Dinant is a charming city, situated on the banks of the wide, fast flowing River Meuse. This ancient city is fortunate in having two caves to its credit. La Merveilleuse and Grottes de Mont-Fat, and although this article sets out primarily to describe these, I do not think that it would be out of place to mention a few words about the town itself. The city lies in a deep gorge, cut by the river, between towering grey limestone cliffs. The focal point must surely be the giant citadel, a large angular, military looking building standing high up on a rocky pinnacle, where it has an unimpeded view-over the rambling city and surrounding country-side. Dinant is an excellent tourist centre, being especially famed for its copperware, examples of which abound in most of the shops. When in Dinant one. must assuredly take a ride on the Telesiege (chair lift) where one rises from ground level to 360 ft. in a very few seconds to alight on the top of the cliff. From here one can walk along to the Citadel, past the French War Cemetery, or climb the tower of Mont-Fat, to experience a breath taking panoramic view of the town and surrounding countryside spread out below. For those of a less energetic disposition, it is possible, to sit quietly and take a little refreshment in the pleasure gardens. It is then possible to combine your descent with a visit to the famous Grottes de Mont-Fat.
On a hot summer's day, wandering down through the woods from the top of the cliffs, one suddenly feels a cool blast of air, which comes from a small iron door, the visitors' entrance to the caves.
Here, at this cave, you will find that the guide, and in fact all concerned with the grotto's administration, are most helpful. The guide speaks French, Flemish and a little English, and is more than willing to make your visit a success. The cave lies beneath a famous tourist centre and in 1833 was visited by King Leopold and Queen Louis Marie d'Orleans. Excavations in the cave in 1829 revealed the remains of eighteen glacial mammals, including lynx, hyena, bear and rhinoceros.
After the small door has been unlocked, one passes through into a large chamber, The Hall of Diana, for these caves are dedicated to the worship of this goddess. The chamber is about 50ft. long, 30ft. wide and 30ft. high, and part of the roof is open to the sky. This large, tree-shaded cavity was probably the original entrance to the caves, but today is only the means of access for the colonies of bats which make these grottoes their winter habitat. This cave, although it is not large, is possibly unique, as it was formed by the River Meuse, which now flows placidly some 50ft. below. Glancing round The Hall of Diana, one notices a small statuette of the Madonna, fixed high up on one of the walls. This was placed there after the last world war by the Americans in memory of the time when the cave was used as a giant air-raid shelter and when seven hundred of the town's inhabitants were forced to remain there for three days. Through the ages this cave has been used as part of the town's fortifications, and, not surprisingly, there is reputed to be a connecting passage linking the caves and the Citadel above. Indeed, in one corner there is a well worn flight of stairs, leading towards the roof. These were cut in the year 50 BC by the Romans, when they were in occupation.
The inhabitants of this cave, have been many and various. During the last war the cave was occupied, for a time, by the Germans, and it was then that two escaping French prisoners hid in one of the further recesses for eight days, after three of their comrades had been caught and bayoneted to death.
Wandering on past the Hall of Diana, one comes to the Hall of Beetroots! (We were unable to determine the reason for this name, but our guide assured us that it had carried this title for many decades). Excavations carried out in this chamber revealed the remains of prehistoric man, and his pottery.
Unfortunately the formations in this cave are now dead, and covered with the dust of ages. Nevertheless, thousands of years ago the cave must have been very beautiful, and undeterred by the covering of grime the formations still have their names, typical of those the world over. Passing on through the Hall of Beetroots, and glancing up-wards and backwards a likeness of a Tabernacle in a church is revealed and passing on through the narrow winding passages one comes across the Head of an Indian, the Statue of the Madonna, and the Mouth of a Crocodile.
The lighting in this cave, partially provided by electricity and partially by the guide who carries a hand lamp, casts a ghastly blue hue over every-thing, and at first one may be mislead into thinking that the walls are covered with a peculiar type of moss. However, examination in the light of an ordinary electric torch will soon show that this is not so and that it is only the reflection from the damp walls creating this illusion. The only form of plant life would appear to be an area of black moss covering the walls in one part of the cave.
After turning a final corner one finds one self back in the Hall of Diana, though on the opposite side of the chamber from which one began the trip, and it is interesting to note that unconsciously one has completed a circular tour of the cave.
A visit to this cave, especially on a summer's day, will provide both an interesting and relaxing twenty minutes' entertainment.
The cave in Dinant which creates most publicity, is the Grotte La Merveilleuse, which is situated on the opposite side of the river from the Grottes de Mont-Fat. It is reached by following the numerous signs along the road to Philippeville, when the surface buildings, car park which give sample facilities for visitors' parking, and gardens will be seen set back from the road, only a quarter of a mile from the River Meuse.
The cave was discovered in 1904 by workmen making a road. They uncovered a small gallery, and reported their find to the owners of the land, who decided to make an exploratory trip. In the course of a few hours they discovered the whole of the cave which is on show today. Realising the tourist potentialities of their discovery they fitted electric lights and gradually installed the amenities which allow the general public to pass through the cave in great comfort today. The cave now contains crazy paving and concrete paths throughout which are washed down daily so that there is no fear of slipping on any mud. Adequate steps and hand rails are also provided, the latter, although made of reinforced concrete, have been cunningly disguised as wooden tree branches.
The cave has two entrances, and the party descends at an upper level, after a short walk through the woods. There are two guides for each party, one who goes at the front, and is responsible for the high speed commentary and the other who stays at the back to keep the party together. The cave throughout is not well lit, possible to give an air of mystery but one gets an impression of almost hospital-like sterility, everything is so clean. Even the stalactites themselves are sparkling in pristine splendor, at least the parts which are visible are, although someone forgot that those with keen eyes may notice that the backs are still covered with brown mud. A unique feature of this cave, which must be mentioned, is the way in which the owners have seen fit to improve on the master pieces of nature. Straw "gardens," where these formations grow not only downwards, but also upwards, and rock pools, lined with concrete and sprouting natural formations, in crystal clear water. The climax of the trip takes place as you are stumbling down a passage, atrociously lit with dull red bulbs, presumably so that you do not notice the shot holes which indicates its artificial origin, when the lights are turned out completely.
The cave does contain one formation of note, and this is the unique Oblique Stalactite, which through some quirk of nature has turned from its normal downward course and taken a slight turn from the perpendicular.
At one point it is possible to look down a shaft to a small stream at the third and lowest level of the cave. This stream, which originally formed the cave often floods in winter and records show that it rises as much as 60ft. to 70ft., filling the whole of the lower series. This cave is an example of commercialisation at its best, and assuming you can understand colloquial French, which is all the guides appear to speak, then you should have a good time, although you could very well take all they say with a pinch of salt as they are true masters in the art of exaggeration. A trip around the cave takes about one hour, which is surprising as when you return to the surface, through the lower entrance, into the giftshop, you are inclined to wonder what could possible have made so much time go so quickly. You will probably be left with a sense of anti-climax, for this cave lacks the certain something which distinguishes an exceptional show cave from all the rest.
Reprinted from The Speleologist, Vol 2 No 15 Spring 1968 pp 21-22 by kind permission of the author.