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Nouvelle-Aquitaine Prehistoric Cave Art

The Vézère Valley (La vallée de la Vézère) in the Dordogne (in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of south-west France) has some of the most significant archaeological finds of the Paleolithic period (200,000 to 10,000 years ago) and many are open to the public. It is home to several caves with prehistoric cave art. Lascaux, the replica of a cave showing the prehistoric cave art, is here. There are others caves where you can visit the original cave, not a replica. The main towns of the valley are Les Eyzies, where the National Prehistoric Museum is located, and Montignac, near the famous Lascaux Cave. The other cave art locations are in the area - Font-de-Gaume and Rouffignac. We spent a week in this area, saw several caves and visited the museum. It was an amazing experience.

Two more significant cave art sites are outside of the Vezere Valley. Niaux Cave in south at the foot of the Pyreness. Pech Merle is east in the Lot department. We visited Pech Merle on the way to our Dordogne stay and Niaux on another trip when we stayed in Carcassone.

All these caves are interesting but if I had to pick one, it would be Pech Merle, or maybe Niaux. Both of those caves require you to walk deep into the cave to see the art. Font-de-Gaume is a smaller cave if you don't like being deep in caves.

Font-de-Gaume Cave

The Font-de-Gaume Cave (Grotte de Font-de-Gaume) contains over 200 prehistoric polychrome cave paintings of bison, horses and mammoths. There are also engravings. Small groups of people are taken on a guided tour of the cave. Font-de-Gaume is located near the town of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac in the Vézère Valley.

Location: France - Aquitaine - Dordogne - Les Eyzies-de-Tayac
Tickets: Purchase tickets at the on-site ticket office, on the edge of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. Parking is nearby. You cannot reserve ahead. On weekends and high season, you may have to line up in the morning before they open (9:30am). On slower days you can drop in during the morning and get tickets for later that day. (This information was valid as of 2013.)
Tour: The guided tour takes about 30 minutes, but allow 10 - 15 minutes to walk up to the cave. There is a short (500m) walk, mostly uphill, to the cave entrance. There is not much walking inside the cave. The cave is small and narrow and you may feel a bit claustrophobic. It is not deep underground like some of the other caves in this area.
Website: Prehistoric sites at Les Eyzies-de-Tayac in the Dordogne

We visited Font de Gaume in May 2013. We tried to get tickets on the weekend, but they were sold out each time when we arrived during the day. Finally we joined the morning line and got tickets for an English language tour that morning. It was a small group of 12 and our English-speaking tour guide was very good. The cave is not large and you don't walk that far in the cave. I really liked this cave (I liked all the ones we visited).

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Group tour at the cave entrance.

Google Map

Lascaux Cave

Lascaux Cave (Grotte de Lascaux) contains prehistoric cave paintings from the Paleolithic period (17,000+ years old). There are over 2,000 drawings of animals and people. The cave was discovered in 1940 and opened to the public in 1948. The many visitors caused damage because of the carbon dioxide produced by breathing and the cave was closed in 1963. A replica cave opened in 1983.

Lascaux II, which opened in 1983, reproduced 90 percent of the cave's wall art (the Great Hall of the Bulls and the Painted Gallery). It was located in a natural cave near the original. Lascaux 3 was a traveling exhibition showing highlights from the site. With Lascaux 4, opened December 2016, the entire Lascaux cave has been reconstructed. This reproduction took a team of 30 workers four years to complete at a cost of 66 million euros.

We visited Lascaux II on a rainy day in May 2013. The site was well worth visiting. Even though it is a replica, you are in a cave and the drawings have been reproduced exactly. The tour was less than an hour long. We also visited several of the smaller caves in the area, where you see the original paintings.

Location: France - Novelle-Aquitaine - Dordogne - Montignac
Lascaux Cave is located near the town of Montignac in the Vézère Valley. Lascaux is the best known cave art site but there are others where you can visit the original cave, not a replica. The town of Les Eyzies, south of Montignac, has a good archaeological museum.
Website: Lascaux Cave

Google Map

Rouffignac Cave

Rouffignac Cave (Grotte de Rouffignac), a few kilometres from the Vézère Valley, is a large cave with more than 8 km of galleries and more than 250 animal drawings from prehistoric times (over 14,000 years ago). These are black line drawings and engravings, 158 of which are drawings of mammoths. You don't have to do a long walk to see the drawings in this cave, you are taken in on an electric train.

Location: France - Aquitaine - Dordogne - Rouffignac Saint Cernin
Rouffignac is located near the Vézère Valley (La vallée de la Vézère).
Tickets: Tickets are sold at the site for visits the same day. The number of visitors is limited and you cannot reserve ahead. Bring warm clothes, these caves are cold. This cave does not involve a long walk. Instead you tour the cave on an electric train.
Website: Rouffignac Cave

We visited Rouffignac in May 2013 after seeing Lascaux. We were able to get tickets for the next tour, but had to wait nearly an hour for it to start (and there is nothing to do there while waiting). They take your group in on a small open air train, stopping at a few places to show engravings on the cave walls. They stop the train at the large open cave where you get out to view the drawings, most of which are on the ceiling which is not that far above, so you get a good view of them.

I thought this cave might prove "too touristy", more of a theme park ride than archaeological experience. In practice, however, the train serves as an effective and practical way to move visitors through the distances between notable groupings of art in a way that minimizes the deteriorating effects of human presence.

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Entrance to the cave.

Google Map

Niaux Cave

Niaux Cave (Grotte di Niaux) has prehistoric cave paintings made more than 13,000 years ago. You can take a guided tour into the cave and see the original paintings in one part of the cave. This is one of the few caves with cave paintings that is open to the public. The Prehistory Park nearby shows detailed replicas of parts of the cave not open to the public.

Location: France - Midi-Pyrénées - Ariege - Tarascon-sur-Ariège
The cave is located up a hillside from the town of Niaux and the drive from the town is on a narrow (but paved) mountain road. There is lots of parking at the cave entrance. The way to the cave is well signed. It was a 1 1/2 hr drive from Carcassonne (where we were staying). If you drive this route, stop in Mirepoix on the way. This town has a beautiful medieval center.
Tickets: Book in advance to visit the cave. Nearby is the Prehistory Park (Parc de la Préhistoire) with information on the history of the cave plus replicas of the caves showing the art.
Website: Tourist Sites in Ariège

I highly recommend visiting this cave if you are in the area. The cave drawings are amazing, the cave itself is interesting and this area in the foothills of the Pyrenees is beautiful. Visiting Niaux was the highlight of our trip to southern France and was the first time I have seen prehistoric cave art.

We booked the day before by phone for the English tour. The tour was full (20 people). Our guide was very good and gave us great information about the cave art. The tour took 1 1/2 hours. The drawings are located in the "Salon Noir" about 800 meters from the cave entrance. It took 30 minutes to walk in, we spent 30 minutes looking at all the drawings, then 30 minutes to walk back out.

In the cave there are no lights (they supply flashlights), no walkways (the cave floor has a thin layer of concrete so it is easy to walk on but it is a bit damp) and railings only in a few places. The cave is large, with a very high "ceiling" so you don't feel closed in. There is only one short narrow passage that you go through. There is a short uphill walk at the end, but overall it is not a difficult walk. It is cool in the cave but not cold. Wear a sweater or jacket and good walking shoes.

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Entrance to the Niaux cave.

Google Map

Pech Merle Cave

Pech Merle (Grotte du Pech Merle) is a large cave with prehistoric cave art from as long ago as 20,000 BC. This cave has drawings of spotted horses, bison, mammoths and hands. You can see footprints left by the prehistoric people. The cave was closed off during the thawing of the last Ice Age in 10,000 BC and was discovered again in 1922 by two teenagers. It has been open to the public since 1926. There are many other caves with cave art in this area but they are not open to the public.

Location: France - Midi-Pyrénées - Lot - Cabrerets
It is a bit of a drive on country roads to get to Pech Merle. Parking onsite. The cave entrance is in the gift shop.
Tickets: Pech Merle is not open year round; check the website for opening times. Reserve online and pay for your tickets on the day of the tour. English tours available.
Website: Pech Merle Cave

We visited Pech Merle in May 2013. We spent the night at a hotel in St Cirq and visited Pech Merle the next morning before driving up to the Dordogne where we spent a week. This is an amazing cave. I liked seeing the reverse hand prints on the walls. Our tour was in English and the guide explained the cave and the paintings in detail. It was a wonderful experience.

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Cave entrance in the visitor shop.

Google Map

National Prehistoric Museum

The National Prehistoric Museum (Musée National de Préhistoire) in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac has collections from archaeological sites in the Vézère Valley. The museum is built into the hillside, almost like a prehistoric cave. The collection is very interesting. Combine a visit to the museum with a visit to the nearby Font-de-Gaume cave.

Location: France - Novelle-Aquitaine - Dordogne - Les Eyzies-de-Tayac
The town of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac is the center of the Vézère Valley. The Vézère River is a tributary of the Dordogne River. The prehistory theme park, Le Thot, in this area. This river valley also has many outdoor activities like walking/hiking, biking, canoeing.
Website: Vézère Valley

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Entrance.

Google Map

More Photos
You cannot take photos inside the caves, but I have photos of the cave locations and some replicas.
 

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