Unusual adventure in the bowels of the Earth: La Grotte de la Verna

Unusual adventure in  ...

On holiday in Béarn-Pyrénées this fall, a mysterious site nestled in the limestone mountains of Haute-Soule and Barétous attracts nearly 100,000 tourists each year. Straddling the Béarn and the Basque Country , at the foot of the Massif de la Pierre-Saint-Martin , the Verna cave is the third largest natural cavity in the world. A visit is required!

The extraordinary adventure of underground exploration of the Verna.

From Oloron-Sainte-Marie , I take the road to Tardets, then to Licq-Atherey and Sainte-Engrace. The small winding road runs along the Gave de Sainte-Engrâce , revealing the majestic landscapes of the valley surrounded by wooded mountains. Indicated by signs, a large car park adjoins the reception desk of the site of Verna.

reception desk of la verna

The reception desk of the Verna site

In addition to the "Adventures" tours for speleologists, several sightseeing packages are offered: the "Discovery" visit of one hour, the "Exploration Rivière" visit of one hour and the "Exploration Sportive" visit of two hours. I opt for the latter which allows to leave the tourist facilities for an expedition in contact with the underground river in the room of the Verna. At this point, I still have no idea of the breathtaking adventure that awaits me!

caves of the verna visit

Pierre, speleologist and guide, briefs the group on the history of the discovery of the cavity

The story of the discovery of la Verna

The visit begins at the reception desk with a short film and a retrospective of the history of the exploration of the abysses of the Verna , intimately linked to the evolution of speleology techniques. It all started in 1950 with the discovery of the Lépineux chasm in the La Pierre Saint Martin massif, followed by its exploration in 1951 by a team of speleologists who was, at the time, the largest vertical descent ever made (300 meters).

During the explorations, the accidental death of the speleologist Marcel Loubens on August 13, 1952 marks the spirits. I later discover the commemorative plaque in his heart hearted Verna. The gigantic cavity was successfully reached on 13th August 1953 by the speleologists Georges Lépineux, Jimmy Théodor, Daniel Eppely, Michel Letrône and Georges Ballandraux. They are unaware that they have just discovered one of the largest natural underground chambers in the world .

In 1960, guided by their topographic surveys, EDF began work for more than 4 years to dig an access tunnel and capture the underground river that crosses the Verna. The hydropower project is quickly abandoned but the completed 663-meter tunnel is a boon for speleologists who continue to explore the underground network . It is also through the same tunnel that visitors today access the room of the Verna.

After this moving historical presentation and a captivating explanation of the topology of the site, our group embarks with Pierre, guide and experienced speleologist, in the minibus that leads to the site. It left for two hours of thrilling visit!

The visit of this high place of the speleology of scientific exploration

At the end of 30 minutes of climbing by minibus from the abyss of the Pierre Saint-Martin through the verdant forest, we arrive at the cabin Prebende, the starting point of the visit. Before entering the bowels of the earth, some precautions are necessary. Everyone is warmly dressed, well shod and equipped with a helmet with a headlamp .

helmet visit la verna

Helmets for a safe visit

Tunnel entrance La verna

The tunnel entrance

Pierre opens the door that gives access to the tunnel. An icy wind escapes from the tunnel in which we engulf ourselves. The temperature here does not exceed 5 degrees, whatever the time of the year. The adventure begin !

We travel about 660 meters of partially illuminated galleries with the sensation of sinking into the bowels of the Earth . The excitement is at the rendezvous ...

Gallery of La Verna

Galleries as far as the eye can see!

the cave verna

the cave verna

A grandiose site with outsized dimensions

At the end of this journey, we arrive at our destination. We extinguish our lamps and dive into total darkness . "Listen to the silence, and with my echo, evaluate the immensity of the place" launches the guide before uttering a cry that sounded through the room. In this deep black, we perceive the sound of groundwater infiltrating from the high limestone plateaus located at 2000m altitude.

Cave of the Verna

The Verna cave, spectacular

cave of the verna

On the bridge

cave of the verna

The cavity is breathtaking!

Highlight of the visit, Pierre then lights the lights. We discover the spectacular vault of the Verna with wonder. With a magical play of light , the dimensions make you dizzy: 255 meters long, 245 meters wide, 194 meters high, an area of 4.3 hectares, a volume of 3.6 million cubic meters! From the viewing platform, we contemplate this grand mineral universe . Models, placed all around the site, give an idea of the pharamnine scale of this collapse room with a near-perfect dome .

cave of the verna

Mannequins of human size arranged in the cave

cave of the verna

The commemorative plaque of Marcel Loubens

In some places, we stop to observe a remarkable fauna , unique in the world. By raising a stone, our guide invites us to discover small endemic beetles of the family Carabidae. These insects, blind and depigmented, have adapted to life in the dark over the millennia.

cave of the verna

cave of the verna

Wildlife observation

In the atmosphere of this magical place , exploration and climbing to the underground river takes two hours. Whatever the visit option you choose, this real adventure in the bowels of the earth is not to be missed under any circumstances during your stay in Béarn or in the Basque Country . A unique experience to live alone, with family (with children from 5 years) or friends!

Cave of the Verna

A unique experience of underground exploration

At the end of this memorable day, I go to the family restaurant-hotel "Etchemaïté" (Logis) in the village of Larrau , nearby. On the program: a delicious dinner with local flavors and a good night's rest to be in shape the next day and explore the Kakuetta Gorge.

restaurant Etchemaïté

restaurant Etchemaïté

The restaurant "Etchemaïté" serves local products

Learn more

  • Labeled Tourism and Handicap , the natural site of La Verna is accessible to visitors with reduced mobility . The minibus from the reception desk is also equipped for transportation.
  • It is strongly recommended to equip you with good walking shoes because the ground is slippery and you dress warmly to fully enjoy the visit.
  • The site of Verna is open all year . Book in advance during the summer season!
  • Discover the sheet of the cave of Verna on the Guide of Béarn

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Photos and Article written by Lesley Williamson for the Béarn-Pyrénées Guide

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