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The Painted Caves of the Perigord in Languedoc, France

Around 500,000 years ago the towering cliffs and lush river valleys of southwestern France first became home to humans. Around 35,000 years ago the caves that dot the cliffs became more than simple refuge: they became canvasses for a form of human creativity that reached its highest point around 12,000 years ago. Using torches and branches or paintbrushes made from animal hair, prehistoric artists created vibrant representations of the animals that made up their world.

Les Eyzies de Tayac, the "Capital of Prehistory," is a tiny village deep in the Dordogne (also known as the Périgord), with its single street tucked against towering cliffs on one side and the Vezere river running on the other. Located within a couple of miles of painted and sculpted caves and the National Museum of Pre- history, the village displays thousands of artifacts discovered in the area.

My husband and I rented a car in Nice. We drove through Provence into Languedoc, passing Carcassonne and Toulouse, and headed northwest into the Perigord. At Montauban we turned north on the N20, a route that took us deep into rural and unspoiled countryside. Medieval towns seemed almost untouched by modern times.

Like many of the town's buildings, the main hotel, the Cro-Magnon, is built against the cliff and its fourth wall consists of the natural rock itself. Jacque and Cristiane Leyssales, the hotel's friendly English-speaking proprietors, encouraged us to wander upstairs where we could see the rough rock wall jutting out into the corridor. "My grandfather built the hotel," Monsieur Leyssales said.

The National Museum of Prehistory, only a short walk from our hotel, was created from the ruins of a 16th century chateau built against the cliff. Artifacts from the Vezere Valley are displayed chronologically.

The most famous of the painted caves, Lascaux, has been closed for many years to protect its fragile art, and those caves that remain open limit the number of people admitted per day. Reservations well ahead of time are essential. An exact replica of Lascaux, Lascaux II, is nearby and can be visited. But this time we wanted to concentrate on the real thing, so we made reservations to see two caves only a couple of miles from Les Eyzies: Font-de-Gaume and Combarelles.

We can understand using caves for shelter but why were the cave paintings made? The lack of evidence that anyone actually lived where the pictures are found lends credence to the theory that they may have been sacred sites-Paleolithic cathedrals decorated with icons representing the animals that provided food and warmth and, therefore, life. The caves are worlds made of fantastical and phantasmagoric shapes-dream landscapes that seen dimly in flickering torchlight must have inspired these ancient people to depths of imagination not known to the outside world. Some theorize that the caves were seen as the womb of Mother Earth and the source of all creation. Whatever the reason, they are truly beautiful works of art.

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Getting There: The train from Paris Austerlitz station to Périgueux costs $55 (second class). If you drive from Périgueux, take the N89 east to the D706 south. From Brive, take the N89 west to the D706 south. A car rental from Avis costs $217 for a week.

Where to Stay: Hotel Cro-Magnon, 54, Avenue de la Prehistoire 24620 Les Eyzies; 05-53-06-97-06, fax 05-53-06-95-45;; $46-$73 per night, per room, for two people. Pool and gardens. Closed October to May.

Maison de la France - French Government Tourist Office
444 Madison Av, 16th floor, New York, NY 10022; tel : 212-745-0952; fax: 212 838-7855;;

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