All visitors get to see the largest caveroom in a showcave in the world. There are 7 different types of visits, from very easy to very sporty and adventurous.
La Verna Cave
an exceptional geological site open to all visitors…
Location: south-west of France, Atlantic Pyrenees,
in the valley of Sainte-Engrâce (64560)
Centre d’Accueil Arrakotchepia
09 75 17 75 66 / 06 37 88 29 05
Dimensions beyond imagination
La Verna cave room has a diameter of 250 meters, a height of 194 meters, a surface-area of 4,3 hectares and a volume of 3.6 million cubic meters. This makes it the biggest cavity open to the public in the world.
In 2003 a standard 4 person hot-air balloon was flown in La Verna.
60 years ago … the discovery of an extraordinary site
Discovered on the 13th of August, 1953 by the cavers Théodor, Lépineux, Eppely, Letrône and Ballandreaux, the la Verna cave is part of the huge underground cave-system of la Pierre Saint-Martin. The exploration of this system continues to this day. So far a total of 439 kilometers of underground galleries has been mapped.
Besides its incredible dimensions, the cave offers an insight into the geological history of the area. Three terrains can be distinguished: the shale and limestone of the Paleozoic era (350 million years old) and the limestone of the Mesozoic era (80 million years old). The Hercynian discordance, clearly visible in la Verna, facilitates the understanding of the formation of the cave-room and the flow of the underground rivers. The water finds its way from the infiltration zones on the high limestone plateaus, at an altitude of 2000 meters, to the resurgences 1500 meters further down, in the valley of Saint-Engrâce.
A remarkable fauna
In this mineral world lives a unique community of animals, adapted to the dark depths of the karst. They are small invertebrates, blind, and without pigmentation. The two most common species observed in La Verna are the Aphaenops loubensi and Aphaenops cabidochei. In order to survive, these insects need an atmosphere saturated with humidity. After fecundation, the female lays a single egg, out of which a small larva hatches. Contrary to insects on the surface, this larva immediately metamorphoses to an adult, without feeding. The biologist Michel Cabidoche studied these animals in the 60’s. Since the opening of la Verna to visitors, in 2010, a team of researchers of the French national museum of natural history, under the leadership of Professor Arnaud Faille, closely follows their evolution.
· 1950-51 : discovery and exploration of the 320 meters deep chasm Lépineux, in the massif of La Pierre Saint Martin (at the time the deepest cave-pit ever descended).
· 13 august 1952 : death of caver Marcel Loubens during the explorations.
· 13 august 1953 : Georges Lépineux, Jimmy Théodor, Daniel Eppely, Michel Letrône and Georges Ballandraux, divided into two groups, discover cave-room La Verna. One group opens the way, the other follows, doing the topographical survey. They join in La Verna, where they inscribe their names. They had found what was at the time -and remained for many years- the world’s largest underground volume. They had also set a depth-record.
· 1956-60 :the French National Electricity Company (EDF) decides to construct a tunnel. The plan is to capture the underground river that runs through La Verna for the production of electricity. It takes 4 years to dig the tunnel. For technical reasons the project is abandoned. The tunnel provides a great shortcut for cavers, who continue their explorations.
· 2000 : a private company, the SHEM (Société Hydroélectrique du Midi) re-launches the hydro-electric power project.
· January 2006 : work begins. An access-road is constructed and the tunnel is restored. A dam is build across the river where it enters la Verna, creating a small reservoir of 200 m3. Cliffs separate the dam and the tunnel. A bridge spanning the gap needs to be build. More than 3 km’s of pressure pipe are led across the bridge, out through the tunnel, down to the bottom of the valley, where a hydro-electric power-plant is built. The project is innovating and totally integrated into the landscape. Tight cooperation between the SHEM and the local authorities has led to the opening of la Verna to the public.
· 1st July 2010 :La Verna opens to the public.
A federal and united project which associates:
- 3 communes (Sainte-Engrâce, Arette and Aramits) represented by the SIVU La Verna
- The French Federation of Caving, represented by the committee of the Atlantic Pyrenees
- The ARSIP (International Caving Association for Research at the Pierre Saint-Martin)
- The SHEM (Société Hydro-électrique du Midi) subsidiary of the GDF-SUEZ group
- The ONF, the Agence Publique de Gestion Locale and Euskal Concept Bâtiment (project management)
Supported by :
- the European Union
- the French State
- the Regional Council of Aquitaine
- the General Council of the Atlantic Pyrenees
La VERNA, VISITS FOR EVERBODY
· Individuals, schools, groups, seminars…
· A site certified Tourism and Handicap
The one-hour visits are open to everybody, including people with a handicap. La Verna is one of the rare caves where this is the case. The 660 m long access-tunnel and the platforms are adapted to wheelchairs, as is one of the vehicles.
ALL OUR GUIDES ARE PASSIONATE CAVERS.
In 2010, out of 128 candidates, the site won first prize for its accessibility, in the category « Tourism and Handicap ».
For more information : www.trophees-accessibilite.fr
· Discoverers, Explorers or Adventurers :
All visits start at the visitor center in Sainte-Engrâce. Two ways of reaching the cave’s entrance, at 1050 m altitude, are proposed :
· By foot: a hike in the traces of the pioneers, along the track through the ravine Arpidia. Count about 2 hours to get there and 1h30 for the return.
· By shuttle : a minibus transports visitors directly to the cave-entrance. This takes 25 minutes each way.
« La Verna Discovery – 2 hours »
The visitor enters la Verna on foot, through a 660 m long access tunnel. The cave room is progressively lit up, showing its astounding natural dome. At first, the size of it is difficult to seize. Geological and biological curiosities are explained. The visitors stay within the secure, fenced part of the cave.
This visit is open to people with a reduced mobility.
Minimum age : 5 years
«La Verna River Exploration – 2½ hours»
After visiting the platforms, you climb a long staircase winding along ledges and through rockfalls. This leads to the top of the waterfall, where the Saint-Vincent river enters the big cave room. It is here that the explorers took their first steps into the cave room in 1953. The view is spectacular and excellent for a better understanding of the geology and formation of the site. There’s a small dam built by the SHEM, filled with chrystal-clear water.
Minimum age : 7 years
« La Verna Exploration – 3 hours »
This visit permits an exploration of the cave room beyond the fenced area. Visitor’s either hike to the floor of La Verna cave room and the bottom of the waterfall, or up-river from the dam. The choice depends on the amount of water in the river and everybody’s capacities and wishes. You must bring non-slippery foot-wear with a good support of the ankles (hikingboots, some rubberboots and even certain sneakers are fine).
Minimum age : 10 years
Certified Caving Guide
« La Verna Adventure » (sporty visits – initiations to caving)
Chevalier cave room(4h)
You go upriver from La Verna, past the dam of the hydro-electric power plant. A huge natural gallery, sometimes blocked by massive rocks, is followed, leading you to another enormous cave room: Chevalier cave room. The terrain is savage and there are no paths. Hiking boots or solid rubber boots are required.
Minimum age : 12 years
Degree of difficulty : intermediate
Adélie cave room (6h)
You go upriver from La Verna, past the dam of the hydro-electric power plant. A huge natural gallery, sometimes blocked by massive rocks, is followed. Chevalier cave room is traversed after which an sporty low passage along the river leads to another cave room: Adélie.
Minimum : 12 years
Degree of difficulty : intermediate
Aranzadi Gallery (6h)
After crossing La Verna, an 80 meter climb takes you to a spectacular hanging gallery. The climb is secured by a fixed rope. All technical details are explained by the guide. Strong emotions guaranteed! An exploration of the gallery leads to some extraordinary underground landscapes and beautiful concretions.
Minimum recommended age : 14 years
Degree of difficulty : sporty – experience not required
The big cave rooms (1 day- 9 hours)
A journey to the center of the earth- in the traces of the first explorers.
Minimum recommended age : 16 years
Degree of difficulty : tough – some caving experience and a good physical condition required
On special demand : the traverse of La Pierre Saint Martin.
Early in the morning we take you to the top of the high limestone plateau with our Land rover. Here you descend one of the many pits. Deep down the river is found, which is followed all the way to La Verna. The traverse is very tough and requires special training that we provide. A once in a lifetime experience.
Practical information :
For all visits, the necessary equipment is provided.
Discovery and Exploration visits : helmet
You must bring: warm clothing (all year temperature 6°celsius), closed shoes for the 2h and 2½ h
visits, hiking boots for the 3 h visit
Adventure visits : helmet with light, harness, jumars, caving suit
You must bring : plastic gloves, warm, supple clothes, beanie, hiking boots, or strong rubber boots, something to eat and drink in a small day-pack for the 6 and 9 hour visits.
Information et Réservation :
SAS La Verna
Espace Arrakotxepia - 64560 Sainte-Engrâce
Handy : 06.37.88.29.05