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!
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.
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!
Pierre, speleologist and guide, briefs the group on the history of the discovery of the cavity
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!
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 .
Helmets for a safe visit
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 ...
Galleries as far as the eye can see!
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.
The Verna cave, spectacular
On the bridge
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 .
Mannequins of human size arranged in the cave
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.
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!
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.
The restaurant "Etchemaïté" serves local products
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Photos and Article written by Lesley Williamson for the Béarn-Pyrénées Guide