Not too long ago my mother came to visit me in Switzerland, where we proceeded to do every family-friendly outing in the book (and let me tell you, there are a lot… This is Switzerland, after all!). After several days of vineyard walks, boating on Lake Geneva, and farmer’s markets, I was a little weary of the crowds and suggested we go somewhere a bit off the proverbial beaten path. To me, this meant venturing into the countryside to visit the Grottes de Vallorbe, or Vallorbe Caves. Discovered in 1961 and made public in 1974, the caves house the largest underground river in Central Europe.
After an hour of traveling through dead sunflower fields, cat farms, and numerous gnome-laden yards, I was beginning to wonder if I’d made a horrible, horrible mistake. As much as I enjoyed the scenery, we were here to see the biggest caves in the Jura region. Instead we were greeted with something more like this:
Another half hour though a trout farm and series of hesitant turns, we finally stumbled upon the caves – glorious caves. The whole Jura mountain region is rich in natural phenomena conducive to grottoes, powdery soil, and forbidding chasms. Wrinkled laminated visitor guides in hand, we headed inside about 80 meters through an artificial tunnel before entering the real caves. The numbing, 10 degree celsius air settled into my bones immediately, as my eyes adjusted to the dim surroundings.
The caves feature an impressive array of massive stalagmites, fistulas and spiral formations cheekily referred to as “fairy hair” (yeah, I don’t buy it either). Visitors are immersed in darkness, and with the press of a button a curated set of lights illuminate each gallery akin to a light show. A little put off by the cheesiness at first, my skepticism was soon overcome by sheer amazement at the formations, thousands of years old. Moving along room to room, I had no other word to say but the ever articulate, “Cooooool”.
You say bison, I say long lost head from The Yellow Submarine.
Moving along the winding steel beams of the caves, the lights would turn off periodically until you moved to the next button. It was then, completely blanketed in icy darkness and hearing nothing but dripping pools and the distant growl of the river ahead, that I truly felt the terrifying reality of what it means to be in a sprawling, incomprehensible cave.
The cave’s pièce de résistance is the Hall of the Cathedral, where we were surrounded by the gushing Orbe River below our feet and a cavern that is quite literally the height of a cathedral above. The visitor’s tour only covers a small fraction of the cave, which is still being researched and explored to this day. As seen on a map towards the end of the tour, many parts of the cave are dotted with elusive question marks.
Emerging out of the caves, or what felt like a giant meat locker, we decided we haven’t had enough and hiked into the forest to the Fairy Caves about 20 minutes away. Fairy theme be damned, the caves are free and accessible (perhaps too much so) by foot up a short but steep mountain path. Though much smaller and with less fanfare than Vallorbe, the caves have no lights or set paths so people can wander in as far as they’d like. The cave goes very far back and, unarmed with a flashlight or uh, machete, we decided to head back out.
All in all a very fruitful day. Caves 1, Farmer’s Market 0.
Read the full Atlas post on Grottes de Vallorbe here.