well organised with 28 galleries divided up into 300 separate chambers of varying sizes so as to afford a degree of privacy to different families. As well as the chambers, the underground city also has public squares, water wells, stables, three chapels and huge chimneys each measuring up to one metre in diameter. These chimneys must have been a huge job to dig out, but were entirely necessary to provide a source of heat, light and fuel for the unfortunate underground residents. Originally the tops of the chimneys came out on the hillside, but the emerging smoke was a dead giveaway to their enemies. They therefore blocked the chimneys at about 7 metres below the ground and then diverted them so the smoke emerged further away and in a more covert location. One of them was diverted into the ducts of the tailor's house in the town of Naours, another into surrounding fields and a further one into the miller's house. This kept the underground residents hidden from their enemies and they were able to go about their daily business underground as best they could.

      Should the enemy discover the caves and try to invade the secret hiding places, there were a number of traps for the unwitting entrant. Huge pits were carved into the chalk with only a scanty covering thus leading the invaders into a trap and allowing the locals to move further into the caves away from their enemies.

      As you leave the caves there is a waxwork display of models showing the sort of crafts that would have been undertaken by locals who would have hidden in the caves throughout the centuries. It's quite interesting, but not particularly well labeled, and leaves the viewer with a lack of information. The artisans exhibition does not relate to the underground caves at all. If these craftsmen were forced to hide under the ground for long periods, however did they manage to work or adapt their lifestyles to earn a living? Yet another loose end that this attraction fails to address.



      ~~~ THE TOUR ~~~

      The first thing I must mention is the need to time your visit well. Like much of France, the museum insists on taking a two hour lunch break at certain times of the year. How they ever scratch a living in certain parts of France is beyond me - it's not uncommon to find certain shops in France closed by midday, and that's if they even bothered to open in the first place :o( The museum does open all day everyday from May to August, but closes from 12.00pm to 2.00pm for the rest of the year. Heaven help the visitor that arrives at 11.30am in April :o(

      Although there are around 3 kilometres of caves, galleries and tunnels underground, the tour only actually covers a fraction of the galleries. All the tours used to be done the old fashioned way and accompanied by a guide. However, now it's all done with audiovisual guides and you press the relevant button when you reach the section they wish to explain. The tour lasts approximately 45 minutes.

      The tour does take you through lots of dark and narrow passages, and you have to climb a good few steps, as well as crouching down in some areas with lower ceilings. The pathways meander through the tunnels, and you have to press the relevant number on your audio-guide as you reach each numerical sign, and then stop and listen. The caves are fairly well lit, but they can be dark in places, so it's best to watch you step. Any stairwells do tend to have handrails though.

      The caves are very dry - I'm guessing because they are manmade. There is no underground water source here so you need not worry about slippery floors. However it's best to have some comfortable and flat shoes on as the terrain can be quite uneven in places. The temperature underground is a steady 9°C so a coat or warm top may be a good idea. The caves are not really suitable for the infirm or elderly, and definitely not for the disabled. There are a fair few steps and you have to duck down in places due to low ceilings. It goes without saying, that anyone suffering from claustrophobia would definitely not enjoy the enclosed spaces and ceilings of some of the caverns. Very young children would probably find the terrain a bit hard going and it's not really somewhere a parent would be happy to take a push chair in.

      On site there are reasonable facilities. The car park is roomy and well laid out...and the lack of visitors when we were there made parking right by the entry steps entirely possible. You need to climb a steep flight of steps up the entrance point. Once inside you pay your entry fee (Euro11 for adults and Euro9 for children), and pick up your individual audio-guide, which you can hang around your neck and hold up to your ears at the appropriate point. We had to leave one of our passports with the lady in the entry kiosk - a deterrent against one running off with one of their audio-guides I guess...though why anyone would want to keep one is beyond me :o) Inside the entrance building there are toilets, a very small museum, a gift shop and a cafeteria. The toilets are a little basic but perfectly usable. We had some coffees and hot chocolates at the onsite cafeteria before we started our tour and enjoyed a bit of weak sunshine in the outdoor seating area. The gift shop is quite small and didn't seem to be selling anything of interest. Any interesting books, leaflets or pamphlets on the caves appeared to be in French, so there was no chance of learning anything further on the history of the caves other than from what one could glean from the audio-commentary (which was negligible).

      Photography is not allowed in the caves. However, due to the lack of staff underground (and other tourists), it's entirely possible to fire off as many shots as you want (but you didn't read that here...). Despite good English on the audio-guide, the English is not so good in their printed literature and signage though. Sentences like "shops are awaiting your coming" and "our animal friends are not allowed" make the place seem a little amateurish and second rate.



      ~~~ MY THOUGHTS ~~~

      What the French have here is somewhat unique and rather fascinating. An underground city that was used over many hundreds of years as a place of safety from marauding enemies and dangerous situations. You can see where they lived, worked and prayed - all underground. However, they really do fail to bring history to life here - it's all bald facts and no human interest at all. I think they would do better to concentrate on the stories of four or five individuals who had to hide underground over the ages. Obviously they'd have to make the tales up, as I very much doubt there is any surviving literature on which to base any story, but it would really made the visitor appreciate more about how and why these caves were used. As it stands, it's not made at all clear who the villagers were hiding from and to what degree. Did they have to hide down there for days, weeks or years? Were they able to emerge into the daylight at all during these hiding periods or was it just too dangerous? Perhaps they could tell us a tale of a young miller who had to hide from the enemy (or the local press-gang) during the Thirty Years War in the 17th century. Or a story of a young mother trying to keep her children safe during the Norman invasions of the 9th century. Indeed it's never made entirely clear why Abbot Danicourt felt the need to expand the caves or cart a huge statue of the Virgin Mary underground. I'd like to have learned more about what the Australians were doing camped out in the caves during WW1 and how long they stayed for, and more about the German invasion of the area some 20+ years later and what they did underground there. There really is so much underused potential here and it's in desperate need of improvement, modernisation and innovation.

      The audio-guide is a relatively new feature to the caves. I've read earlier reviews of this tour where visitors have complained of guided tours conducted totally in French with no concession made at all to those that speak other languages. Obviously an audio-guide in your own language does make the tour more user-friendly, but it is rather impersonal, and often poses more questions than it answers. There is no facility there to ask questions; once you are underground, there are no staff on hand to help out or pose questions to. The audio-guide is in very good English, but it is a little short. I wanted to know more about the enemies the villagers were hiding from underground; Where did they come from? What was going on in the rest of France? How long did the villagers hide for? None of these questions were answered, and they would have made the tour so much more interesting.

      The underground city is worth three stars in my opinion. At Euro11 it is rather expensive for what it is. It definitely has the potential to be fascinating - it just needs to be managed in a better way and it needs a massive shot of imagination. It's not worth making a special trip to visit, but is worth stopping off on your way through if you are passing (and you get your timings right and avoid their ridiculously long lunchtime closure!).



      ~~ FURTHER DETAILS ~~

      The underground city of Naours is located roughly halfway between the towns of Amiens (18km) and Doullens (15km) in Picardy in Northern France. The nearest big town is Arras some 55km to the southwest. The car park is free and very well laid out. Once you've parked, it's only a short, easy walk to the underground city entrance.

      Grottes de Naours
      5, Rue des Carrières
      80260 Naours
      France

      Telephone: 33 (0)3 22 93 71 78
      Fax: 33 (0)3 22 93 44 77
      Email: contact@grottesdenaours.com
      Website: http://grottesdenaours.com

      ~~ Opening Hours ~~

      1st February to 30th April = 10.00am to 12.00pm and from 2.00pm to 5.00pm
      1st May to 31st August = 9.30am to 6.30pm.
      1st September to 15th December = 10.00am to 12.00pm and from 2.00pm to 5.00pm

      ~~ Standard admission charges ~~
      Adults = Euro11
      Children from 3 to 12 years old = Euro9

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