River Vézère is a tributary of the Dordogne. In the late 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, a large number of caves with well-preserved prehistoric art have been discovered in the Vézère Valley, which lays basis for its sometime claim as “the cradle of the European civilization”. In 1979, only the second year since the inception of the World Heritage list, a number of these primeval sites were recognized as a World Heritage property. (Somewhat inexplicably, the short description of the site mentions 147 locations and 25 decorated caves, while only 15 locations are explicitly named in the “map” section.)
I set aside most of one day on our itinerary for visiting these prehistoric sites, hoping to see at least three or four.
The first site was a wash. Grotte de Font de Gaume is among the most popular of the caves. You cannot buy tickets in advance, and only 50 people are allowed in during the course of the day. The caves open doors at 9:30am, and you realistically need to be there by 8:30 in order to get a ticket for some later time in the day. We arrived around 9:05 and were approximately at #70 in line. I knew in advance that there was a fair chance of that, but getting up much earlier to spend an hour or more in line for tickets is rarely an acceptable strategy for yours truly; I was hoping that in the shoulder season there may be less competition for tickets, but was proven wrong.
Instead, we went to Abri de Cap Blanc, where at 9:40am we were the first in line for the opening at 10 and only a dozen of other visitors joined us in the following hour. This is not a cave, but a preserved rock overhang (abri means “shelter” in French), where the art form is not painting but sculptural relief.
Unfortunately, inside photography is not allowed on the actual site, so you have to google for promotional images to get a look at the impressive rock carvings. I can only assure you that they were magnificent beyond any of my expectations. This replica of the horse’s head displayed in the onsite museum only hints at the size and detail of the preserved sculptures.
The museum also has a few other artifacts and exhibits related to the primeval residents of the valley. Among them is this female head reproduction.
A wall-size painting recreates the activity in and around the shelter 15,000 years ago.
If you recall my last year’s attempt to see prehistoric rock art in Catalonia, I was surprised that a World Heritage-inscribed location there was basically an open-air geographical feature with not a hint of preservation efforts around it. Not so in the Vézère Valley. The actual rock shelter of Cap Blanc is enclosed within a purpose-built structure; lighting, temperature, and humidity are all constantly regulated in the closed-off area of the abri; access is allowed only in small groups with a guide.
Here is the look at the visitor center from outside.
We next went to Grotte de Rouffignac, where it is possible to just walk in and get on the next tour of the cave. The electric tourist train goes almost two kilometers deep inside the cave, taking you to a series of monochrome drawings and engravings of various animals, dating from around 13,000 years ago. Interestingly, the guide stresses the fact that the cave was never really inhabited by the humans, and there is no good answer as to why people traveled so deep inside the dark passages to leave their artistic mark on the walls and the ceiling.
Interior photography again is not permitted, there is not much of a museum in the visitor center, and outside it was pouring rain, so I have no pictures of the Rouffignac caves.
Our final stop was Lascaux, the headline site of this World Heritage series, where a huge modern interpretive center (named “Lascaux IV”) was built a few years ago to cater to the masses. Everyone who tours Vézère prehistoric sites comes to Lascaux; buying tickets online in advance is highly recommended, although I expect that in low season you can probably walk in without an advance purchase.
Here is the outside view of the center.
There are no real caves at Lascaux IV (the real ones are located some distance away and are mostly closed to visitors). Your tour will take you to the replica of the caves, and then your guide will deposit you at “the Studio”, where you can explore the paintings and the history through many interactive exhibits. There are also short movies related to the discovery of the caves and the interpretation of its art, as well as an exhibition of modern art inspired by the primeval paintings.
You can take pictures in the Studio, so I snapped a few reproductions of the Lascaux paintings. They are polychrome – and almost too vivid to bring suspicion of not being authentic. But all available information suggests that these paintings indeed remained in this brilliant shape for millennia until their discovery in mid-20th century.
I used to think that primeval art was not exactly my cup of tea, but I am very much impressed with what I saw at the Vézère sites.
Majority of the sites are located no further than 30 minutes by car from either Sarlat or Perigueux. They are not managed by a single outfit and they all have different access policies. It is definitely possible to see three or four sites in one day, with proper research and planning.