Our guide for the day was Christine, an expat from England who had lived in France the majority of her life. Christine was a professor of art history who had recently completed a book on paleolithic art found in the caves of this region. We began out day driving from the 400 year old apartment we rented for a few days in the medieval town of Sarlat (we’ll return to that in another blog) and drove about 20 minutes to meet her at the first of three caves that were scheduled.
Most people are familiar with Lascaux, the poster-child of cave art in Europe from this era; however due a high volume of visitors the caves were closed in 1963 in order to preserve the art. A model was created, accurate to millimeters, in a man-made cave nearby which opened in 1986. There are dozens of authentic caves which are still accessible, although access is limited to a few dozen visitors a day in order to preserve the caves as light and carbon dioxide from exhalation disturbs the micro-environment which has preserved the art to the modern age. Tickets can only be purchased in person, in line at the kiosks outside the caves. In order to secure ours, Christine hired a local man to wait in line at 6 AM to save our spot for when we met her at 8:30. We purchased entrance to three sites for what would be a life changing day- something I don’t say lightly.
The first cave we visited was Font-de-Gaume, which is the only cave which has paintings that is still open to public in France. The temperature immediately drops and as the natural light vanishes it feels like you are walking back in time into a paleolithic cathedral. This cave has over 200 identified polychromatic paintings which are estimated to be between 12,000 and 17,000 years old. The images are primarily of animals but there is a wall where the artists painted around their hands. This wall was particularly powerful. The second cave was Les Combarelles which was inhabited by Early Modern Humans between 13,000 to 11,000 years ago. This nearly 1,000 foot long cave features between 600 and 800 animals and symbols which have been carved into the walls. The third was Abri de Cap Blanc which is a rock outcropping that features deep carvings of animals from the same age as Font-de-Gaume. These carvings follow the topography of the walls so the natural contours match the movement of the animals.
If you are traveling in southwest-central France these caves are “a must” particularly for history, art, and nature enthusiasts. So give us a call and we’d love to help you arrange a trek back in time.