Our place is a hop, skip and a jump away from the Canyon and Grottes de Saulges, a site featuring caves where prehistoric paintings have been found. It is situated where the river Erve cuts a deep channel between limestone cliffs, and features a restaurant, a tourist information office, a gîte, a car park and a disused water mill (and a public toilet). You can take a guided tour of two of the caves including one where prehistoric pictures have been found. It is a pretty place, dramatic too with its vertical cliffs, and I often like to stroll down there, either as part of a longer walk or simply to have a coffee and shoot the breeze with Marie who runs the restaurant.
The picture below, courtesy of Google Earth, shows the general layout of the place. The most obvious feature is the car park to the centre-right. To the left of it, the largest roof that you can see is that of the Restaurant le Canyon, and diagonally up to the right is the small tourist office, followed by the larger gîte that has some cars parked outisde. Up from this group of buildings along the road a little is the red-tiled roof of the old and disused mill. You can see very little of the river; it is mostly obscured by trees, but you can see a small section of it to the left of the cross-roads in the middle of the picture.
The picture from above does not give you any sense of the vertical scale. The car park is some 25-30 metres above the level of the river, and the road, with its hairpin bend, between the car park and the restaurant and other buildings below, is steep.
Agrandir le plan
People come to the canyon for a variety of purposes. Tourists take
the guided tours of the caves (tickets on sale at the tourist office,
along with relevant books and souvenirs), and local families come to
pic-nic on the mowed areas, play football, or just stroll along the
river beneath the cliffs. The restaurant can take up to about 150
people indoors, so it hosts wedding receptions, baptism meals and large
family re-unions, as well as workmen during the week with the "menu du
jour". The old mill is used as a teaching centre for groups of
schoolchildren who arrive by bus. It's scruffy inside, but serves the
purpose. Climbers enjoy the cliffs for training and fun, and
interested people can pay for an initiation course during a Summer
afternoon. The gîte is used for parties, family holidays, and in Summer
it houses the archaeologists who come to work on painstaking
excavations and analysis of the contents of the caves.
However, there are plans afoot.
The Mayenne is dotted with museums covering different aspects of its history. There is the museum in the old castle at Mayenne town, showing its medaeval past. There is the collection of Roman ruins and artifcats, along with a museum at Jublains. There is the Centre for the Interpretation of Architecture and Heritage (CIAP) at Ste Suzanne (one of the "plus beaux villages de France", incidentally) With a site of the archaeological importance of the Canyon, where better to put a museum of prehistory? (For accuracy I should mention that the museum apparently will actually be described as a "maison de site" rather than a museum, but for ease of use of English I will use the word museum).
You will appreciate that there is no shortage of civil servants in
France, and with a site like this, where commercial, tourism, Natural
and historical interests coincide, quite a lot of local and regional
state organisations have an interest in what goes on. To give you an
idea, (if I remember correctly), when a tree that had become dangerous
had to be chopped down, some 15 signatures were required. Given that
all these interests need to be satisfied, compromises are likely to be
needed. So for, as I hear it, some ten years, local officials have been discussing how best to develop ('valoriser') this site.
The currently proposed project would involve various improvements to the site. A museum, clearly, but also a place for archaeologists to stay and work, with offices, an improvement to the wheelchair access to the site, a banning of cars from the area by the river, improved tourist information and better preservation of the heritage. The budget is about 1.3 million euros. To cut a long story short, where you and I might decide that the thing to do would be to renovate the scruffy and disused mill and put the museum in there, that is not the plan being proposed.
One of the constraints is that permission has not be granted to extend the mill, which means that it's too small to use as a museum. Moving on the the larger building that is the gîte, it has been decided that this will remain a gîte for the time being, I think with a view to perhaps later housing a site caretaker. That leaves the restaurant. At present the plan is to move the restaurant into the renovated mill, and put the maison de site in the current restaurant.
I'll just focus on the controversy surrounding the restaurant. Marie rents the building from one of the local authorities, and has spent 5 years or so building up the business from nearly moribund to thriving. Her rental contract doesn't expire for a few years. The planned new restaurant will barely have capacity for 50 customers, and Marie makes a lot of her profit from large groups that she would no longer be able to accept. The view that she expresses to me is that a restaurant of capacity 50 people is not commercially viable there, and that she will not be involved in it.
Personally I am wondering why the current form of the mill, a building that has been altered several times over the years, should be regarded as definitive, and why it cannot be tastefully extended. I am also wondering why, in these times of financial crisis, a successful business (one of very few successful restaurants in the area) should need to be destroyed. I am surprised by the lack of direct consultation undertaken with local people affected by the plans. I am amused by the fact that the (water) mill is viewed as being liable to flooding, or not, depending on who you ask.
The request for planning permission has been deposited, and rumour has it that one of the government bodies who has to approve it, will reject it on the grounds of the floodability of the mill. The local press is covering the project as if it were a done deal, and while the impression conveyed is one of near-unanimity, a little bird tells me that this is far from the case. I will keep you posted.