One of the great treasures of southwestern France is its collection of caves decorated with prehistoric paintings and etchings, mostly ranging between 15,000 and 30,000 years old. Standing before artworks created so far back in human history is a profound experience that alone makes the journey worthwhile. All the caves below restrict the number of visitors to varying degrees, making it necessary to reserve tickets months in advance, especially in high season.
This new replica of the region’s most famous cave opened in December 2016, and it reconstructs parts omitted by Lascaux II — the first re-created cave, which opened in 1983 — including a passage with a depiction of swimming stags. The paintings feel vibrantly alive, and even though the cave is a replica, it seems authentic. (The original caves have been closed to the public since 1963 to protect them from damage and deterioration.) I won’t soon forget standing below the powerful compositions of horses, bears and aurochs. In the fascinating museum gallery after the cave, you can inspect replicas of the paintings more closely and photograph them. If possible, have a driver drop you at the entrance. Most of the parking is a shadeless seven-minute walk away.
See Lascaux IV first, to get a sense of what prehistoric paintings look like in pristine condition, and then see the real thing at Font-de-Gaume. Entries to this cave, a five-minute walk gently uphill from the parking lot, are restricted to just a few groups per day, each with a maximum of 12 people. The way the artists used the undulations in the cave to create a sense of depth is astonishing. Some of the horses and bison appear ready to spring from the wall. At the end, our guide pointed out a handprint, an outline created some 16,000 years ago. I held my own hand just inches away. Being in such proximity to the deep past of humanity felt electric.
Even fewer people can access Les Combarelles each day, as tours are limited to seven people at a time. The narration is likely to be in French with brief English translations. The cave feels more like a small, winding tunnel through the rock than a grand chamber. (I am slightly claustrophobic but experienced no alarm.) Its small size means that you can’t help but observe the many etchings up close. We inspected representations of women, mammoths, bears and a rather dramatic cave lion. But my favorite was an etching of a reindeer near a hole from which water had once flowed, its tongue extended to take a drink.
The three caves above are all in or near the Vézère Valley. Pech Merle stands apart, hidden in the Causses du Quercy Regional Natural Park, about half an hour south of the Château de la Treyne and 40 minutes northeast of the Château de Mercuès. It is one of the few caverns with impressive geologic formations in addition to vibrant prehistoric art. It was especially fascinating to see cream-colored spherical pisolites (cave pearls), in addition to the usual collections of stalactites and stalagmites. One wall bore scratch marks from a cave bear, and elsewhere, fossilized mud contained human footprints. My favorite painting was near the end, a composition of horses, handprints and a spotted fish, estimated to be 25,000 years old. Groups here are larger, with a maximum of 25 people at a time.