Into the Abyss and Back Again… the Gouffre de Padirac Dordogne – the French “Devil’s Hole” is an amazing and unique natural wonder in France says intrepid Francophile Bob Lyons…
I visited the Dordogne valley region in France and decided to call in at what the French call the ‘Devil’s Hole’. Considered one of the greatest geological curiosities of France and the largest of its type in the country, the official name is the ‘Gouffre de Padirac’ and in it is hidden many mysterious features and opportunities for adventure.
The village of Padirac is in the Lot department of the Midi-Pyrenées region, close to Bretenoux. The devil’s hole was formed when a vast chunk of the local limestone terrain collapsed leaving a large, gaping crater in the ground 33 metres across. It was discovered by Eduard-Alfred Martel, a local lawyer and opened to the keen viewing public in 1898. Arriving for a guided tour, we began our descent, taking some of the total of 560 Eiffel inspired steps that we would have to use before our journey was complete. After a fairly brief period of precipitous and cautious legwork, we transferred to the first of two lifts that would take us deep into the bowels of the earth. Down we went, all the way to the eerie limestone and secret, Cathedral-like world that lived all by itself in the deep underground.
The tour started on foot. We were led along confined and tightly fenced pathways. The natural geology consisted of towering limestone and mammoth like features, with stalactites and stalagmites of enormous proportion – a stunning sight. Natural water dripped onto us from the vast ceiling high above our heads. The route through the rock formations was artificially lit; it would have been pitch black if the power had failed, although our guide assured us that two completely separate mains supplies always powered the system. The air was damp yet strangely mild. The temperature, both day and night, is always constant at 13°C and the humidity constant at 98%.
On either side of the pathways, shallow and natural waterways were flowing. To begin with, they are about 50 centimetres deep and contain primitive life. Rare species of shrimps and snails bobbed along all around us. The limestone pillars above us are home to over 11 species of bat. Three of them are of endangered breeds and live only in this ‘Devil’s Hole’. I felt as though I were walking on a strange and faraway planet completely divorced from any familiar human experience. After a few hundred meters, we were instructed, the journey would continue by boat.
As we proceeded by boat, the water got deeper and the stream turned into a 4 meter deep lake called the Lac de la Pluie or Rain Lake, a very appropriate description. By now my best blazer was getting quite damp. Very close above us we could see the great and majestic stalactite called the Grande Pendeloque. Its nose almost touched the surface of the water in the lake and its bulk stretched to more than 60 metres way up to the ceiling above. It was an extraordinarily impressive natural feature. Its surface dripped with natural, constantly eroding yet re-sculpturing rainfall dribble.
Further along, we came to the Great Dome, a cavernous space of enormous proportions rising to a ceiling 94 metres above our heads. To experience such a spectacle more than 100 metres below the earth’s surface in semi darkness and damp, fetid air is a grandiose experience.
I did not react very happily to my underground tour. I thought it was a little bit like being in my grave as the all enveloping and jagged rock formations blanked any conscious contact with the familiar world still so high above me. I am not claustrophobic but I wanted to return to where my known world was. As we approached the home run, I spied a metal bust of the explorer Martel emerging from the gloomy and watery limestone. Just for a moment I thought it was Saint Peter, glaring at me, barring my passage across the pearly gates. I needed something strong and French to settle my nerves.
I personally found that my trip was a strangely profound experience. I really felt that I had briefly walked on a far off and alien planet, almost as if I had experienced a foretaste of my own death and burial under the all-embracing limestone structures. I was pleased to return to the real world up top. I am just a middle aged chap though and you can be rest assured that your kids will simply adore it – but don’t forget to take their raincoats! Last year, over 430,000 visitors descended into the ‘Devil’s Hole’ and came back up again.
Bob Lyons is an ex-pilot turned travel writer and a complete Francophile.
The Gouffre de Padirac is open from the beginning of the spring holidays until late on in the autumn, details on the website for Gouffre de Padirac