Grotte de Saint-Marcel d'Ardèche

Grotte du Grand Louret


Useful Information

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Cave painting of a bison. Grotte de Saint-Marcel d`Ardèche, France.
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Rimstone pools. Grotte de Saint-Marcel d`Ardèche, France.
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Rimstone pools with light. Grotte de Saint-Marcel d`Ardèche, France.
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Rimstone pools with coloured light. Grotte de Saint-Marcel d`Ardèche, France.
Location: Near Saint-Martin d'Ardèche, 8 km on D290 Route Touristique. Ardèche valley, northern side.
(44.332389, 4.541301)
Open: 03-APR to 04-JUL daily 10:30-18.
05-JUL to 19-SEP daily 10-18:30.
20-SEP to OCT 12:30-17.
Cave Trekking:
03-APR to OCT daily 9:30-18:30.
[2021]
Fee: Visite libre: Adults EUR 12.50, Children (13-17) EUR 9.50, Children (5-13) EUR 8, Children (0-4) free, Students EUR 11.25.
Groups (20+): Adults EUR 10, Children (13-17) EUR 7.60, Children (5-13) EUR 6.40, Children (0-4) free.
Visite épicurienne: Adults EUR 27.50, Children (13-17) EUR 9.50, Children (5-13) EUR 8, Children (0-4) free.
Aventure en Famille: Adults EUR 39.
Grandes Galeries: Adults EUR 45.
Labyrinthe: Adults EUR 49.
Rando de l'Extrême: Adults EUR 105.
Grande Aventure: Adults EUR 98.
[2006]
Classification: SpeleologyKarst cave
Light: LightIncandescent Electric Light System LightSon et Lumière
Dimension: L=62,000 m, VR=325 m, T=13 °C, A=87 m asl. Entrance Tunnel: L=122 m, A=191 m asl.
Guided tours: Visite libre: self guided, D=60 min, VR=80, St=416.
Visite épicurienne: self guided, D=2 h, VR=80, St=416.
Aventure en Famille: D=2.5 h, MinAge=5, Min=6.
Grandes Galeries: D=3 h, MinAge=8, Min=3.
Labyrinthe: D=3.5 h, MinAge=10, Min=6.
Rando de l'Extrême: D=as long as it takes, MinAge=12, Min=6.
V=19,500/a [1989] V=60,000/a [2019]
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no
Bibliography: Ludovic Mocochain, Jean-Yves Bigot, Georges Clauzon, Marc Faverjon, Philippe Brunet (2006): La grotte de Saint-Marcel (Ardèche) : un référentiel pour l’évolution des endokarsts méditerranéens depuis 6 Ma, KARSTOLOGIA n° 48, 2006 • 33-50. online
Ludovic Mocochain (2008): Les manifestations géodynamiques -externes et internes- de la crise de salinité messinienne sur une plateforme carbonatée péri-méditerranéenne : le karst de la Basse Ardèche (Moyenne vallée du Rhône; France), (The geodynamic manifestations - external and internal - of the Messinian salinity crisis on a peri-Mediterranean carbonate platform: the karst of the Lower Ardèche (Middle Rhône valley; France)) à Aix-Marseille 1, Université de Provence, Lille : ANRT, 2008, National Thesis number: 2007AIX10056
Philippe Audra, Ludovic Mocochain, Hubert Camus, Éric Gilli, Georges Clauzon, Jean-Yves Bigot (2004): The effect of the Messinian Deep Stage on karst development around the Mediterranean Sea. Examples from Southern France, Geodinamica Acta, 17:6, 389-400, DOI: 10.3166/ga.17.389-400. doi online
Address: Grotte de Saint-Marcel d'Ardèche, Route des Gorges, 07700 Bidon, Tel: +33-475-043807. E-mail:
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.

History

OCT-1836 discovered by a hunter from Aiguèze.
JUL-1838 the hunter returns with friends and with torches.
OCT-1838 decree by the mayor organize two visits per week, actually a show cave but without any development.
~1870 cave named Grottes de Saint-Marcel d'Ardèche.
1882 cave developed for visitors and reopened.
1892 explored by Edouard Alfred Marte, first survey with a total length of 2,260 m.
1914 cave closed due to World War I.
1920 cave reopened.
1931-1947 cave explored by Robert de Joly, total length 3260 m.
26-JUN-1934 classified as a national natural heritage for its speleothems and its prehistoric content.
01-JAN-1935 cave operated by the Syndicat d’Initiative de St-Marcel et de la Basse Ardèche.
1956 exploration resumed by Groupe de spéléologie du Forez (SGF).
1962 construction of the Gorges Tourist Route.
1963 Cavité de la Tête du Lion (Lion's Head Cavern) discovered.
1966 Groupe Spéléo de St-Etienne-Forez (caving club) founded.
1971 excavations of the natural entrance by René Gilles.
1977 after twenty years rich in discoveries a length of 24,757 m is reached.
1988 tunnel built for easier access to cave.
27-MAY-1989 opened to the public.
2012 renamed Grotte Saint-Marcel.

Description

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Multicoloured speleothems. Grotte de Saint-Marcel d`Ardèche, France.
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The spectacular Speleothemrimstone pools. The cave visitor (my dad actually) gives an impression of the size. Grotte de Saint-Marcel d`Ardèche, France.
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Main passage at the entrance. Grotte de Saint-Marcel d`Ardèche, France.
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The Speleothemrimstone pools illuminated by lamps inside the pool. Grotte de Saint-Marcel d`Ardèche, France.
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Way up with walls covered by scallops. Grotte de Saint-Marcel d`Ardèche, France.
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Rimstone pools in natural lighting. Grotte de Saint-Marcel d`Ardèche, France.
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Cave passage with solutional forms and clay, but almost no speleothems. Grotte de Saint-Marcel d`Ardèche, France.
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The huge main passage. Grotte de Saint-Marcel d`Ardèche, France.
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Speleothems. Grotte de Saint-Marcel d`Ardèche, France.
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The end of the tour, ancient path on which the cave was visited from the natural entrance.
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The terminal hall has many stalagmites. Grotte de Saint-Marcel d`Ardèche, France.
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Way up with walls covered by scallops. Grotte de Saint-Marcel d`Ardèche, France.

The most spectacular feature of the Grotte de Saint-Marcel d'Ardèche are the beautiful Speleothemrimstone pools. The cave is entered through an 122 m long artificial entrance tunnel, which brings the visitors right into the middle of the huge main passage Voûte des Maçons. This passage winds downhill, and has an diameter of about 20 m. After only 50 m the Les Gours (rimstone pools) section begins, the first and most spectacular sight of the cave. Water running down the slope of the passage forms flowstone or sinter, first with small gours, but during their development the pools can merge and thus become bigger. Today there are probably a hundred huge pools, with rims more than a meter high and less than 20 cm thick. They are spectacularly illuminated from inside the pools which underwater lamps. Now the path follows the S-bend of the passage and down an iron staircase into the Cathédrale (cathedral). This is the biggest chamber of the cave, 50 m high and about 50 m long, and is full of speleothems. The tour includes a sort of multimedia spectacle at this point, which is called son-et-lumiere (sound and light) in French. The speleothems are explained with classic music and light effects. After this short rest, the group has to return the same way, up the staircase, uphill along the pools, and finally up the long staircase in the entrance tunnel.

This is the normal tour of the cave, which was the only tour some years ago, and it was a normal guided tour. However, the tours were completely refurbished some years ago. The classical tour is now called Visite libre (Free tour) and is now self guided. Tours start every 15 minutes and the participants walk independently. There are information panels and guides are present on the course to answer all questions. Guided tours are not offered at all currently due to Covid-19. The Visite épicurienne (epicurean tour) is actually the same tour but with an additional wine tasting. After the one hour cave tour a white wine and a red wine from the Saint-Marcel d'Ardèche region are tasted with a guide who is also oenologist. Wine is obviously only served for adults, so there is an additional fee for adults, while children pay the same fee as for the regular tour.

The other tours are cave trekking tours of various levels of difficulty. The Aventure en Famille (Family Adventure) is a good introduction into caving for children, and for adults who have never done caving before. It allows the visit of undeveloped passages but and the tour tells the story of a drop of water and its journey underground. The other tours are real caving tours into various parts of the caves, with narrow parts, climbing and sumps. Participants are equipped with caver suit, helmet, headlamp, and rubber boots. We suggest to bring clothes to change, a plastic bag for the dirty clothes, gloves, and a towel.

The cave is today called Grotte de Saint-Marcel d'Ardèche, because the land where the natural entrance is located was a donation from Dame Vierne de Baladun in 1228 to the town of Saint-Marcel. But this was 600 years before the cave was discovered. The opening is high above the river Ardeche and in the middle of a steep cliff, until today there is just a trail to the entrance. It was discovered in 1836 by a hunter from Aiguèze who climbed through rather inaccessible wilderness in search of a rabbit he had wounded. As he had no lamp he was not able to enter and explore the cave. It took two years until he returned with some friends, equipped with torches and ropes, to explore the cave. They explored the huge main passage to some extend and returned to Aiguèze as heroes describe the immensity of the cavity and the richness of the concretions. As a result other locals visited the caves, and as always souvenirs were taken home.

And then something quite exceptional for the 19th century happened. The mayor of Saint-Marcel d'Ardèche, the Marquis de Bernis, decided by decree in October of the same year to close the cave, to put an end to the destruction and protect the cave. Only two visits per week under the guidance of a guide, who was approved by the town hall, were allowed. The strict conditions of the tours were: no bags, torches or Bengal lights allowed, 6 people maximum per visit, servants, boatmen or valets were not allowed to accompany the group. This was quite exceptional and unprecedented, and it took 150 years until caves were again treated with so much care. Today such concepts are quite popular again.

The cave was known under various names, like Grottes du Bois Cayrelenc and Caves des Pendants de l'Ardèche. And finally, between 1870 and 1880, the cave was named Grottes de Saint-Marcel d'Ardèche. But the number of visitors dwindled and the cave was closed for several years. The cavers Albin Mazon and EA Martel explored the cave and it was finally reopened in 1882, following business rules based on their observations. At this time the cave was developed for tourism with ladders and trails and became a real show cave. After it was declared an Natural Monument in 1934 it was operated by the Syndicat d’Initiative de St-Marcel et de la Basse Ardèche since 1935. They offered tours for a fee of 1 franc per visitor, and planned to do a massive modernization and development of the show cave. But the global economic crisis and World War II interrupted any development.

At the same time the exploration of the cave system was mostly done by Robert de Joly. But there was a collapse of the passage called Grande Barrière (Great Barrier), which made further exploration impossible. Robert de Joly mentioned the possibility to the army, that the cave could be used as a shelter and ammunition storage. As a result they financed the tunneling through the barrier with explosives. This was done under the supervision of Robert de Joly. But the army obviously realized, that a cave which has no access road is a poor choice for an ammunition store, and they abandoned the project. But the cavers were able to continue the exploration and the length of the cave increased to 3260 m.

The Cavité de la Tête du Lion (Lion's Head Cavern) was discovered in 1963. It contains rock paintings which are almost 20,000 years old, dated by C14 from the charcoal of the torches used by the artists. The paintings show a bovid drawn in red ocher and two deer heads.

The modern age of the show cave and mass tourism in the Ardèche started in 1962 with the construction of the Gorges Tourist Route. The road made numerous sites accessible by car and was built right across the cave. An old shelter was transformed into a bar-restaurant in 1964, run by Jean Bernoux, known as "Bouboule" The Groupe Spéléo de St-Etienne-Forez was founded in 1966 and they rented the old forest house 1967. But it was in the 1980s when the municipality of Saint Marcel, led by Pierre Sabatier, decided to open the cave to the general public. It was necessary to access the cave from the road, without the need to walk through the limestone cliffs. For this a 122 m long access tunnel was built right beneath the road into the main passage. This part of the cave was developed with trails, electric light and a light show. The natural entrance was gated to protect the archaeological excavations.

The entrance portal, where the cave passage was opened by the Ardèche Gorge, was open for a long time. It was used by Neanderthals between 90000 and 40000 BC. Bones, tools, pruning waste, and the remains of butchered animals were discovered. There was also a human presence during the Moustérien period, but not during the Upper Paleolithic. Later the cave was again visited, during the early Neolithic and the Bronze Age. A menhir and a dolmen were erected near the cave and inside the entrance a sheepfold was installed. The discovery of barley and wheat grains suggests that the cave also served as a grain store during the Upper Neolithic. After the Bronze Age no remains could be found, the entrance was probably blocked.

The cave was first excavated around 1890 by Léopold Chiron from Saint-Marcel. He was one of the pioneers of Prehistory in Ardèche and in France. He also worked at the nearby Grotte du Grand-Louret and many other caves in the Ardèche gorge. Another important excavation at Saint-Marcel entrance was in 1971 by René Gilles.

The speleological exploration at the cave was quite successful for many decades now. The known length grows continually, and has reached 62 km in 2020, making it the fourth longest cave in France. This is partly a result of cave diving in the lower level with a total of 19 km of flooded galleries, which makes it the longest underwater cave in France. Quite exceptional is the lowest level, which is 63 m below the sea. It must have formed while the Mediterranean was more than 100 m deeper than today and the drainage was underground, not through the Ardèche. In other words there is actually a cave system connecting the Ardèche underground with the Mediterranean sea. Possibly the Rhone Valley once cut in at least 70 m below sea level and is today filled with gravel to its current level.

At the moment the cave system has in total eight entrances, two artificial and six natural. Beneath cavers, other researchers worked at the cave and total of 159 papers in speleology, 24 papers in archeology, 12 on the underground ecosystem, and 4 doctoral theses, were published. Speleothems were analyzed to determine palaeoclimate, bats were monitored, and excavations have revealed an important Neanderthal site. The most interesting recent publication is probably the connection between the cave formation and the Messinian salinity crisis, 5.9MA ago. It actually explains how the lowest level formed. The massive lowering of the Mediterranean caused much deeper drainage than today and cave levels which are today water filled are actually quite old. See the thesis of Ludovic Mocochain for more details.