Inside the magic mountain
Jay Collier visits the Auvergne and finds something quite petrifying lurking underground beneath the picturesque town of Saint-Nectaire.
Above: Volcano de Tartaret
My French penfriend Noelle and I grew up together, from schooldays to careers, marriage and motherhood. We always kept in touch since exchanging schoolgirl letters, half in English and half in French. We finally met when our own family was enjoying an extended exploration of France by motorhome – the itinerary included a visit to Noelle, then living near Limoges.
The day was a great success, the older children propping up our rusty language skills during the party atmosphere of a warm Sunday afternoon. We laid down memories and invited a return visit to England.
Meanwhile, in the late spring of 2013, husband and I had been motorhoming through the Auvergne when a snippet from the past jogged my memory. There on the map was Saint-Nectaire – the name offered up by Noelle when asked the name of her favourite cheese. Visiting an actual cheese factory was a possibility but the map also indicated something else of special interest.
Sheepish tax collector
We arrived on a Sunday afternoon when toute le monde had turned up for a gathering of off-road enthusiasts. Not a motorhome parking space to be had. Luckily, the neighbouring village of Murol had a large dedicated parking area beside the Office de Tourisme and Murol turned out to be quite a find, with its insistent cuckoos and a woodland footpath signed up to the Volcano de Tartaret.
Above left: Saint-Nectaire; right: Saint-Nectaire cheese © copyright Homer Ectus and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License
Next morning, the tourist office allayed any fears about returning to Saint-Nectaire. Yesterday had been quite out of the ordinary. Today we could, indeed really should, visit its ‘exceptionelle’ Romanesque church, with the assurance of a generous parking area.
I needed to pass on this enthusiasm to my cohort, offering to miss out on the cheese factory as long as we could visit both the hilltop church and the Fontaines Pétrifiantes.
Things became a bit fraught when the road to the former proved something of a tight corkscrew climb, but then the whole plan started to come together.
We spent an age inside the church, captivated by the carved and painted capitals with Biblical characters from Adam and Eve to Zaccheus, the sheepish tax collector. On a more sober note, the reliquary of Saint-Nectaire could be seen to contain not merely the customary bone fragment, but the best part of a skeletal forearm.
Shafts, galleries and dams
Experience had taught us that lunchtime in France brings a quiet couple of hours on the roads, so towards noon we wound our way back down the hill, thinking to visit the Fontaines Pétrifiantes before heading for pastures new. Alas, it seemed that the place was about to close for lunch.
Hoping at least to pick up a brochure, I made for the foyer, to be met with a smile from the receptionist, with the assurance that if we came in before closing time, we could stay as long as we liked. Adult entry was 5 euros each.
So it was that we had this fascinating place entirely to ourselves, armed with a brochure written in English to guide us from an introductory film show and geological display through the entire petrification process.
A modern mini-cinema opened directly into a damp and dripping underground passage leading to another world, one with active evidence of the Auvergne’s volcanic past. The first lords of this netherworld were Jean Serre and his son-in-law Michel Papon, who from around 1820 began digging into the hill in search of the source of local thermal springs. They finally located two sources, one 18 degrees centigrade, the other 52 degrees and both notable for the presence of carbon dioxide and high carbonate-type mineralisation.
Over the following half-century, an army of workers excavated a network of shafts, galleries and dams at three levels. In the topmost grotto the two springs, their combined temperature 35 degrees, are channelled into a bubbling reservoir lapped with rusty-red iron oxide.
Strange petrified creatures lurk in the shadows, while a colony of slightly livelier bats roosts amongst dripping stalactites.
The warm water invited some finger dipping before we followed its journey through the filtering gallery, where beds of wood-shavings trap iron particles to reduce the amount of iron oxide.
The sound of water is temporarily left behind as the visitor passes through a series of workshops, starting with the production of moulds using gutta-percha – a natural rubber obtained from the Palaquium gutta tree. The moulds produce marble reliefs as diverse as angels, animals, and scenes of religious, historical and rural life.
Above left: Devotional object, Saint-Nectaire Church; right: petrified dog
Below: petrification ladder
The petrification process depends upon three wide and lofty wooden ladders located underground where the springs can work their ‘Medusa magic’.
Row upon row of moulds are lined up against a constant waterfall – allowing the evaporation of Co2 and gradual build-up of calcium carbonate. The initial deposit constitutes the face of the relief, demanding the finest limestone grains. So the marbling process is set in motion at the bottom of a 28-metre petrification ladder, each mould being progressively moved upwards. A cameo, for example, takes around a year to reach perfection. By contrast, pottery items lined up at the top of the ladder – where grains are coarser – will achieve a crystallised reflective glaze in around three months.
The petrification ladder in its shadowy crevasse presents an eerily beautiful scene as several hundred moulds undergo their imperceptible transformation. Each mould has to be turned daily by hand to get rid of air and gas bubbles.
A quirky conclusion
Their deposits paid, the waters are set free to flow into a local brook. The visitor too returns to daylight via a gallery stacked with lovely framed exhibits — all free of any polishing and some transformed into lamps, giving dark relief of detail through a translucent golden glow.
All sorts of small objects of sentimental value can be preserved to order, transformed during just a couple of months inside the magic mountain.
One particular exhibit in a glass case called for a double-take in the shape of a stone dog. Resembling a perky collie from panting mouth to feathered tail, the workmanship looked very realistic indeed, apart from a few shiny warts caused by dripping stalactites in years gone by.
Then our suspicions were confirmed — this had once been a living and breathing dog, which prior to petrification had passed through the hands of a taxidermist.
So do people still pay to have their pets turned to stone? Well, suffice it to quote from a brochure: ‘Stuffed animals take 2 or 3 years to get petrified.’
Overall, a quirky conclusion to a 30-year-old question about cheese. We actually bought some Saint-Nectaire in a local shop — and very nice it was too.
Green Adventures May 2015