SPELUNKING IN SOUTHEASTERN FRANCE:
A 300-kilometer bike ride in the Dordogne and Lot River valleys offers us many memorable escapades, including two unique cave explorations.
First, Grotte du Pech Merle makes the perfect side trip from medieval Saint-Cirq Lapopie. Our10-kilometer route twists along lofty cliffs, sweeps into riverside villages and up, up, up the steepest of hills to one of France’s largest cave art sites, open to the public since 1926.
After confirming our reservations at Amedee Lemozi Museum, a captivating film in its theatre shows us how teenagers discovered and explored this cave in 1922. And soon joining others, our cave tour in English begins.
“Before we step into a breathtaking world, a brief orientation,” grins guide Audrey. We learn that over millions of years, rainwater reacting with limestone flowed through crevasses, relentlessly dissolving the rock. This carbonic acid hollowed out countless caves, depositing calcium carbonate in wondrous ways. “Now, following a 1.5-kilometer subterranean route, we’ll visit seven remarkable chambers,” she invites.
Steep stone stairs take us down into a dimly lit gallery where otherworldly formations create a sparkling wonderland. Closer looks reveal creamy white and surprising pink crystals aglitter on delicate stalagmites and stalactites.
The next airy chamber reveals intact murals 16,000 to 25,000 years old. Painted lifelike drawings of woolly mammoths, bison, horses and auroch adorn one wall in Chapel of the Mammoths. “These twenty-five overlapping figures suggest several artists may have drawn them, possibly during different eras,” observes Audrey. “And the 12-degree temperatures here at forty meters underground help preserve them.”
Cro-Magnon artists painted in dozens of damp, out of the way caverns like these. But they lived in shallow riverside caves way below, much better for hunting and gathering. In their settlements, paleontologists discovered stone axes, flint arrowheads, bone needles, musical instruments and even lamps, yet paintbrushes have never been found.
“Using their fingers and paints made from charcoal mixed with animal fat, they most often depicted what they hunted. They also painted geometric designs and a few humans, but drew none of the plants they gathered,” Audrey remarks. “The purpose remains a mystery. Perhaps they chronicled species disappearances. Or maybe, there’s a spiritual significance.”
In Ceiling of Hieroglyphics gallery, mammoths, ibex and female shapes appear above us. And in Salle de Disques, small human footprints amaze. Petrified clay preserved the actual footsteps of distant ancestors!
Contemplating a realistic cave bear head, Audrey smiles, “Such figures were etched into walls using flint blades.” She also highlights a magnificent reindeer stag sketched in charcoal, which allows carbon dating. Naturally occurring creases and bulges in rock surfaces are incorporated into both works.
Moving on, tiny luminescent spheres in a pool surprise us. “Swirling waters formed those perfect cave pearls,” Audrey explains. Nearby, a lovely wall mural illustrates bison, mammoths and women. As if protecting one another, they seem to ‘float’ together in concentric circles.
In a final gallery, an exquisite 29,000-year-old panel portrays two black-spotted horses surrounded by dots and stenciled ochre handprints, a most celebrated piece. We visualize someone holding a smoking torch as a companion delicately spits ground pigment around hands held flat against the wall.
Days later near Gourdon, Grottes de Cougnac prompts another bout of caving. Requiring no reservations, we show up in time for the day’s first tour.
Amid a shady oak forest, guide Clara unlocks a small door and leads us into a spacious cellar displaying centuries-old stone artifacts. “For years, a farm family stored wines here,” she winks. “Then, in 1952 they located two more grand galleries, 200 meters apart!”
Descending a darkened stairway, we proceed along eons-old mudflows and into Hall of Prehistoric Paintings. “Sixty animal images, fifty handprints and three human shapes were found in here,” Clara affirms. “At 30,000 years old, they’re among the oldest figurative drawings in France still open to the public.”
As we pass, mammoths, goats, giant reindeer and ibex ‘come to life’ beneath her dancing penlight. Of the ‘wounded men’ figures, three spears pierce one; seven penetrate another. And like other prehistoric art, handprints ‘sign’ the works.
We return along the ridge to the second cavern. Inside the Pillar Chamber, sublime stalagmites and stalactites surround an ancient streambed, long dry. Like crystalline icicles, masses of needle-like soda straws drip from the ceiling. Some grow together into breathtaking columns. Others merge into wafer-thin fans, their translucent beauty emphasized by subtle lighting.
Embellished by both man and nature, these limestone caverns prove awe-inspiring. And the original Cro-Magnon artwork provides insight into the creative spirit of our prehistoric ancestors.
IF YOU GO:
PHOTOS by Chris Millikan
(1) Heading for Pech Merle Caves 10 kilometers from medieval St Cirq Lapopie
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