The best caves in the Dordogne
Of all the regions in France, each has its own unique allure: endless beaches, majestic châteaux, historic cities, undulating vineyards, wild rugged carrigue. The choice is vast
The Dordogne alone has a veritable chocolate box of temptations for the holiday maker of all ages and interests. There’s an endless parade of stunning vistas, mellow ancient stone buildings, effusive cascades of bright geraniums spilling over from terracotta pots; not to mention endless gastronomic treats of confit de canard, Bergerac wines, walnuts and truffles.
But there’s more still. You can simply go underground and experience another world: an older world reflecting a life that was simpler and, possibly, more dangerous.
This might beg the question, when there is so much outstanding beauty to savour above ground, why head underground into the dark caves?
Light in the darkness
The answer is simple. Many of the caves house artistic creations that shine a light on our ancestors’ life some 15,000 years ago and the connection it provides, as you stand in the exact spot where they stood, is utterly breath taking.
Some caves are famous more for their rock formations – the stalactites and stalagmites formed by water over millennia. This is a natural art, rather than man-made.
There are many caves to choose from. The Vézère valley alone has no less than 15, notably Rouffignac and Lascaux, both holding UNESCO World Heritage status. And when there’s a downpour, as there occasionally is in the Dordogne, it’s the perfect moment to head underground.
Here’s a selection of some our highlights.
Lascaux II Arguably the Big Daddy of all prehistoric caves, the original cave near Les Eyzies was famously discovered by boys in 1940 and quickly became a victim of its own fame. The tourists who visited to gawp at the fabulous artworks brought with them a change in the interior atmosphere, with condensation causing algae and damaging moistness.
The replica Lascaux II was opened in 1983, twenty years after the original had been closed to visitors. The Hall of Bulls chamber is perhaps the most iconic, with four large black bulls, the largest being 5 metres long. This is the largest animal cave painting in the world.
In 2016, Lascaux IV opened its doors to the public. A 21st century take on the prehistoric caves, the space has been reimagined with innovative and interactive displays including a virtual reality experience of the new replica, painstakingly recreated by a group of fine artists, historians and engineers.
Grotte de Font-de-Gaume With artwork dating from about 17,000 BC, this is the last remaining cave with pigmented paintings that is still open to the public (albeit in small groups). Space is both restricted and restrictive with narrow passageways to be navigated in order to view the delicate renderings, in particular those depicting reindeer in their surrounding habitat. The paintings display a keen understanding of animal physionomy and a delicate artistic touch.
Gouffre de Padirac Further east near Rocamadour, this is a huge system with a 75 metre descent in to a chasm with an eerie boat trip through deep caverns. Today it is one of the most visited underground sites in the world.
Abri de Cap Blanc Located between Les Eyzies and Sarlat, this is a notable cave for its artwork, the principal attraction being the image of a young woman standing in front of a horse; some experts believe she was the artist who created this magnificent creation. The main frieze is a hefty 13m long with carvings of bison, horses and deer, with one image of a horse being over 2 metres long. This is a sizeable piece of art.
Gouffre de Proumeyssac This a dramatic series of rock formations with huge stalactites in a cathedral-like chamber. Once used as a local depository for rubbish, and dead bodies, it had a fearsome reputation as a gateway to Hell but is today a stunningly beautiful sequence of caverns, tunnels and a musical light show which brings it to life.
La Roque Saint Christophe
This is a troglodyte settlement, located on a tranquil section of the river Vézère. It sheltered Neanderthals (50,000 BC) and Cro-Magnon man and was in use right up to the Renaissance.
Terraces run along the face of the soft limestone cliffs for over half a mile, with hollowed out caves behind, burrowing into the earth. There are five separate terraces, with caves being used for tethering animals, as well as being the basis for defensive structures and houses. There is a staircase hewn from the rock face and leading up to the highest terrace where important defensive structures and machines were housed.
Grotte de Rouffignac
Once defaced by 19thcentury graffiti, the 8 km labyrinth is dominated by the Great Ceiling. It was painted by primitive, but highly skilled, artists who crawled into the depths and painted while lying on their backs, in doing so creating the world’s first art gallery.
The cave floor has been lowered to allow a little underground electric train to trundle visitors past images of woolly mammoths, horses, bison and even a rhino. All are engraved into the soft walls or daubed in incredible detail around 12,000 years ago.
Mammoths are in abundance, with engravings and line drawings – giving rise to the nickname ‘cave of a hundred mammoths’. Of less artistic interest, but fascinating nonetheless, are the scratch marks made by bears sharpening their claws for hunting after a long winter’s hibernation in the caves.
Tip Bear in mind that, no matter how hot and humid it is ‘upstairs’ in the fresh air, the caves can be decidedly nippy: best take a light jacket or fleece, as well as sensible footwear to help if the going gets slippery.
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