The Historic Grottoes of Folx-les-Caves: Ancient Hideout and Traveler Waypoint
The mysterious man-made caves in Belgium burrow thousands of feet into the soft rock south of Brussels. Said to have been carved out in during the Neolithic, all sorts of people have frequented the caves, from fleeing refugees to cunning criminals.
The grottoes of Folx-les-Caves are located in the municipality of Orp-Jauche in the province of Walloon Brabant. In the distant past, the grottoes were used as mines. One of the rocks found there was tuff, a type of soft volcanic rock which is rich in calcium carbonate. These were mined for use by farmers as fertilizer. Later on, the harder limestone found deeper in the caves were mined for local building projects.
It is unclear when humans first mined the grottoes. Some have speculated that they were in use since Neolithic times, i.e. around 2600 B.C., and that aurochs horns were used as mining tools. This is perhaps due to the fact that traces of mining activity dating to the Neolithic have been found in Spiennes in the province of Hainaut, situated to the west of Folx-les-Caves. Unlike the lesser known grottoes, Spiennes is a World Heritage Site, as its flint mines are the largest and earliest concentration of ancient mines in north-west Europe.
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Aurochs skull and horns. The horns of the large beasts were said to be used by Neolithic miners to carve out the Folx-Les Caves in Belgium. Wikimedia Commons
It has also been theorized that the grottoes of Folx-le-Caves were first dug some time during the late Roman period, or early Medieval period. Although little is known about its origins, the subsequent history of the grottoes is better known and contains some pretty fascinating stories.
The mines are a labyrinth of about 60,000 square meters (approximately 650,000 square feet) as a result of centuries of mining. This made it a perfect hiding place for refugees seeking to escape those who occupied Belgium over the centuries. It has been suggested that the mines have been used by refugees as early as the Roman period all the way to the Second World War. Yet, curiously, apart from carvings on stone and graffiti of the cave walls, no objects have been left behind by such refugees in the grottoes, according to research.
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Apart from being an alleged safe haven in times of trouble, the grottoes were used at times as a garage for farming vehicles, a place for the cultivation of mushrooms (since 1886) and a distillery (1862). The grottoes’ moist and dark surroundings are ideal for the growth of mushrooms, while the natural springs running in the lower caves provide pure water for the distillery.
The most famous tale relating to the grottoes of Folx-les-Caves is that of Pierre Colon, who lived some time during the 18 th century. Colon was a thief dubbed the ‘Belgian Robin Hood’, as he, like his English counterpart, stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Colon was said to rob rich merchants passing through a forest nearby, and his hideout was the grottoes of Folx-les-Caves. According to legend his accomplice was his wife, who would warn Colon whenever the police approached, so that he could hide in another part of the grottoes. Eventually, it’s said the law caught up with the benevolent thief, and he was hanged to death on the spot where he committed his crimes. Today, the first weekend of October is celebrated annually as Colon Day, in honor of the generosity and ingenuity of Pierre Colon.
Statue dedicated to the Robin Hood of Belgium, Pierre Colon, at the Grottoes of Folx-les-Caves . Wikimedia Commons
The grottoes of Folx-le-Caves eventually became a tourist spot, and were opened to the public. Following the death of its proprietor and guide, Maurice Racourt, the grottoes were closed. In the middle of 2010, the grottoes of Folx-le-Caves were reopened to the public.
The grottoes of Folx-le-Caves remain an interesting part of Belgium’s ancient, and more recent past.
Featured image: Inside the grottoes of Folx-les-Caves. Wikimedia Commons
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Available at: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-grottoes-of-folx-les-caves
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Available at: https://belgium.knoji.com/travel-belgium-grottoes-folxlescaves/
UNESCO, 2015. Neolithic Flint Mines at Spiennes (Mons). [Online]
Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1006
Wallonie-Bruxelles Tourisme, 2015. Grottoes of Folx-les-Caves. [Online]