One of the great treasures of southwestern France is its collection of caves decorated with prehistoric paintings and etchings, mostly ranging between 15,000 and 30,000 years old. Standing before artworks created so far back in human history is a profound experience that alone makes the journey worthwhile. All the caves below restrict the number of visitors to varying degrees, making it necessary to reserve tickets months in advance, especially in high season.
This new replica of the region’s most famous cave opened in December 2016, and it reconstructs parts omitted by Lascaux II — the first re-created cave, which opened in 1983 — including a passage with a depiction of swimming stags. The paintings feel vibrantly alive, and even though the cave is a replica, it seems authentic. (The original caves have been closed to the public since 1963 to protect them from damage and deterioration.) I won’t soon forget standing below the powerful compositions of horses, bears and aurochs. In the fascinating museum gallery after the cave, you can inspect replicas of the paintings more closely and photograph them. If possible, have a driver drop you at the entrance. Most of the parking is a shadeless seven-minute walk away.
See Lascaux IV first, to get a sense of what prehistoric paintings look like in pristine condition, and then see the real thing at Font-de-Gaume. Entries to this cave, a five-minute walk gently uphill from the parking lot, are restricted to just a few groups per day, each with a maximum of 12 people. The way the artists used the undulations in the cave to create a sense of depth is astonishing. Some of the horses and bison appear ready to spring from the wall. At the end, our guide pointed out a handprint, an outline created some 16,000 years ago. I held my own hand just inches away. Being in such proximity to the deep past of humanity felt electric.