Caves and prehistoric art
The area has a huge number of grottes (caves) and abri (shelters) that vary in interest level, archaeological value and beauty from uncomfortable and dull to significant and spectacular. We think the best to visit are:
Grottes de Cougnac Our local, only a few minutes (7km) from Mercadiol on the road to Gourdon. Two caves are open, both with fascinating limestone concretions ranging from delicate to dramatic (and look for tiny sleeping bats!). The main point of interest here is the prehistoric paintings, especially the frieze of animals – ibex, mammoths and deer – and the relatively rare depiction of a human form. The paintings date from between 25 000 and 14 000 years ago and are linked in style and subject to the paintings at Pech Merle (about 40 km to the south-east; see below). Highly recommended; numbers of visitors per day are limited; the guided tour takes about 1 hour with commentary in French, with some almost English translation. Closed Nov to March. T 05 65 41 47 54; www.grottesdecougnac.com
Pech Merle (near Cahors) One of the most impressive caves, this is well worth including on a tour of the Célé river valley, near Cahors, and perhaps staying overnight at the village of Cabrerets – one hotel has a pleasant terrace beside the river. Or you can visit it on a day tour (it is a little over an hour or so each way), there is a restaurant close by or you can pack a picnic to eat in the grounds. Seven galleries are open to the public. They are vast and contain some of the best paintings in the region, including a frieze of animals similar to the one at Cougnac, two dotted horses (one in semi-relief), another rare depiction of a human figure, and the footprints of a teenage boy preserved in mud hardened to stone – quite eerie. The entrance fee includes the museum. Highly recommended; numbers of visitors per day are limited and in summer places must be reserved by telephone at least 24 hours in advance; the guided tour takes about 1 hour with commentary in French and notes in English (take a small torch).
The cave is closed mid-Dec to mid-Jan.
T 05 65 31 27 05
Gouffre de Padirac An amazing hole in the ground leading to an underground river and lake; a guide ferries you across the cool waters in a flat-bottomed boat, after which you can explore the main chamber, return to the boat, then climb back to the lift which returns you to the surface (they take a photo in the boat which you can buy at the end of the visit if you wish). Impressive. Cold, so take a jacket or warm sweater at the very least. Go early to avoid the crowds. A day’s outing, including a picnic lunch above-ground is OK in summer. Since the visit to the Gouffre itself takes about 2 hours it is sometimes better to leave very small children at Mercadiol with an adult who prefers fresh air to subterranean rivers. Closed for lunch between 12.00 and 2.00 pm and in the winter months (open end March to early November).
T 05 65 33 64 56
Les Eyzies The town is a centre of local prehistory, and has several well-known caves within easy reach of it. It also has a state-of-the art Museum of Prehistory, with excellent audiovisuals and a jaw-dropping collection of prehistoric tools, artwork, etc. (open all year, closed Tues – and for lunch). There is a well-organised Syndicat d’ Initiative office near the museum with good maps, guides and other information on caves, abris (shelters) and other prehistoric topics.
Lascaux II The original Lascaux cave is closed to the public because of damage to the paintings. However, on a site nearby there is an exact replica of the most famous of the caves – The Hall of Bulls, with its impressive paintings realistically recreated. The tour begins in an introductory chamber which has a display showing how the cave was discovered, how the paintings were done, the reasons why the original cave had to be closed, and so on. To the layman, the replica is hard to tell from a real cave; the dry, level floor is the main giveaway. Tours are available in English. It’s busy in summer, but still recommended. The entrance fee includes the open-air museum/animal park at Le Thot, about 10 minutes drive away, where life-size animated models of now extinct animals depicted on the cave walls (e.g. woolly mammoth) and the descendants of some others still with us (bison, deer) can be seen, as well as reconstructions of prehistoric camps, a mammoth bone house and a display showing how a disused quarry was transformed into Lascaux II. Both open all year, closed Mon Dec to Jan, closed for lunch.
Lacave Twelve galleries feature extraordinary stalactites and underground lakes and are reached by a lift and small open electric train. This can be scary but it’s worth a visit unless you’re claustrophobic.
T 05 65 37 87 03.
Roque St Christophe In the Vézère Valley, not far from Les Eyzies, this is a series of shelters high above the valley floor that was occupied as a ‘town’ for many centuries. It offered a secure site to which people could retreat from the valley fields during attacks. A museum displays objects from the site, and has a grotesque depiction of an unpleasant ‘day in the life of….’.
A good site to visit with kids, despite the well fenced – but still terrifying – cliff edges.
Open all year, closes at dusk.
Parc Prehistorique, Tursac (in the valley below Roque St Christophe), a wander by a stream and up a small wooded valley where life-size models recreate scenes from 15 000 years ago – all the more fascinating as all the scenes depicted here are based on material excavated on the site. A favourite with children; there is a good picnic area if you want to make it a lunch stop. There are children’s activities in summer (face painting, archery). Closed late October to late March.
Abri Le Conquil, St Léon-sur-Vézère This series of abri with fortifications has been occupied since prehistoric times but was used as a refuge as recently as the Second World War. It occupies an impressive site overlooking the picturesque river and town of St Léon-sur-Vézère. Highly recommended with kids.