I still remember walking into that cave. There wasn’t much light and I could barely make out the stalactites, one of them twisting its way all the way down to the floor. As I walked further in, I could see bones scattered about—not human, I hoped. Then I saw bear skulls, arranged in a semi-circle on the ground. Spooky!
I kept going, stepping carefully, and then there they were, straight ahead of me: paintings, beautiful paintings. I could see horses and buffalo and rhinos that almost seemed alive. It was mesmerizing.
I was in the Grotte Chauvet 2, in southern France. It’s not an actual cave, but rather the re-creation of a real one, and so perfect you can’t tell the difference.
Walking into the cave is like stepping back in time, because the paintings are the oldest ever found. They date to over 30,000 years ago, back when Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals were battling for mastery of Europe (spoiler alert: we win.)
Next to the Grotte Chauvet 2 is a museum with mockups of some of the animals that used to roam Europe, like a full-sized wooly mammoth. Impressive!
The real Grotte Chauvet (Chauvet Cave) was discovered in 1994 and it’s similar to Lascaux Cave, the one famous for its paintings of pot-bellied horses. After Lascaux was discovered, so many people flocked to see it that the moisture in their breath started to damage the paintings. The French government closed the Lascaux cave and built the re-creation you can visit today.
After Jean-Marie Chauvet found the cave that is now named after him, the government strictly limited access in order to avoid any problems. One of the few it let in was the filmmaker Werner Herzog, who made a fantastic documentary called The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Check it out if you want to see the actual cave.
The Grotte Chauvet 2 is at the end of the Gorges de l’Ardèche, a steep winding gorge carved by the waters of the Ardèche River. It is about 90 minutes north of Avignon, in the Ardèche département. You can reach it via one of two roads, the sedate D4 or the terrifying D290. The latter is a narrow, winding road that runs along the edge of the gorge. There are no guardrails and it’s 800 feet straight down if you make a wrong turn. One time I accidentally took the D290 and my palms still get sweaty when I think about it. For daredevils only!
If you visit the Grotte, be sure to see the nearby Pont d’Arc, a spectacular natural stone bridge that crosses over the Ardeche River. You can combine a visit to the Grotte with a kayaking trip down the river (there are several companies that rent kayaks), stopping at one of the beaches along the way. What a day: fascinating history, stunning natural beauty, and some beach time!
Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Provence and California. He is the author of the recently-published An Insider’s Guide to Provence and the best-sellers One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence and Are We French Yet? Read more at Life in Provence.