Blog WHS Visits

WHS #732: Vézère Valley

The Vézère Valley was my last WHS ‘to do’ in mainland France. In preparation I found it difficult to get a good overview of the Vézère locations, especially for a visit out of season. So I made a spreadsheet to come to terms with the different access policies. It turns out that 2 out of the 15 locations are permanently closed to visitors, 6 aren’t open during winter months and the others … well, lots of oddities there as well. A general warning: always check the opening hours on the French section of the respective official website, as they may not always update the English version.

Fence around Lascaux I

I started my visit with a pilgrimage to Lascaux I – the original Lascaux cave. It has been closed off to visitors since 1963, but on Google Streetview I noticed that a paved road runs along its entrance. I left my car at the entrance to Lascaux II and went on further exploration on foot. The whole area was eerily quiet and there are a lot of No Entry signs, but accessing this road seems to be OK. What you’ll find in the end is only a fence and a gate of course, but it has a UNESCO sign!

I continued with attending the last tour of the day at Lascaux IV, the 2016 replica. The tour is already well-described in earlier reviews; I found it disappointing. Especially the audiovisual experience at the end is awkward. With a 20 EUR entrance fee, I’d say skip Lascaux IV and go for one of the original locations.

The next morning I got up early for a special reason: to get inside the Font de Gaume cave, the only original painted site that still can be visited. Tickets cannot be booked in advance: you have to secure one of the numbered seats in front of the ticket office before the opening hour of 9.30. In the busy summer months you have to be there by 7 a.m., on a Sunday in February I guessed 8.15 would be fine. It turned out I was the first of the day. Eventually 12 more visitors showed up. We were all able to join the first scheduled tour at 10.00.

Entrance to the Font de Gaume cave

One can enter this cave for 30 minutes only with a guide. There is a narrow passage through the cave and you have to be careful not to scrape along the walls with your clothes: it is all very fragile. The only modification made for modern visitors is the addition of electrical lighting. As in Lascaux, the light-colored calcite walls are decorated with images of animals. We saw (many) bison, mammoths, reindeer and horses. Black and red (brown) are the most used colors here.

At the beginning of the cave, the paintings are unfortunately damaged by graffiti from early visitors. Deeper into the cave system the scenes get more and more beautiful: two reindeer standing head to head, a male deer licking a female and a row of 5 fully colored, clearly distinguishable bison. This cave is surely worth the early rise and waiting outside for an hour in the cold!

Licking bison ornament found at La Madeleine

Also in the town of Les Eyzies, the National Prehistoric Museum holds finds from the caves and other regional prehistoric sites. One of the most special is an oil lamp found in Lascaux - 17,000 years old and shaped like a large spoon. It used to be filled with animal fat. From La Madeleine, they show an object cut from reindeer antlers: it represents a bison licking itself. The archaeological site of La Madeleine is unfortunately closed in winter. I drove there anyway, hoping to see something from a distance, but it is well closed off. What rests is a view of the Vézère, the river that meanders like a thread through this prehistoric valley.

Els - 23 February 2020

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Els Slots 25 February 2020

Lascaux I is much bigger than Font de Gaume, with a lot more paintings. So in that way it is special.
Both have polychrome paintings, while the Grotte de Niaux 'only' has black-outlined drawings.
Whether Lascaux I is better than the Chauvet Cave (Pont d'Arc), which was discovered much later, I couldn't say.

Dennis Nicklaus 25 February 2020

I haven't ben to Lascaux (yet!), but maybe some of you can tell me why Lascaux I is the most pre-eminent "cave man art" cave? I feel it is the only one that would have any name recognition in the general public. Are the drawings there that much better or numerous than what you saw in Font de Gaume or others saw at Rouffignac? I haven't been to Lascaux, but I feel incredibly privileged to have gone inside Grotte de Niaux near the Pyrenees a couple years ago and to see the prehistoric art there. Your description of the paintings in Font de Gaume makes them sound better than Niaux, but maybe you're just a better writer. Is Lascaux even better? Or was it just the first to become famous and is shorthand for the entire region?

Clyde 23 February 2020

Yes indeed. I'm glad it's still possible to visit, but like Tsunami I have no photos of the interior.

Zoë Sheng 23 February 2020

Yeah that hall at the end with the visual/audio stuff using the tablet is just plain waste of time, to make us think the entrance cost is worth the money, right? The guide was always saying the art would "blow our minds" but well...I could have seen it in 5 minutes and it took him 20min to get us all excited instead.

Els Slots 23 February 2020

Indeed, photos are not allowed in Font de Gaume. You cannot bring anything into the cave and you even have to tuck your hoodie into your jacket/coat to prevent scratches onto the rock surface (it is very narrow and dark inside).

P.S.: according to your review you have visited Font de Gaume as well (albeit some years ago), Clyde?

Tsunami 23 February 2020

I think it was also in February in 2009 when I visited the Font de Gaume, staying overnight in Les Eyzies and walking to the cave entrance early in the morning. The fact that I have only a photo of the entrance to the cave (just like one by Els here) makes me think no photos were allowed inside, which makes sense. But the main thing I remember is that I bought a T-shirt with some paintings from the cave, but it was lost in mail from France to LA.

Incidentally, a few weeks ago this February when I was in France, I missed out on going to Grotte Chauvet from Avignon, due to the lack of proper prep and the lack of public transportation in winter. Hope to go back to France this summer.

Clyde 23 February 2020

Seems like the new Lascaux IV replica is quite disappointing. Not only is it more expensive but it's not a cave replica like Lascaux II (14e entrance) but a replica of the wall paintings hanging in the air.

Font de Gaume seems worth visiting. Is photography not allowed there?