Discover Southern France’s Ancient Underworld
You may already know that Southern France is a patchwork of gorgeous rolling countryside, rural culinary delights at every farmer’s market, and neat rows of vineyard grapes as far as the eye can see. But do you know about the secret and (very) ancient underworld lying just beneath?
The Dordogne region’s impressive superterranean rocky cliffs hint at the layers of history vertically documented in the landscape. But these aren’t just old rocks; these rocks are prehistoric. While the staggering age of the cliffs above ground is awe-inspiring enough, the story becomes even more astounding as you dive deeper underground.
The Dordogne and surrounding areas are home to some of the most magnificent geological gems in the world. As you descend into these subterranean caves, the magnitude of what you are about to see literally weighs on you as you breathe in the cool, damp, heavy air. In the darkness and silence a single drip can be heard echoing off the hard mineralized rock of the caverns and tunnel ways.
You can imagine how terrified the first cave explorers would have been venturing into this unknown and foreboding new world. But today, as you walk or paddle deeper into the heart of these caves, now lit up to show off their arresting grandeur, the sense of timelessness and isolation is strangely calming.
Elegant stalactite and stalagmite formations are natural architectural masterpieces, and the slowest such constructions in the world, forming at an average rate of 0.13 millimetres per year. The smooth, slippery rock seems to ooze with moisture, and the flat, crystal-clear pools, despite their serenity, seem to come alive in the organic lips, shelves and trickling streams they create. Though the exact scene you see before you may only be tens of thousands of years old, these cave systems have been ever-changing for millions.
Two of the most highly acclaimed caves in the region, Gouffre de Padirac and Gouffre de Proumeyssac, offer some of the most spectacular instances of soaring underground cathedrals, towering calcified columns and beautiful sculptural relics.
Gouffre de Padirac
Seventy-five metres underground is where your journey begins, on a boat ride through twisting underground rivers, so narrow in places you’ll need to duck your head. As you venture deeper, each “room” seems more splendid than the last. In the “vault” you will set eyes on Le Grande Pendeloque, a 60-metre high stalactite, one of the largest known in the world.
Gouffre de Proumeyssac
Enter on foot, or if you’re feeling brave, descend in a gondola and hang suspended in a huge cathedral-sized cavern adorned with breathtaking concretions, many of which resemble colossal sea creatures. On the floor of this “Crystal Cathedral” are racks of pottery and sculpture, slowly being coated in calcite, a mineral dissolved in the water dripping from above. The pieces will spend up to a year and sometimes longer in the cave, and emerge with a glistening crystallized surface for visitors to take home a piece of the magic.
It is astonishing how clearly these subterranean geological masterpieces reveal the organic but orderly patterns of nature over time. Southern France’s ancient underworld is a humbling reminder that the earth is a powerful living system that marches to the almost unfathomably slow beat of its own drum.