Updated: 27th May 2019
Besides its most recent history, France – and the south in particular – is known for its ancient historical sites. The country, in fact, boasts some of the best-preserved examples in the entirety of Europe. Tourists and locals alike are amazed by the spectacles, none-more-so than the caves of Provence and Dordogne where traces of ancient human civilisation remain, even to this day. As well as being historical treasures, these caves act as geological marvels with amazing views that will dazzle visitors of all ages. If you’re wondering which caves to visit, below are our recommendations which are worth visiting on your luxury family holidays in France.
Aven d’Orgnac, Provence
The story of Aven d’Orgnac originates over a hundred million years ago with the formation of the limestone rocks that make up the cave walls. Inside, cave dwellers would gather around fires to tell tales and sharpen flint blades. Hidden under Provence, these caves remained untouched by modern civilisation until their discovery in 1935 by Robert de Joly – a famous French cave explorer. Four years later, the caves were opened to the public, and they have been enjoyed ever since. Since 1939, visitors have marvelled the enormous underground chambers made up of crystal formation spires.
Explore Aven d’Orgnac yourself with an hour-long, guided tour. Highlights include walking past many staggering stalactites and stalagmites. This activity is perfect on a hot day as you will be able to cool off in the caves because the temperature remains a constant 13°C. There’s no need to worry about the climb back out, either, as a lift will return you to the surface at the end of the tour.
Gouffre de Padirac, Dordogne
This cave is the site of over ‘130 years of history’, according to its official tourist website. The enormous hole in the surface of the earth has been the feature of many folk legends, with imaginations running wild about the cave’s origins. Some believed it was left by the Devil, who, on rebelling Saint Martin, created the cave with the smack of his mighty talon. Others accredit this cave to other mystic powers and beings in folklore. Perhaps the most renowned story of the Gouffre de Padriac is told by the people of the Lot Department. These inhabitants said that flames rose from the cave to defend hidden treasure left in the cave by Englishmen after the Hundred Years’ War.
Tossing legends and stories aside, Édouard-Alfred Martel decided to explore this cave for himself and open it to the public, backed by George Beamish, the heir to the Irish brewing family. Following months of organising and implementing works, the two opened the caves to its first visitors in November of 1898. The cave continued to grow in success as visitor numbers rose, each sightseer charmed by the spells of this cave with a mystical heritage.
This spectacular cave is so vast that part of the 90-minute tour offered is taken by gondola. As you gently traverse the water, you’ll see several striking and impressive geological features. Gouffre de Padirac is no longer the area’s best-kept secret, however, so the queues can be quite long. If you’re travelling from a long distance away, a great idea is to combine the trip with a visit to the pretty town of Rocamadour.
Gouffre de Proumeyssac, Dordogne
This French cave was famed in the eighteenth century due to the chilling legends associated with it. Perhaps the most bizarre is the one about the ducks adorned in ribbons which were thrown into the cave. Days later, they were found swimming the Vézère river, unscathed. Aside from the stories associated with the Gouffre de Proumeyssac, the cave also is known for being the largest developed cave in the Périgord. It is also coined the “Crystal Cathedral” due to the number of unique crystallisations that hang from the walls alongside attractive stalactites and stalagmites.
To visit this cave in the olden days was to descend in groups of three in a basket powered by horses. You can experience how it must have felt for the first visitors by being lowered in a basket yourself through a hole in the ceiling of the main cave. However, for those that like to feel their feet on the ground, can take the option to walk down instead. But first, before you descend, you will bear witness to an entertaining sound and light show that brings to life the magic of these French caves. A panoramic view can be experienced at the bottom by a gondola that has been in operation since 1907!
La Grotte du Grand Roc
With the entrance located halfway up a cliff face overseeing the Vézère river, it was a huge surprise to all when La Grotte du Grand Roc was first discovered in 1927. This cave is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a visit here can show you why. Inside the cave, visitors will discover some unusual triangular crystallised rock formations alongside the typical stalactites and stalagmites. The tour around the caves is a short one, so perfect for young kids, though we would highly recommend combining your visit with a trip somewhere else nearby.
What’s more, the cavern feels almost like what you imagine a fairy grotto to be, adding an element of magic for the children. Never opening up into a large space, this cave is made up of tiny little passages with tiny formations that shoot off in all directions along the chamber walls.
For something unique, you can visit these caves on Monday evenings, between mid-July and mid-August, by torchlight. Exploring the caves in this manner will help you see how they were first discovered in 1924 by Jean Maury. To ensure you see it in all its glory, the caves are lit up by lights at the end of the visit. Your night-time tour will also take you to the Laugerie Basse, a rock shelter used by the Cro-Magnon people.
Lascaux II Show Caves
First discovered in 1940 by Marcel Ravidat and his dog, the Lascaux caves are perhaps the most famous in France, if not the entire world. These caves of international importance are located just 30km north of the medieval town of Sarlat. While the original caves remain open to only those who are studying them, an extremely faithful replica which has been 15 years in the making has been made for the public. The reason for limiting access was the exposure to air and viewers, which led to an increase in mould and calcium deposits that could ruin the paintings.
The famous cave paintings which line the walls have been painstakingly recreated, with all the incredible colours of reds, ochres and blacks used in the originals. What’s interesting is that some of the best minds are still trying to decipher the meanings of the signs and symbols on the cave walls. It’s not yet been discovered the reason for decorating these caves as burial sites and habitation purposes have been ruled out.
A visit here will see you taken around by knowledgeable and interesting guides that can tell you everything you need and want to know about these caves. This is a truly fascinating place to visit for anyone interested in ancient history.
These are just a few of the caves to visit when you holiday in France. For more information on activities for your vacation, be sure to keep an eye on our blog. Alternatively, get in touch with our holiday advisors to help you plan your trip.
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