Enjoy a different perspective on France by venturing below the surface to discover spectacular rock formations, prehistoric art, and social history. French specialist Gillian Thornton recommends ten of her favourite sites.
Grottes de Niaux, Ariège (Midi-Pyrenees)
Tucked in the shadow of the Pyrenees, the department of Ariège is one of the most important regions in France for prehistoric sites, but is less well known than the Lot and Dordogne. At the Grotte de Niaux in Tarascon-sur-Ariège, visitors walk through a door in the side of the cliff and follow an ancient river bed by flashlight for 800 metres, before being told to turn their lamps off. A moment of pitch darkness and suddenly your guide turns two beams on a frieze of bison and ibex, so real you think they’re going to leap from the wall. Painted by Magdalanian artists 14,000 years ago, the bodies follow the contours of the rock to create an extraordinary 3-D effect. Group sizes are limited, so book ahead to avoid disappointment; some tours are in English but you honestly don’t need words to enhance this fabulous experience. Humbling stuff.
Grottes de Pech-Merle, Lot (Midi-Pyrenees)
Located in a cliff face near the confluence of the Lot and Célé valleys, the Pech-Merle caves at Cabrerets contain cave paintings and engravings dating back as much as 25,000 years. Some aren’t immediately obvious but others, like the spotted horses, really stop you in your tracks.
Ancient people come vividly to life here through the traces they left behind – the prints of a child’s foot, fossilised in what was once soft mud on the cave floor, and hand prints outlined on the walls in red paint. You can easily imagine them blowing pigment against the rock face around their spread-eagled fingers. The result is a cross between Matisse genius and primary school enthusiasm, but the impact in this subterranean atmosphere is quite extraordinary.
Gouffre de Padirac, Lot (Midi-Pyrenees)
Lewarde Mining Museum, Nord (Nord-Pas de Calais)
Underground riches led to the flourishing of the mining industry in northern France around Lille and Lens. In recent years, the former coalfield area has undergone a massive regeneration with the building of new cultural centres, the opening of Louvre-Lens museum in December 2012, and the introduction of green spaces for walking and recreation. But the area is still proud of its industrial heritage and the former pit at Lewarde is now France’s largest mining museum. Visitors get a real sense of miners’ daily lives with tours of the changing rooms, machinery buildings, and even a section of the coalface. Expect lots of atmospheric exhibits, interactive experiences, and a few surprises along the way.
Grottes de Choranche, Isère (Rhône-Alpes)
Drive down the Rhône valley south of Lyon and the limestone plateau of the Vercors seems to rise sheer out of the landscape to the east of Valence. Locals will tell you that this ‘giant Gruyère’ is dotted with 3000 caves – or maybe one cave with 3000 entrances – and whilst several of the largest caverns are open to the public, the Grottes de Choranche remains my favourite. Visitors walk beside two underground rivers, imaginatively lit to spectacular effect and naturally decorated with unique ‘macaroni’ stalactites that hang in delicate strands above the coloured water. The experience finishes with a theatrical son et lumière which takes place in a vast domed chamber to stirring music – kitsch but compelling.
Grotte d’Osselle, Doubs (Franche-Comté)
Tucked against the Swiss border beneath Alsace-Lorraine, Franche-Comté is one of France’s less well-known regions, but stunningly pretty with its lush pastures, winding rivers and limestone hills. Amongst its many showpiece caves is the Grotte d’Osselle near Besançon, which ranks as one of the world’s first tourist caves, discovered in the 13th century and offering organised visits from the early 16th. Walk into the hillside and within a few yards you are amongst eye-popping stalagmites and stalactites, ‘frozen waterfall’ formations and, further inside, an underground river and the skeletons of giant bears. Level paths mean the cave is accessible to almost everyone, though be prepared to stoop in places and get dripped on occasionally.
Vézere Valley, Dordogne (Aquitaine)
North of Sarlat, the Vézère cuts diagonally through the limestone plateau to join the Dordogne at Limeuil. The valley is peppered with caves which have yielded nearly 150 Palaeolithic sites including 25 decorated caves, and in 1979, 15 of them were grouped together as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Musée National de Préhistoire at Les Eyzie-de-Tayac-Sireuil gives a great overview of our ancestors. After that you’re spoilt for choice. Lascaux II – a replica of the original cave – is the most famous, but I particularly enjoyed the Font de Gaume, just outside Les-Eyzies which shelters more than 200 original polychrome paintings and engravings of bison, reindeer and horses. Visitor numbers are carefully controlled though, so book ahead in peak season.
Wellington Quarry, Arras, Nord (Nord-Pas de Calais)
Aven d’Orgnac, Ardèche (Rhône-Alpes)
The Orgnac Open Pit – which seems to lose something in the translation – was discovered in 1935 by cave explorer Robert de Joly and opened to the public four years later. Huge underground chambers up to 30 metres high are decorated with stalagmites measuring as much as 25 metres tall. Visitors enter down a long flight of stairs and follow concrete paths and staircases to the deepest point, 121 metres below the surface, where a welcome lift whisks them back to ground level. Guides point out major features with the help of strategic lighting and the visit ends with an impressive son et lumière presentation. Do watch your possessions though – one pair of Thornton family sunglasses tumbled over the barrier and is now part of a 21st century stalagmite!
Trôo troglodyte village, Loir-et-Cher (Centre-Val-de-Loire)
It’s impossible for me to think about underground France without mentioning Trôo on the river Loir. Here narrow stairways lead up the cliff face to brightly painted doorways, tiny terraces festooned with flowers, and hidden windows looking out over quiet farmland. This is, quite literally, a different world, for Trôo is France’s most famous troglodyte village, a community where people have lived in cave homes since the Middle Ages. And still do. In Medieval times, Trôo had a population of 5,000, most of them living in crowded caves hollowed out of the soft tuffeau rock – the same material used to build the flamboyant Renaissance chateaux of the neighbouring Loire Valley. Today Trôo has just 350 residents and a third of its properties are second homes, but no two are the same. See how previous generations lived at the Cave des Yuccas then climb the narrow stairways to site of the old hilltop castle for panoramic views over the Loir Valley.
More about Gillian
Gillian Thornton has been a freelance journalist for more than 30 years, writing everything from parenting features to celebrity interviews, corporate copy to heritage articles. A member of the British Guild of Travel Writers, she has been concentrating on travel writing since 1998 and is a widely-acclaimed specialist on France, writing for all the Francophile newsstand titles as well as for ferry magazines, airline publications and tourist boards. Gillian also contributes travel features to The People’s Friend, My Weekly, Woman’s Weekly, and Go Holiday, on destinations as far apart as Finland and Oman, Florida and Poland, but she also loves travelling round Britain. ‘I never mind where I go,’ she says. ‘There’s always something new to discover.