The Grotto Pech Merle near Cabrerets is about 20 minutes from Cahors, in the Lot region of France. It’s also about an 1 hour 20 minute drive from where we were staying at the Le Farguiel Gite at Montaigu de Quercy. This was probably the furthest we travelled during our five days but was worth it to see the cave’s unique prehistoric paintings.
Any local tourist map shows that the Lot is quite frankly littered with under ground caverns or grottos, in fact there are two much nearer Montaigu De Quercy – the Grotte de Roland and Grottes de Fontirou. This area is dominated by the Causse de Gramat, a huge area of natural limestone which lies between the Dordogne and Cele rivers.
The grottos across the region, including the Pech Merle, were formed by an underground river flowing through the limestone, cutting underground channels and creating subterranean galleries later used by prehistoric man. At Pech Merle there are in fact four layers to the underground network, the first two are open to the public.
What is unique to the Pech Merle are the mural paintings created by neolithic artists which use the geological formations to add depth and life to their engravings – some of these were created more than 25,000 years ago. It’s suspected that a rock slide sealed off the entrance to this subterranean network 10,000 years ago, keeping it pristine, until its discovery by two teenage boys in 1922.
The cave’s 20th century discovery is almost the plot of a Hollywood film. Andre David and Henri Dutertre, aged just 16, discovered the cave by climbing down a narrow opening in the system and scraping away the clay that covered the entrance to reveal the ‘White Room’. They nearly did not make it back to the surface, getting lost underground.
Despite this and some stern warnings from the local priest, Abbe Lemozi, the pair went back to unearth the great gallery. Lemozi made the first comprehensive recording of the cave’s paintings. Now only 700 visitors are allowed per day to view the caves, in strict 50 minute slots, to avoid damaging the cave’s fragile environment with carbon dioxide pollution amongst other things. (So book in advance!)
Even in tours of 25 people, walking through the cave is a mystical experience. Twelve preserved footprints of children in fossilised clay can be found almost a mile underground, its impossible to know exactly how old they are – but as the cave was sealed off almost 10,000 years ago – we know that these are the footsteps of our ancient ancestors!
Due to the cave’s precious ecosystem, photography is strictly regulated to scientific study only. So I bought a few postcards to remember these impressive cave paintings by – thanks to Grotto Pech Merle for the momento!
The Frieze of the Dotted Horses is over 4 metres long and the painter has used the unevenness of the rock to give a three dimensional edge to the paintings and uses the formation of the rock to create the horses head. The horses are decorated with precisely 252 black dots, which we actually suspect were applied with a delicate spitting technique, and the negative hand prints of six human hands.
In fact the human hand prints can be found across the cave system. It’s unclear if they are a religious sign, a signature or a mark of territory. But they are both wondrous and ghostly. The Black Freize, which has been painted with a mixture of charcoal, iron oxide and manganese dioxide, is also known as the Chapel of the Mammoths and shows 11 mammoths, 5 bison, 4 horses and 4 aurochs (cattle).
Our prehistoric cave painters have used materials easily at there disposal and in some places the rock formations have been so soft, they’ve just drawn with their fingers to make abstract marks and symbols.
I’d add that tours are conducted in French, but English written guides are available on request. Either way you’ll never see anything like it. Personally, my Rough Guide rates the museum, but I thought it was a bit lack lustre.
Similarly, there’s not much in the way of food facilities at the Grotto, which is why you are much better off heading in to Cabrerets and going to the Hotel Restaurant des Grottes. For a bargain 25 euros you can enjoy a local feast. On the banks of the Le Bout de Lieu, a tributary to the Lot, the restaurant serves a number of spécialité locale including my Dad’s smoked trout starter, served in thick ruddy slices (like a less dainty smoked salmon plate), which would put our trout to shame. Tom also had local trout with courgette ribbons and herb provenance dressing for his main.
Mum and I had a soft goat cheese (I suspect local from Rocamadour) drizzled in truffle oil as a starters followed be the fois gras (which was unusually served as an escalope) on a risotto rice bed. Fois gras is, as my DK Eyewitness says ‘probably the region’s most famous delicacy’. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea and it’s not particularly kind on the Perigord geese, which is its main source.
The dessert menu included a walnut and caramel tart, slightly akin to its pecan cousin, but on a thinner crispier pastry base and not so sickly sweet. Walnuts grow in abundance across the Dordogne and Lot where plantations hug the river valleys. Walnuts are traditionally served naked, with cheese, or used in breads and tarts – like the one Tom, Mum and Dad devoured!
I had a chocolate fondant the likes of which only the French could deliver – it was a gooey chocolaty cloud. And no lunch is complete without a bottle of the region’s finest and organic no less!
We stayed at Le Fargueil near Montaigu de Quercy organised by the team at Halycon Leisure over a long bank holiday. You can read about our stay here and check out their other suggestions for the area here.
Le Fargueil makes a great base for exploring the whole Lot region and we also visited Cahors, Lauzerte, Mossiac and several vineyards. All to be featured on the blog!