The prehistoric caves in the Lot department are one of the finest of France’s many examples of prehistoric art
Ask anyone about the prehistoric caves and cave art in France and one of the first names they might come up with will be Lascaux perhaps, or even the more recently-feted caves at Chauvet, that were only last year added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
But the Peche Merle caves are ones that I for one had never heard of until I visited the region last summer. And yet, these caves are surely amongst the most spectacular – not only for the uniqueness and quality of what’s there to see but also for the fact that, unlike the Lascaux caves, these ones you can actually see the real thing and not a huge facsimile.
The caves are located in the Lot department. This county is one of France’s lesser-sung treasures. Positioned just to the east of its more illustrious and better-known neighbour The Dordogne, it has all the benefits of the Dordogne but with far less crowds. The nearest village to Peche Merle is a case in point: Cabrerets is just a couple of kilometres away. It doesn’t have the drop-dead-gorgeous looks of the likes of the spectacular St-Cirq-Lapoppie just upriver, but it does have that authentic and slightly lost feeling that brings you back to a France you thought might have disappeared 30 years ago.
The caves are up on a height following a winding road that leads you to a wooded place. There is a museum on the whole story and on prehistoric things generally right in front of you but the real beef is underground. We decided to leave the museum until afterwards and get underground as soon as possible.
Tour sizes are limited so you need to book ahead – particularly in the summer months. We arrived with another family we’d met from South Africa who hadn’t booked ahead and who subsequently had to wait for the next tour.
The site is very sympathetically built and the entrance area to the caves is a kind of circular courtyard that looks like it could have grown there organically. There is a souvenir shop and some snack shops, as well as picnic tables for the weary tourists to pause for refreshment while they wait their tour time slot to come up.The story of how the caves were actually discovered is arguably the best part. Just like the Lascaux experience and so many other of these caves, it was a group of adolescents keen on adventure that uncovered this wondrous treasure that had been hidden from view for at least 25,000 years.
The main two explorers – namely André David and Henri Dutertre – crawled through almost 2km of underground passageway using only a candle before arriving at what is now known as the Red Hall; an enormous cavern full of astounding formations and mysterious cave paintings.
This was in 1922 and it was four years later that the caves were opened to the public for the first time. During the Ice Age, a huge rock slide blocked up the original entrance to the cave and they remained trapped in their huge underground time capsule until the intrepid 20th-century teenage explorers found another way in.In our time slot, we were accompanied by about ten Americans who seemed to be inter-related and covered about 3 generations. The younger ones were full of noisy comments and one of the older ones broke the oft-repeated rule of our tour guide that photos were not allowed under any circumstances. “They allow you to take pictures in the Louvre,” was his laconic defence after he finally agreed to stop flashing around the delicate cave paintings.
It didn’t stop our enjoyment of this special place, however. Very often, cave paintings can be hard to make out precisely: you need a guide to point out that this curve represents a bison’s back or an mammoth’s bottom, for example, but the paintings at Pech Merle are vivid and very often colourful. You can get a real sense of sharing the caves with ancient people; of their sense of fun and expression.
Why they came down here, nobody knows. It was probably for shelter and according to our guide, they would have shared this space with unpleasant creatures such as lions and bears. Maybe it was a bravado thing? I personally came to the conclusion that these cave-painters came down as a dare: see if you you can paint a horse or a mammoth really nicely before the lion wakes up and eats you! In the days before organised sport and online gaming, I imagine that this was the kind of shenanigans cave-youths used to get up to to pass the time.The sense of awe and privilege never leaves you as you walk through the series of caves, past multi-coloured stalactites and stalagmites, as well as the man-made creations that decorate all parts of the caves, using brushes, powder-paint and stencils.
Two of the most extraordinary vestiges that remain here include the spinning tops and marbles that were formed by a combination of the dripping water and the limestone. The other amazing feature that sends a shiver of excitement down your spine is the footprint of a prehistoric adolescent – frozen in time by mud that calcified into rock over the millennia since he made his slippery footprint here.
With visitor numbers limited to 70 per day, the caves at Pech Merle have remained open for over 80 years. Aside from our elderly American friend, people seem to have respected the rules by and large. You’re not allowed to touch any of the paintings but egotistical surrealist writer and poet André Breton just couldn’t resist it during a visit to the caves in 1952, when he touched a painting “to see if the paint was dry”. It duly turned black on the spot where the acids of his finger reacted with the prehistoric paint and he was condemned in court in Cahors for the offence.
As we emerged from the caves into the sunny afternoon that had turned a little rainy, we could only surmise on what it must have been like for people tens of thousands of years ago. Most of the time, you go through life not thinking about the people who came before you reaching back into the mists of time but a visit to the caves of Pech Merle brings you in touch with your ancestors with vivid clarity. I walked through the very fine museum but by then, I had seen all I had wanted to.
Get Yourself There
Aer Lingus fly to Toulouse Airport, from where it’s 2-hour (140km) drive north.
Video Presentation of the Caves (in French)