17,000 years ago, some of our ancestors ventured deep into caves in the South of France and created ancient cave paintings, huge works of art on the rock faces, depicting arresting scenes of active predatory mammals.
Fast forward to 1940, and a teenage boy and his dog set out to roam the French countryside looking for treasure, when the dog became stuck in a hole.
The boy returned later with his friends to explore the shaft behind the hole, and they were astounded to find a large cave with huge drawings of charging bulls and a multitude of other animals, figures and signs, covering its walls and ceilings. After they notified their school teacher, the significance of the cave became apparent, and soon hordes of visitors were ploughing through to marvel at the prehistoric wonder.
The cave was Lascaux… and the dog was called Robot; although his part in the discovery may be fiction.
When we think back to our Cro-Magnon ancestors, we think of primitive beings, but the cave paintings show a depth of thought and understanding that is really quite remarkable. In fact, there are cave paintings dating back as far as 37,000 years in the South of France; and here are some of the best places to visit if you are interested in experiencing these transfixing sights for yourself.
Lascaux II, Dordogne
With the mass of visitors that came to explore the caves of Lascaux that had been sealed up all this time, so came destruction. The caves were eventually closed to the public in 1963 as they were becoming damaged beyond repair. However, a small group of scientists and artists were permitted to study the paintings and recreate them almost perfectly in another site that is a short distance away from the actual cave.
Although you will not be visiting the genuine article, the reproductions have been done with such precison that you can really get a feel for what it would have been like to witness the original drawings. As with the originals, the shapes of the rock faces have been taken into account to create the impression of depth and movement.
When you visit, you are taken through the reproduction cave by a knowledgeable guide who informs you about the artwork and how it is believed they were created, how the replica cave was achieved, and what we know about the purpose of the drawings; which sadly is very little, although there are many theories. It is thought that they date back around 17,000 years, but we do not really know for certain why they were painted; whether they were part of a ritual, were depictions of hunting trips experienced by the ancient humans, or whether they served some other purpose.
An adult ticket is €16, or €20 if purchased together with Parc du Thot, which includes workshops, 3D movies, and other opportunities for you to learn about the early humans.
Where to stay
The surrounding area is stunning, and the local medieval city of Sarlat is a stunning place to visit, with its maze of narrow streets and quaint sandstone buildings. It also serves as a great base for your stay, and the lovely bed and breakfast, Les Trois Jardins, is minutes away from the centre.
Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, Ardèche
The artwork in Chauvet is amongst the oldest in the world, with one study dating some of the drawings back as far as 37,000 years. Again, it is not possible to see the original cave, but the replica is just as awe inspiring: it was opened in April 2015, and is ten times the size of the Lascaux reproduction.
Human figures are not depicted in the paintings, at least not in their entirety, but predatory animals feature heavily, including lions, stags, bears and rhinos. Again, the impression of movement has been captured skillfully in the drawings, but the possible meaning behind the art is still the subject of fierce debate.
You can purchase an adult ticket to go around the cave for €13.
Where to Stay
The beautiful surrounding area is also well worth exploring, and a visit to the Pont D’Arc itself should be included. This is a huge, natural stone archway over the Ardèche river.
There are plenty of camp sites nearby, including the five star Camping Nature Parc L’Ardèchois, which offers facilities such as a large outdoor pool, play areas, a restaurant and bar.
Pitches are available from €33 per day, and mobile homes from €78 per night, with a minimum two night stay.
If you are not satisfied with seeing the reproductions, and want to experience the real thing, then a visit to the Niaux cave is essential. Above the Ariège river, there is the huge cave entrance, leading to the impressive Salon Noir where you will find Palaeolithic art dating back around 14,000 years. The caves have also only recently been drained to reveal the fantastic Galerie Cartailhac.
Although the art was noted to be prehistoric during Victorian times, the original cave remains open to visitors to this day, for the time being. There are restrictions however, and guided tours are provided to ensure minimal damage to the area.
Where to stay
Stay in Tarascon, a nearby French town, or pitch your tent at Camping des Grottes, the cave camp site. Pitches start at just €15 per night, or €25 per night in high season. You can also hire chalets at the camp site for between 2 and 10 people, starting at just €245 per week, or €370 during the peak season.
While you are in the area, the Parc de la Préhistoire is also a must for families with an interest in prehistoric life. A family pass is available for €32.
Font de Gaume, Dordogne
The Font de Gaume caves are just a 20 minute drive from Sarlat and therefore great to visit at the same time as you visit Lascaux. Dating back 17,000 years, the polychrome drawings feature bison, wolves and horses. Even a visit to the Font de Gaume website is an event.
Adult tickets can be purchased for just €7.50
A visit to any of these prehistoric sites is both awe inspiring and thought provoking. Whatever our ancestors’ reasons for creating the murals, it is startling to think that their creations have survived all this time and are being enjoyed by their descendants to this day.