10 km from Royan, a trip to the hollow of the cliffs of Meschers-sur-Gironde
Carved by the sea into the limestone, the troglodyte caves by Meschers offer a unique retrospective over several million years. Successively Celtic granaries, pirate landmarks, contraband warehouses, Protestant catacombs, Saintonge-type private accommodation, then guinguettes, they ultimately remain tourist sites.
Perched at a fifteen meters above the sea, these natural cavities reveal a breathtaking view of the Gironde estuary. They furrow the entrails of the cliffs of Meschers-sur-gironde. They are dated from -140 to -65 million years. At this time, the walls of soft and friable white rocks are still submerged. Carved by the waves, these limestone surfaces still bear the traces of this distant geological period (end of the Cretaceous). Evidenced by the countless fossils encysted in the heart of the stone, the last vestiges of its underwater past.
An exceptional site
Panoramic view of the troglodyte caves of Meschers-sur-Gironde.
History of the troglodyte caves of meschers
Several troglodyte sites open to the public stand on two floors, overhanging the waves, 300 meters long. These are the Matata and Regulus caves, surrounded by private habitats housed inside the cliff. Archeology does not say formally that prehistoric man, in his time, took up residence there, a hypothesis that is however more than probable. On the other hand, we know with certainty that the Celts exploited them several centuries before our era. They set up grain silos there to store cereals, typical reservoirs of their technical and agricultural know-how.
These Gauls (or Santons, a people established in what would later become Saintonge) had not worked for nothing. Nearly a millennium later, Saracens, passing through the region, reused these primitive works by digging other granaries in the cliff terraces. Moreover, these cave installations have fizzled out! In the Middle Ages, fake salt workers hid their harvests there with the sole aim of evading them from the tax collectors responsible for collecting the gabelle, the tax on salt.
to "Cadet the Wrecker"
These caves, enlarged and fitted out over time, are then the delight of pirates and other wreckage looters. Take for example the legendary brigand Cadet, known as the “wrecker”. He stored his loot there in a maze of cells often connected to each other by natural openings. Then, under Louis XIV, the Protestants threatened by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685) converted these caves into refuges. They can thus celebrate their worship in the shelter of the royal authorities.
Later, in 1814, a small network of troglodytes was baptized with the name of a French vessel of the Napoleonic fleet : the Regulus. His crew decides to scuttle the building against the English ships off Meschers-sur-Gironde. This cannon shot sounds like a new start for the caves of the town. Their utilitarian aspect and their shady character are gradually transformed into residential function during the XNUMXth century century. Seaside tourism then began to emerge on the Atlantic coast, particularly in the "resort" of Royan Close.
Panoramic sites on the cliffside
The first occupants are poor people who settle in these informal houses without owners or rent. They exploit runoff infiltration to obtain fresh water and live off the produce of the vegetable gardens set up at the top of the cliff. Between 1894 and 1920, one of its inhabitants, Marie Guichard, made a local reputation there. For this, she sells postcards which portray it in its rustic and precarious environment.
The site then takes on the trappings of a holiday resort, before becoming one of the strong images of the tourism in Charente-Maritime. The era of the "guinguettes" very popular with the bourgeois clientele is spreading to Régulus and Matata. Wealthy entrepreneurs like the Hennessy family, known for its production of Cognac, began to develop private (and secondary) residences and even guest rooms until the 1950s. On site, crepe and plum tart makers rubbed shoulders with wine and caviar merchants . To complete the picture, huts on stilts begin to line up at the foot of the cliffs for the plaice fishing.
The troglodyte caves of Meschers are erected to the rank of historical patrimony. Their cultural capital is in the spotlight at the end of the XNUMXth century.
- First of all, the Matata caves underwent a decisive change in the 1960s on the initiative of Roger Menant, whose work was continued by his son and grandson. The place now houses a converted eco-museum on a dozen caves, a restaurant and a hotel, built on the side of a cliff.
- Nearby, the municipality bought the Regulus caves in 1980. They are being restored to make them a public tourist site. Major renovation work carried out in 2022 has made it possible to protect this exceptional place, which is facing erosion and rising waters. A walkway on the outdoor route, interior refurbishments as well as a new scenography now offer visitors a more modern and interactive experience.
Video length: 32 seconds