If you’re going to visit the Dordogne region of France then you must visit a prehistoric cave….or a few caves or grottes. There are hundreds of them in the area. But which ones should you see if you only have a few days or a week? Consider visiting different TYPES of caves….because if you don’t, those caves will all start to look the same. Here are 4 different types of caves in the Dordogne that I visited during my recent 2-week trip to the region. They are each distinctive and you will not be disappointed or bored.
Table of contents
- 4 Types Of Caves In The Dordogne
- 1. The Most Famous (Replica) Cave: Lascaux
- 2. Original Troglodyte Cave Shelters In Cliff Dwellings: La Roque Saint-Christophe
- 3. Original Cave With Polychromatic Paintings: Font de Gaume
- 4. Original Cave With Animals Etched Into The Stone Walls: Grotte des Combarelles
- Where are the caves in the Dordogne?
4 Types Of Caves In The Dordogne
There are so many types of caves in the Dordogne. Consider….
- some caves are reproductions.
- some are the real thing where access is limited to the number of visitors and a set duration inside.
- there are caves with original cave paintings.
- there are caves that have no paintings but have beautifully formed mineral deposits looking like icicles.
- there are caves located beneath the ground.
- there are caves above ground where they have been chiseled into the rock formations of cliffs.
So in the Dordogne region and valley, you’ve got a wide variety of types of caves to choose from and many have been given the UNESCO World Heritage designation. The four I’m sharing are some of the best caves in the Dordogne.
One of the most interesting aspects of the caves in the Dordogne is that although prehistoric humans of the area produced many paintings inside the caves, they did not necessarily live IN the caves. These cave dwellers found the caves uninhabitable. No light. No warmth. And then there was the bunkmate who could be a bear that’s decided to hibernate, so the cave wasn’t the safest place to live.
1. The Most Famous (Replica) Cave: Lascaux
Name: Lascaux IV
History of Lascaux
When visitors research caves in the Dordogne, most likely “Lascaux” pops up. It is the region’s most famous cave and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. In 1940, 18-year-old Marcel Ravidat was walking with his dog and discovered a hole on Lascaux Hill. The next day he returned with 3 friends and together they entered a cave filled with paintings. This was to be known as the Lascaux cave.
Soon after archeologists and historians entered to document what had been found. And what they found made this cave famous. There was a series of caves or galleries on a grand scale, covering approximately 240 metres. Over 600 wall paintings were found and they dated back approximately 17,000 years.
Lascaux opened to the public in 1948 and during the next 17 years upwards of 1200 visitors a day entered the cave. It closed in 1965 due to carbon dioxide (from the visitors), fungus, and other contaminants that were ruining the prehistoric paintings.
Paintings of animals, human figures and symbols were depicted in cave art. Bison, bulls, and horses were often painted and to this day, archeologists are still uncertain as to the meaning of the symbols. In Lascaux, the Hall of Bulls is the most famous. It depicts horses, bulls, stags, aurochs (ancestor of the ox), and a bear in motion. A true work of art.
In 1983 Lascaux II opened not far away from the original site. The Hall of Bulls and Painted Gallery (also called the Axial Gallery) were reconstructed using the same types of materials used in the original paintings. Lascaux II is still in operation and tours are offered.
In 2012 Lascaux III was created. It was a mobile cave—-a travelling roadshow—-showing a replica of part of the cave.
Finally, in December 2016, Lascaux IV was unveiled. I took the Lascaux cave tour where you go through a replica. When you consider that it is a reproduction, you might think that it is hokey or not well done. On the contrary. The reproduced cave is large and groups of 32 who have a timed ticket are led by a guide. It is a very high-tech where each visitor is provided with a digital tablet that provides more information in 11 different languages.
At the beginning of the tour, you are transported back almost 20,000 years to see what the surroundings were like back then. You are taken through the centuries to the day the cave was discovered then begin your tour through the replica of the cave. Everything is reproduced so you actually feel like you are underground. It’s dark. It’s damp. And it’s a real cave experience. No photos are allowed.
After visiting the replica cave, you enter the ‘Lascaux Studio” which has replicas of key paintings such as “The Upside-down Horse”, “Two Crossed Bison”, and “The Hall of Bulls” that you just saw and they are reproduced down to the millimeter. Many of the displays are interactive and the cave paintings are quite beautifully presented. It is here that you are allowed to take photos. In addition to the studio, there is a 3D cinema, a virtual reality activity, and a display honouring those who discovered the original cave and the archeologists who worked on uncovering the paintings.
Just because Lascaux IV is a replica doesn’t mean it’s not good. It’s outstanding. You will be impressed and blown away by what you see and experience. I highly recommend a visit to this site.
2. Original Troglodyte Cave Shelters In Cliff Dwellings: La Roque Saint-Christophe
La Roque Saint-Christophe is one of my favourite sites because it has open-air cave shelters that have been carved into the limestone cliffs. These rock shelters are located 80 metres above ground and span one kilometre and provide impressive views of the Vézère valley and river. It is the largest suspended rock shelter in Europe.
The site is immense, showing what the troglodyte (cave) village might have been like from 55,000 years ago all the way to the Middle Ages. It was first inhabited by prehistoric humans (Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon) but was primarily developed during the Middle Ages.
There were ultimately 5 levels at that time with up to 1000 living in the village. They were protected by a fortress with a single entrance and sentry.
During that time period, terraces at Saint Christophe were created to enlarge the village so that stables, a church, and more lodgings could be added. Le Grand Escalier (Grand Staircase) is the biggest staircase in Europe formed from a single block of stone and it was constructed to allow access to the top terrace.
You can see a smoke room for drying and preserving food, as well as a whole area showcasing medieval construction machinery, such as hoists and winches which could lift 350 pounds. Some of these are demonstrated during tours. Of course, there are one or two (cheeky) displays of prehistoric men, like these guys fighting off bears. Guess they felt it was necessary to show what Neanderthal man looked like.
3. Original Cave With Polychromatic Paintings: Font de Gaume
Location: Les Eyzies de Tayac
As mentioned in my post Why You Should Line up For Tickets To Font de Gaume Cave, Font de Gaume is not a replica, but an original cave with paintings which are more than just 1 colour (black) which makes this cave especially important. It is also a Unesco World Heritage site.
Great care is taken to ensure environmental pollution doesn’t further deteriorate real caves which is why the number of visitors is limited to a couple of dozen each day. It is vital to line up early to ensure you get in.
I really liked the English-speaking guided tour because it was so informative and interesting. The group was small and in one hour we were “up close and personal” to hundreds of famous cave paintings—polychrome cave paintings which are in colour. Black charcoal, red iron ferrite, red ochre and other natural minerals and pigments were used. Hearing the stories about how Neanderthal man was able to create these paintings, basically in the dark, was fascinating. It is the tour that makes the visit worthwhile and worth the wait.
4. Original Cave With Animals Etched Into The Stone Walls: Grotte des Combarelles
Location: Les Eyzies de Tayac
Grotte de Combarelles is another prehistoric cave dating back 11,000-13,000 years that is located less than 2 kilometres away from Font de Gaume and also a Unesco World Heritage site. Denis Peyrony discovered this cave just 4 days before Peyrony discovered Font de Gaume (in 1901) along with Henri Breuil and Louis Capitan.
It is also by a “timed” ticket and no photos are allowed. At this cave, I had a French-speaking guide who spoke a little English. Our small group of 7 saw etchings of bison, doe, bears, and reindeers. These etchings are basically scratches in the rock but so well “scratched” that representations of the animals are clearly shown.
Our tour guide expertly used his flashlight to show us how the etchings appeared more 3-dimensional. In this cave, there are more than 600 etchings of animals and symbols that scientists are not able to decipher.
Where are the caves in the Dordogne?
While there are caves all throughout the Dordogne department are located in the Vézère valley with many near the town of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil in the Périgord Noir area.
Are there any caves in the Dordogne that you have found especially unique? Please share! When I go back I’d love to check them out.
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