Visit: 16th June 2013
There were two reasons I flew down to France that weekend – one was to see the Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France, and the other was for these caves. The Vézère Valley, particularly around the town of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil, is home to dozens of ancient caves that have been found to contain prehistoric artwork etched into or painted onto the walls. Cave art was something none of us had seen before, so we decided in between Bergerac and Limoges to spend a day looking around the Vézère.
There are 16 caves recognised as part of this WHS, and we only went in one of them. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in the prehistoric caves, so I can only post other people’s pics. It’s a bit odd that you can’t take photos – the reason they gave is that the flash degrades the artwork, but our guide was using a torch the whole time, which I thought must do a lot more damage than a microsecond of camera flash.
Anyway, firstly we visited a different cave that is not a part of the WHS, called Les grottes du Roc de Cazelle. This is really more of a museum cave, and was created in the Middle Ages (only a pathetic 1,000 years ago!). Here you can see a lookout opening in the cave, and lots of holes in the rock. Wooden beams used to be (and in some parts still are) stuck into the holes, and a walkway laid across them.
The last people to dwell in these caves moved out in 1966!
You can just turn up and walk right into the museum caves here (for a fee of course). To visit an actual prehistoric cave is slightly more difficult. You can’t just wander around these caves on your own – you must book a guided tour. The French haven’t yet developed the concept of an advance booking system, so you must show up on the day and reserve a place on a tour. The most popular caves fill fill up fast, so you get people queuing up at 9am for the 60 or so places that are available on each day. If you are not at the front of the queue and thus able to bag an early tour, you must wait around for several hours until your time comes. This is not too much of an ordeal though, as the surrounding towns and villages are very charming, and indeed very filling (if you’re an animal hater who loves fois grax!).
We went to the cave at Les Combarelles, which is not the most competitive to get into – we only had to kick our heels for an hour or so. The weather was amazing on that day – hitting 31°C in the afternoon. To go into the cave was to experience a different climate, at once cool and damp.
The cave was long, narrow and winding. It did not open up into caverns at any point, but just kept snaking on into the rock. Along the way our guide would stop and shine a light on what looked like random etchings on the walls. To me at least, it often felt comparable to looking at constellations, where somebody tells you this is a bear and that is a wolf but really they could be just about anything! But others were very easy to make out, and there is no doubt that these 12-14,000 year old engravings were made by people with some artistic skill.
The picture below doesn’t really look anything like what those on the rock did, but they show what you could make out if you looked hard enough. I do remember seeing the horse.
The tour is about an hour, and getting back out into the sunlight is a welcome change from the dank environment of a cave.
There are quite a few WHSs that are caves. The list contains:
Mogao Caves, China
Caves of Aggtelek Karst and Slovak Karst, Hungary/Slovakia
Ajanta Caves, India
Ellora Caves, India
Elephanta Caves, India
Sites of Human Evolution at Mount Carmel: The Nahal Me’arot / Wadi el-Mughara Caves, Israel
Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla in the Central Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico
Škocjan Caves, Slovenia
Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain
Mammoth Cave National Park, USA
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, USA