France has an incredible collection of prehistoric cave paintings.
The Lascaux cave paintings, Font-de-Gaume and Pech Merle cave art sites are three of the most well known and visited (see map for details).
Southwest France has the highest concentration of paleolithic cave paintings (ie from the Stone Age…we’re talking really old here!) in Europe. They are among the finest prehistoric art collections in the world.
The original Lascaux cave paintings actually closed in 1963 because they had become too fragile and were deteriorating due to human breath and sunlight from millions of visitors passing through. Lascaux II was opened up in 1983 and is a brilliant reproduction of the original.
Pech Merle and Font-de-Gaume are still open to the public….for now. They too, may need to be closed off in the near future to prevent further deterioration.
Ancient Cave Art: a bit of history….
Ok. We’ll try not to make this sound too much like a history lesson … we’ve put together a little background info on prehistoric art, including some of the historical terms that you may come across… it’ll just make your visit all the more enjoyable when you visit. On the other hand, if you just want to to cut to the chase and find out our top recommendations for caves to visit, click here.
The term Cro-Magnon is named after a rock shelter in the Vézère Valley (in the Dordogne area of southwest France), where the first skeletons of this species were discovered in 1868. Cro-Magnon people lived alongside the Neanderthals towards the end of the last Ice Age, and is one of the main types of Homo sapiens of the European Upper Paleolithic (ie Stone Age) period.
The Magdalenian era (10,000 to 17,000 years ago) was a culture of the Upper Paleolithic period. Many of the prehistoric cave paintings, such as the Lascaux Cave Paintings in southwest France, date from the Magdalenian era.
The Cro-Magnons drew and painted animals mainly – such as mammoths, aurochs, bison and horses. You’ll also see figures of humans, and strange symbolic shapes such as circles, dots and lines. They used flint tools, red ochre or charcoal, by the light of a lamp burning reindeer or mammoth fat. Much of this art is found deep inside the caves and is not easily accessible.
Photos of these prehistoric cave paintings do not prepare you for how astounding they are when you see them in person – many are quite large and can even be lifesize. The contours of the rocks are used to give a real sense of dimension and movement.
The caves even smell ancient – damp and dark. You will see imprints of a child’s foot (such as at Pech Merle)…which is really quite unsettling when you think that these are from humans walking through these caves more than 10,000 years ago.
As well as prehistoric cave paintings, you’ll find bizarre natural formations like “cave pearls” (polished calcite circular shapes); you’ll see stalactites and stalagmites (remember your geography??) in weird and interesting shapes – some look like giant onion bulbs, others like sharp needles on an elaborate chandelier.
Our top choices for the best prehistoric cave paintings (“grottes”) in the area are:
The Lascaux cave paintings are located in the Vézère Valley (in the département of Dordogne) near the town of Montignac.
The original caves were discovered by two teenagers and their dog in 1940.
The Lascaux tourism website provides more information including opening times and prices (for the Lascaux II replica site) and includes information and photos of the Lascaux cave paintings.
Tel : +33 5 53 05 65 65 – fax : +33 5 53 06 30 94
The Grotte de Pech Merle is in the Lot departement (often referred to as Quercy), just northwest of Cabrerets and approx 30mins drive from Cahors. The ancient cave art was discovered in 1922.
This cave is equally as impressive as the Lascaux cave paintings.
The Pech Merle website provides info on prices, reserverations, contact details and photos of the amazing creations in these caves.
Our Secret Favourites
Here are some other caves worth visiting that are less crowded and touristy…and where can practice your french!
If you’re more interested in the weird and wonderful rock formations of these caves, the Grotte de Foissac is worth checking out. Foissac is about an hours drive northeast of Cahors, in the département of Aveyron in the Midi-Pyrénées. You’ll see bulb-like formations as well as animal skeletons and a child’s footprint.
13, rue Sanière
Phone: +33 5 65 64 77 04
We’d suggest phoning before you go to confirm when they will be open.
The Aveyron tourism website also shows some interesting photos of what you can see in these caves.
The Grottes de Cougnac are in the Dordogne, about 30mins drive from Sarlat.
Here you’ll find both paintings and amazing stalactite “needles” that look like elaborate chandeliers.
Tél. / Fax : 05 65 41 47 54
E-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org
If you want to see photos, check out their website which also includes prices (click on ‘tarifs’ button).
The Grotte de St Cirq is in a very pretty spot, in the tiny hamlet of St-Cirq (this is different to St-Cirque-La-Popie) … another beautiful village worth visiting). It is not nearly as big as the Lascaux cave paintings and other famous sites, but it’s alot quieter and a bit more off the beaten track.
St Cirq is near the town of Le Bugue, about a 30min drive from Sarlat. You’ll need a good, detailed map.
Here is a map of the area; the caves have yellow markers (click on the marker for more info).This is a guide only.
- If you can, try and see these sites in the off peak seasons (ie not july and august) otherwise you’ll be fighting the crowds.
- It is best to call beforehand to book in advance (this will mean a day before or even up to a week before – depending on the season) and to find out where to buy tickets, as this can change too, depending on the season – this applies in particular to the more visited sites such as the Lascaux cave paintings.
- It’s also a good idea to confirm that the tour can be in english (some of the lesser known caves only offer tours in french).
- Keep in mind that many of the sites are closed between 12 and 2pm (ie lunch – well, you are in france after all …) and that in many of these caves you are not permitted to take photos.
- Almost all of these caves can be be visited on guided tours only.
- If you are claustrophic, be mindful that sometimes you pass through some very confined spaces.
- The best way to see these caves is by car – getting there by public transport is quite difficult and awkward.
We hope you have a wonderful time exploring the Lascaux cave paintings and all the others that are waiting to be experienced…….they are remarkable works of art.