Grottes des Echelles

The Ladder Caves - Grottes de Saint-Christophe


Useful Information

Location: Saint Christophe La Grotte, Chartreuse, north of Grenoble.
(45.452132, 5.791830)
Open: Whitsunday Weekend to JUN Wed-Fri 13-18, tours 13, 15, 16:30, Sat, Sun 11-16:30, tours 11:30, 13, 15, 16:30.
JUL to AUG daily 10:30-18, tours on demand.
SEP to NOV Wed-Fri 13-18, tours 13, 15, 16:30, Sat, Sun 11-16:30, tours 11:30, 13, 15, 16:30.
Cave Trekking tour: online reservation at Cordeo.
Acrospeleo: online reservation at Cordeo.
[2021]
Fee: Adults EUR 9, Children (5-14) EUR 6, Children (0-4) free, Students EUR 7, Unemploed EUR 7.
Groups (15+): Adults EUR 7, Children (5-14) EUR 4.50, reservation required.
Cave Trekking tour: Adults EUR 40, Children (6-14) EUR 35.
Acrospeleo: Adults EUR 47.
[2021]
Classification: SpeleologyKarst cave
Light: electric.
Dimension: La grotte supérieure: L=1,377m, T=9°C.
La grotte inférieure: L=215m, VR=34m.
Guided tours: D=90min.
Cave Trekking tour: D=2h, MinAge=6.
Acrospeleology: D=2-4h, Min=4, Max=8, MinAge=12.
La grotte supérieure: L=200m.
La grotte inférieure: L=215m.
V=17,000/a [2012]
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no
Bibliography: R. J. Fone (1903): Les grottes des Echelles, Spélunca bulletin et mémoires de la socièté de spéléologie tome V n°34 (aout 1903), 52 pages, Rennes.
Address: Historic Site of the Caves of Saint-Christophe, 3796 Route de Chambéry, Route Départementale 10006, 73360 Saint-Christophe-la-Grotte, Tel: +33-479-65-75-08. E-mail:
Cordeo, ZAC Bouchayer-Viallet, 22, rue Victor Lastella, 38000 Grenoble, Tel: +33-476-26-53-64, Cell: +33-685-76-48-02. E-mail:
Tourist Office, Les Echelles, Tel: +33-479-365624, Fax: +33-479-365312.
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.

History

Roman road built.
1667-1670 the Sardinian Way constructed.
1820 Napoleon ordered the tunnel to be built.
1877 a delegation of the Club Alpin Français de Chambéry recognizes the touristic value of the caves.
1884 la société anonyme des grottes des Echelles created.
1885 caves developed by the Club Alpin Français.
1886 opened to the public.
1898 caves leased by nearby Hotel Durand.
1923 managed by the Syndicat Mixte des Echelles.
1995 show cave closed.
1996 Anim' Grotte association created to manage the caves, the Tunnel Inn and the Sardinian Way.
29-JUN-2002 Grotte du Grand Goulet reopened to the public.
2004 management of caves by the municipality of St Christophe la Grotte..

Description

Here, close to the small village Saint Christophe La Grotte, which has less than 500 inhabitants, is a quite special place. There is an escarpment, a limestone ridge, which is part of the southern outskirts of the Alps, called the Chartreuse massif. A narrow gorge cutting through this escarpment, allows a natural way to cross it. The gorge and the caves developed in the Lower Cretaceous limestone, which is called Urgonian in France.

The first who used this special location were the Romans, who built their road, the major route between Chambéry and Lyon, through the gorge. Today the Roman road is only a minor road, little more than a comfortable footpath, but still some Roman remains are left, like the impressive Saint Martin's Bridge. Between 1667 and 1670 the Dukes of Savoy converted the already ruined Roman road into a royal road fit for carriages. A monumental, 400m long dressed stone ramp was built. Also the Charles Emmanuel II Monument was erected in 1674, to commemorate the man behind the Sardinian Way project. The 20m high monument is listed in the national register of Historical Monuments. According to the cave guides the monument was more expensive than the construction of the road. The Voie Sarde (Sardinian Way) was now used for two centuries. It got the name Voie Sarde later, after the Dukes of Savoy had become sovereigns of the Kingdom of Sardinia in 1720. The road had become the connection between the Kingdom of Sardinia and France. Famous travellers have used it, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Pope Pius VII when he came to France in 1804 to consecrate Napoleon I as emperor. And Napoleon was actually responsible, that the Sardinian Way was abandoned. In 1804 he found the road too arduous, and ordered a tunnel to be built. This tunnel is called the tunnel des Échelles and was started in 1806 and completed in 1820. Today the road D1006 crosses the ridge through this tunnel, the Sardinian Way is used as a walking trail.

The caves were known for a long time, probably even the Romans ventured into one or both, when they travelled on this road. However, there is no way to know, since there are no written accounts and no archaeological remains in the caves. There are two caves, together the caves are called Grottes des Échelles after the next city Les Échelles. They are also called Grottes de Saint-Christophe after the nearby village Saint-Christophe. They were developed in the 19th century, to provide a tourist destination for the people bathing at la Bauche les Bains. The iron laden thermal water was used to cure various illnesses, especially blood related diseases. The caves were owned at this time by the Périnel family, who created a company for the developments of the caves in 1884 and stared to sell stocks. One year later the development started and in 1886 the caves were opened to the public.

The caves were then operated as show caves for more than a century. They were managed by various institutions, but finally in 1995 the trails were in a bad shape. The caves were still guided with carbide lamps, which caused a lot of work. As a result it was not possible to find a new lessee or an investor. So the caves were closed to the public, and it was not possible to enter them any more. In 1996 an association with the name Anim'Grotte was created to manage the Sardinian Way site, a part of the Parc Naturel Régional de Chartreuse (Regional Nature Park of the Chartreuse). The collaborated with the related institutions and obviously were funded somehow. So they modernized the caves with new trails and electric light and reopened them in 2002. Since then there is a small museum, a restaurant, modern toilets, and hourly guided tours. Tourist reception and ticket sales are located in the Auberge des Grottes (Cave Inn), an old road-mender's house dating back to when the tunnel was built. The Anim'Grotte has since been dissolved and its former web domain is now re-used by an anonymous operator who promotes show caves all over the world.

Make sure to buy your ticket 15 minutes before the tour starts, its 100m walk down the gorge to the cave entrance where the tour starts. The Grotte Supérieure (Upper Cave) is noted for various impressive speleothems in the salle du Dome. The entrance part has impressive dolly tubs and other erosional forms from the cave river. The Romans had problems with the water from the cave. The cave was normally dry during summer, but at snow melt and during heavy rains it was reactivated, at least two or three times a year, and a massive river was flowing out of the resurgence. Those floods threatened the road, so a channel was built by the Romans, to allow the water to flow without harming the road.

Grotte du Grand Goulet (Great Gully Cave) is also called Grotte Inférieure (Lower Cave). The cave is a through cave and is entered from the upper end, the cave crosses the mountain ridge to the other side. The lower entrance is a huge portal in the middle of the escarpment, with a great view to Saint Christophe La Grotte. Located in the middle of the cliff face, the entrance is quite high but narrow, and looks like a cleft. Here the path is built at the vertical wall, 20m above the floor of the cave. A path along the cliff face and down a spiral staircase leads to the lower end of the Sardinian Way, where the monument is located. From here its a 400m walk uphill back to the parking lot. The water from the upper cave, flowing through the Roman channel, once entered the lower cave. So the dolly tubs inside were reactivated and the water reappeared at the huge entrance portal in the cliff. The Sardinian Way was constructed across the channel and blocks it now, so the water now flows down the road and makes tours impossible. It also cut off the lower cave from the water, and as a result its galleries are not reactivated any more.

At the caves two different cave trekking tours are offered. On is normal caving without technical difficulties. The other is a sort of via ferrata inside the cave and requires a lot of climbing. Its called Acrospeleo, probably because it is for acrobats. The equipment is provided, but you should bring clothes to change, a towel, a plastic bag for dirty clothes and gloves. The cave trekking tours are organized by Cordeo, get more info on their website, which also allows online booking.

There is an legend, that Mandrin, the famous Dauphiné smuggler, used one of the caves as a hideout. Louis Mandrin (11-FEB-1725 to 26-MAY-1755) is a famous French smuggler. After his death the legend of the vigilante bandit who fought against the inequity of the taxes of the Ancien Régime was told. It became well known by a song named Complainte de Mandrin from an unknown author. It was actually a new text for a traditional tune, and so anyone was able to sing it. However, the legend was a political statement and is not accurate, he was no French Robbin Hood, just a smuggler, which is not even mentioned in the song.