Imagine that you are a speleogist (one who studies caves) and you are in an area known for its many caves – in this case above the Ardeche Gorge. You climb the limestone cliffs, doing a little exploring, when suddenly, unexpectedly, you feel a waft of cool air coming from a small opening. You squirm through the small opening and into a narrow tunnel having to chisel your way through at some points until finally you reach an enormous cave. Casting the light of your flashlight around you are startled to see some ancient drawings on the cave walls – and it turns out that these drawings were done 30,000 years ago, the oldest in the world!
The Cave du Pont d’Arc and it’s replica
This is what happened in 1994 when three French spelelogists did just that. The cavern is named after one of them, Jean-Marie Chauvet. Along with those fantastic drawings (there are over one hundred depicting horses, mammoths, bears and even rhinoceroses), there are handprints, abstract markings, fossilized remains, bear skulls and fire pits. There is also a set of a child’s footprints left about a thousand years after the drawings were done and before a landslide occurred blocking the entrance and protecting the interior.
The cave has been sealed off to prevent further damage from visitors, its walls and drawings are so delicate that they have to be protected. However a wonderful replica, the Caverne du Pont d’Arc, has been built, the largest cave replica ever. The art is reproduced in an underground environment in a circular building above ground with the same sensations of silence, darkness, temperature, humidity and acoustics as the real thing. Sculptors and painters, under the supervision of scientists, recreated each geological and artistic characteristic of the decorated Cave of Pont-d’Arc. It took four years to create, is wheelchair friendly and is estimated to have cost about 54 million Euros.
Visit the Cave du Pont d’Arc
You can only visit in small groups with a guide, with most tours done in French although there is an activated recording in a headset in many languages and the tour takes around 50 minutes. You quickly forget you are in a replica as you wander through the cave looking in wonder at the drawings and the bear skulls. The most monumental panel is of 36 lions, chasing down nearly 100 mammoths, bison, and rhinoceroses.
It truly is fascinating.
The grounds of the Cavern are well landscaped and there is food and drink available. The museum on the grounds gives some very interesting information on the cavern and life as it was 32,000 years ago. It is found near the city of Pont d’Arc, a lively place filled with tourists, and is just a few kilometres from the original cave and the famous gorge.
- Reserve online before you go, the number of people able to enter is limited. Website: cavernedupontdarc.fr
- There is a free shuttle service from the bus station at Vallon Pont d’Arc.
- A visit to the Galerie de l’Aurignacien is unguided and takes about 45 minutes – you can visit this before or after the cave.
Linda Mathieu, a native Texan, lives in France with her French husband. She was a Paris Tour Guide and is the author of Secrets of a Paris Tour Guide, available at www.amazon.com.