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If you are of the mind “seen one cave, seen them all” you might be persuaded to think otherwise after visiting Les Grandes Canalettes, a network of caves near the medieval town of Villefranche de Conflents near the Pyrenees.

These caves form part of 3 cave sites known as 3 grottes.  The Grottes de Canalettes was opened in 1954 by the Castillo family. In 2003 it merged with the Grandes Canalettes that were opened in 1984 by the Delonca family.  Now, the Cova Bastera owned by Bernard Castillo has joined the other two caves creating a unit out of these three different and complementary caves which is unique in Europe.

Les Grandes Canalettes

A self-guided tour of the 1 km trail is quite different from most grottes,  not least because the caves are, well…..cavernous.

There is a defined trail taking you through a series of caves that are spacious in both width and height and manageable, even for those who usually fear confined spaces.  Little chance of banging your head here or having to squeeze through confined dark spaces!

The steps leading to each cave are purpose built iron steps rather than fashioned from the rock itself and are therefore easier to negotiate.  Each level is never more than around a dozen steps at a time.  The placing of platforms and seating along the route make it possible for those less agile or of a less robust constitution to manage at their own pace and to rest and enjoy the splendour of the caves.

Each cave with its stalagmites and stalactites has been given a name according to how the calcifications appear.  For example there is one named after La Sagrada Familia Basilica, after the famous architect Antonio Gaudi in Barcelona. Those who have visited or who are aware of this famous Basilica, will recognize the resemblance of the shapes and formations made by the stalactites and stalagmites to Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece.

At one point you are confronted by a lake, which on first appearance looking down from one of the platforms, could simply be continuation of the stalagmites and stalactites until you realise it is only a reflection in the still and shallow water.  Under the water are calcifications referred to as ‘cauliflowers’ as they do indeed resemble a mass cauliflower growth beneath the illuminated water.

This and all the other caves are effectively lit by strategically placed coloured lighting that fades and luminates to enhance the view of the differing shapes and sizes of the calcifications that have formed over 395 million years.  Add to that the sound of dripping water and atmospheric music including a rendering of Ave Maria and the experience is hauntingly beautiful.

There are son et lumiere productions at various times of the year so do check out directly with the website for further details including prices.

It may have helped that at the time of our visit (early June) we had the caves to ourselves but I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying the caves as if this was my first experience of such phenomenon. If you fancy visiting, there is a wide range of rental accommodation in the area.