Caves and prehistoric art
The area has a huge number of grottes (caves) and abri (shelters). We think the best to visit are:
Grottes de Cougnac Our local, only a few minutes (7km) from Mercadiol on the road to Gourdon. 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). 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. 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 picnic in the grounds. Paintings in the vast cave galleries include a frieze of animals, dotted horses (one in semi-relief) and another rare depiction of a human figure; also here are footprints of a teenage boy preserved in mud hardened to stone. Numbers of visitors per day are limited and in summer places must be reserved at least 24 hours in advance.
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. Impressive. Cold, so take a jacket or warm sweater at the very least and in summer go early to avoid the crowds.
Les Eyzies The town is a centre of local prehistory, and has several well-known caves within easy reach of it and is the location of 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).
Lascaux II and IV The original Lascaux cave is closed to the public because of damage to the paintings. However, Lascaux IV, on a site nearby is an exact replica with the impressive paintings realistically recreated. Tours are available in English. The ‘museum’, which you visit after the tour, offers more replicas and a variety of audio visual techniques to further explore the paintings and learn about the people who made them. Lascaux II, also nearby, is a replica of the caves without the supporting museum. Le Thot, an open-air museum/animal park about 10 minutes drive away, has life-size animated models of the 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 also seen.
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.
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.
Chateau de Commarque Reached by a 10–15 walking track from the parking area, the towering ruins the chateau represent the final stage of thousands of years of human on this site beside a stream in a pretty valley. Your entry fee comes with a booklet for your self-guided tour, which starts with the troglodyte caves, then climb past the remains of church and a grand house to the castle and tower. There are lots of steps and stairs, but you can take your time — two hours should be enough to see it all, although you could easily spend the best part of a day here. Take a picnic lunch with you, or buy a sandwich from the cafe at the foot of the castle. http://www.commarque.com/?lang=en