Exploring prehistoric caves and medieval towns in southwest France

We stood in rapt attention as our guide pointed out the figure of a bison on the cave wall. The artist had used the natural contours of the rock to give a 3-dimensional quality to the body of the animal. As the guide used his flashlight to outline the figure, we could almost imagine it was a torch like that used by a shaman or medicine man 15,000 years ago.

We were in Grotte Font-de-Gaume, a cave in the Dordogne, or Périgord, region of southwest France. This is one of the last caves with Cro-Magnon polychrome paintings still open to the public in Europe.

From Paris

My wife, Martha, and I were in the second week of a 2-week trip to France in November of 2003 when we visited Font-de-Gaume. The first week was spent in a rental apartment in the 14th arrondissement of Paris. We had a wonderful time revisiting some of our favorite places and discovering a few new ones.

The weather, although chilly for us Southern Californians, was cooperative with very little rain. The lack of crowds at that time of year more than made up for any weather inconveniences.

We left Paris via the TGV high-speed train to Bordeaux, where we picked up a rental car at the train station and drove in a moderate rain toward Sarlat in the Dordogne region. We arrived in Bordeaux two hours late due to train delays and were concerned, as our hotel in Sarlat had told us they would close the desk at 8 p.m. and we wouldn’t get a room if we arrived later than that.

We drove east on highway N89 toward Perigueux as it began raining in earnest. When we left the highway to go south toward the town of Les Eyzies, we encountered road construction and detours.

As we headed toward Les Eyzies and then Sarlat, the rain increased in intensity and was coming down almost sideways in the gusting wind. We watched the number of kilometers to Sarlat decreasing on the road signs along with the number of minutes until 8 on the dashboard clock. I was driving faster than I wanted, given the road conditions, as we knew it was going to be close.

We pulled into Sarlat and saw a sign for Hôtel des Récollets. Martha got out of the car and hurried down the walk. She was back in about 10 minutes and we had a room! She said the desk clerk was packing up and the clock chimed 8 p.m. just as she walked in.

After parking and settling in, we went in search of a well-deserved glass of wine and dinner. We both sampled the foie gras, a specialty of the area.

Grotte Font-de-Gaume

We had made reservations for touring the caves before leaving the U.S. because the French government limits the number of tours and the number of people allowed on each tour. It is believed that body heat, humidity and carbon dioxide exhaled by visitors causes deterioration of the cave paintings. For this reason, the original Lascaux, the most famous of the Cro-Magnon caves, is no longer open to the public.

Our guide at Grotte Font-de-Gaume spoke excellent English and was very informative and interesting. We were fortunate to have such a good guide for our first cave as the knowledge we gained from him helped us understand later caves.

It is believed that the drawings here served a religious purpose or had ritualistic significance. They are thought to be ceremonial, as there are no signs of human habitation in this cave. Many of the paintings are polychromatic and use a reddish pigment with a black outline.

Two of the most outstanding paintings were a frieze of five buffalos and an image of two reindeer with the male licking the female on the forehead. The paintings exhibited a level of sophistication much higher than we expected.

Grotte Pech Merle

Our next cave experience was at Grotte Pech Merle. We had faxed them from home for a reservation and received a reply that they were closed to the general public for the winter but we could see the cave with a school group if we wished. We agreed and picked a date. We drove south from Sarlat toward the cave, passing through numerous beautiful, small villages, pausing occasionally to take pictures.

We were early for our tour, so we went to the nearby town of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, as we had been thinking of staying there later in the trip. It is a very picturesque village perched on the cliffs over the River Lot, but most of the town was closed for the winter. We stopped and had lunch at the only restaurant we found open.

At Pech Merle, we met our bilingual guide and attended a lecture with the students, all in French. Fortunately, the guide gave us a written explanation of the sights in English.

We followed the students and their chaperones through the cave. The highlight of this one was the dotted horses.

Mud-preserved footprints and painted handprints gave additional evidence of human presence. The cave had galleries with stalactites and stalagmites, and there were paintings of bison and mammoths, some done in an almost impressionist style.

Grotte Pech Merle is a worthwhile cave to visit, but the electric lights and signs made it seem more commercial than the others we visited.

Cahors and Carcassonne

We spent another night in the charming town of Sarlat and went to the biweekly market in the morning. Afterward, we drove south to Cahors, where we stayed at Hotel de France. We were close to the landmark Pont Valentré, a bridge built in 1308 to protect the town from British invaders. It is often cited as one of the best examples of a fortified medieval bridge in France.

This is where we first sampled the excellent black wines of Cahors. These regional wines are actually dark red — so dark they appear black.

The following day we drove to Carcassonne and were able to enjoy this very popular walled city without its usual crowds. It was a pleasure to wander the almost empty medieval streets. We stayed at Hôtel Le Montmorency, ideally situated just outside the gate to the Old City. We called the Grotte de Niaux to see if we could visit the following day. We were disappointed when they said they had school groups scheduled all day and were full.

Grotte de Niaux

In the morning we drove south toward the town of Foix, located in the foothills of the Pyréneés near the Grotte de Niaux. We thought we would take a chance and show up at the cave to see if they would relent and allow us to enter. The scenic drive was worth the trip, even if we couldn’t get in.

At the cave we met one of the school groups and the kids hit it off with my wife, a recently retired teacher. One of the girls was British and able to interpret for us when needed. The students asked their teacher if we could come with them, and the teacher said we could if the guide was in agreement. She agreed, and we got to go along.

The tour guide issued us electric lanterns, as there was no lighting in the cave. We walked almost a kilometer through several passages with the guide pointing out sights along the way. She would occasionally speak in English for our benefit. The guide also spoke Spanish, as we were quite close to the border in this southern region of France.

Finally, we entered the large black grotto Salon Noire, which contained numerous renderings of horses, ibex, stags and bison. The drawings were in excellent condition — very clear representations. We were glad we had persevered, as this cave provided an outstanding experience. The cave art was wonderful and we enjoyed the school group.

Don’t wait

We hated to leave this area, but we headed north and spent the night in Toulouse. The following day we returned to Bordeaux, continuing back to Paris on the TGV before flying home to California.

If you are interested in visiting these or any of the other caves in this area of France, go now, as most of the experts feel that more caves will be closed to the public in the future. I booked only two caves before leaving home, since I wasn’t sure how Martha would enjoy them, but she was as excited as I was. We hope to return to see some of the many other caves in the region.

Cave contacts: Grotte Font-de-Gaume: phone 05 53 06 86 00 or fax 05 53 35 26 18' Grotte Pech Merle: phone 05 65 31 27 05, fax 05 65 31 20 47 or visit www.quercy.net/pechmerle; Grotte de Niaux: phone 05 61 05 88 37.

If we had one more day, I probably would have visited Lascaux II. Even though it is a copy of the original Lascaux, everyone says the guides are excellent and their presentation is very informative. However, nothing can match the thrill of seeing the original art in its original location.

Air & accommodations

Hôtel des Récollets: phone 05 53 31 36 00, fax 05 53 30 32 62 or visit www.hotel-recollets-sarlat.com. A double room cost €50 (near $65).

Hotel de France: phone 05 65 35 16 76 or e-mail hdf46@ hoteldefrance-cahors.fr. Double room, €60 ($78).

Hôtel le Montmorency: phone 04 68 11 96 70, fax 04 68 11 96 79 or visit www.lemontmorency.com. Double room, €84 ($109).

Martha and I took advantage of an off-season special offered by British Airways of $100 each way from San Diego to London. We tacked on a short flight from London to Paris to begin our two weeks in France.

If anyone has questions concerning this area or the caves we visited, feel free to contact me c/o ITN.