The Cave of Forgotten Dreams –
When the prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux were discovered in 1940, they created a sensation. Over the decades, thousands flocked to see the famous pot-bellied horses – so many, in fact, that the paintings started to deteriorate. Eventually the French government created an imitation cave – Lascaux II – and that’s what tourists visit today.
When the Chauvet Grotto was discovered twenty years ago, the government decided to avoid its earlier mistake. Even older than Lascaux, the Grotto was sealed off from all but a few scientists and artists. Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, gave the world its first glimpse of these ancient wonders.
The Caverne du Pont d’Arc
Two years ago a new museum complex opened, called the Caverne du Pont d’Arc it recreates the Chauvet Grotto and its many glories. About an hour north of Avignon, the Caverne is at the end of the Gorge d’Ardeche, a steep, winding gorge created by waters of the Ardeche River.
If you are daring, you can reach it by taking the narrow road cut into the gorge’s cliff. It features 800-foot sheer drops and no guardrails. The views are spectacular but you might prefer the more sedate route along the D4.
The paintings in the Chauvet Grotto are the oldest in the world, dating back 36,000 years – a time when Homo sapiens and Neanderthals still competed for survival. They depict animals like buffalo, lions and rhinos that no longer exist in Europe.
The Caverne not only recreates the paintings but the entire cave, including stalagmites and stalactites and animal bones on the ground. The bear skulls arranged in a semi-circle are especially striking. Guided tours run throughout the day and booking ahead is strongly advised.
The adjoining museum explains the history of the cave, the region, and humanity’s development in Europe. It has full-sized recreations of many of the prehistoric animals painted in the caves, like wholly rhinos. And there are “ask the scientist” kiosks where famous scientists answer questions in a very engaging way.