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Christine Desdemaines-Hugon
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Font de Gaume is the only cave still open to the public with polychrome paintings, since both Lascaux and Altamira (Spain) are now closed for preservation reasons. The paintings belong to the Magdalenian epoch, and are possibly of two periods several thousand years apart: 18 000-17 000 years BP for the oldest, and around 14 000 years for the more recent. Bison, horses, mammoths and geometric signs line the walls, and there is the famous ‘scene’ of two reindeer facing each other, one licking the other. The subtlety of colour, the gentleness of the animals’ manner, and the beauty of the cave itself make this a most moving visit. (Limited to 12 people per visit)


Combarelles is an altogether different experience: here we have a 250 metres-long, narrow galery, winding its way deep inside the cliff, so low at times that the visitor has to stoop. Hundreds of fine engravings cover the walls, more and more superimposed in an inextricable tangle the deeper we go. This is an archaeologist’s favourite because of the variety of signs and animals (horses, bison, deer, reindeer, ibex, mammoths, woolly rhinoceros, wild donkey, bears, and the famous mountain lion figure), and the exceptional number of more than 50 human depictions. (Limited to 6 people per visit)


Rouffignac is, on the contrary, vast: ten kilometres of galeries, two of which were frequented by Cro-Magnon artists. It’s also exceptional for its more than 150 depictions of mammoths. An electrical train takes us through. This is linear art: animals and signs outlined in magnanese dioxyde, or finely engraved, or finger-drawn where the wall’s surface is soft enough.

The simplicity and accuracy of line here reveal the artist’s talent and expertise more in this cave, perhaps, than anywhere else. The Great Ceiling, one kilometer from the entrance, offers the viewer an unforgettable whirl of mammoths, bisons, and ibex.


Abri de Cap Blanc is the only site where you can see a masterpiece that is sculpted in high and low relief. It was originally an open shelter (‘abri’), and the art is now protected by a museum building. The panel consists of a line of bison, aurochs and horses, the central one of which is a truly magnificent life-size horse.


Bernifal, privately owned by a local farmer, is a magical experience because of the cave itself with its dripping stalactites of all shapes and sizes, the lack of electricity (a torch or two, no more), and of course the art, harder to see but just as fascinating as in the other sites. (I choose to limit the number of people to 6, because of certain narrow and fragile passages that need to be protected.)

Lascaux II is a copy of the world famous Lascaux cave now closed to the public for preservation reasons. Two spectacular chambers have been superbly reproduced: the shapes of the cave itself and the spectacular polychrome paintings are as close as possible to the originals (18 000 years old) and give the viewer a good idea of what this cave has to offer.

Cougnac is a little further South, in the Lot area. A glistening world of fine white stalactites, it’s the most beautiful of caves. The bright paintings might be of two periods, the oldest considered by some to date back to around 24 000 years. There are complex signs, finger markings throughout, strange human depictions, and, amongst the animals, magnificent representations of megaloceros and ibex.


(Note: the first five of the above-mentioned cave sites are described in detail in Christine”s book: “Stepping-Stones: A Journey through the Ice Age Caves of the Dordogne”. Yale University Press.)


For more information about tours, please contact Christine Desdemaines-Hugon:
Telephone: +33 (0) 553 07 26 04 / Fax: +33 (0) 553 03 77 09
Email: christinedesdemaines@gmail.com



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