There is loads to see and do around the Dordogne region but if you don’t mind a bit of a drive then visiting Gouffre de Padirac is an absolute must. Its just a fifteen minute drive from the popular tourist town of Rocamadour and believe me, its absolutely worth the detour. Its a popular destination so if you can pre-book your tickets thats best, otherwise you will have to wait a couple of hours till your time slot. Sam and I had about three hours to kill so we got a late lunch and then sat down on a picnic bench and admired the view.
My first sight of Gouffre de Padirac was the huge chasm that spans 35 metres across and about 75 metres down. I was really quite excited, I really just wanted to get to the bottom and have a look. As we descended the staircase which, felt like it took forever, the air was getting considerably cooler and I was glad I had a hoodie with me. There was an abandoned restaurant about a third of the way down and the staircase looked a little worn out and run down too, which just made me feel like I was in Jurassic Park 3 inside the pterodactyl cage.
Once we got to the bottom I was amazed by how different it looked compared to what was above us. The scenery at the top was very much landscaped, neat and tidy whilst the bottom of the chasm was mossy with ferns growing wherever they wanted almost untouched by humans. It just looked so pre-historic, if the concrete path and metal staircase hadn’t been there I could have sworn I had been transported back in time. We continued down the path and entered the caves, going down to a depth of 103 metres below ground. It was cool and damp with no wind or movement in the air. The path down was dark but lit enough so that you could see the scale of the caves. The ceiling was easily 20 metres up at places and the rocks were both down-lit and up-lit at different points so you get a really good look at the natural shapes that had been carved out over thousands of years.
We continued along the path looking around at the cave formations and we eventually got to the end. To travel further, we boarded a small gondola steered by a French tour guide along a subterranean river. He explained that the ceiling was 46 metres high at some places along the route and if it did not have a ceiling it would have been an amazing canyon.
We continued along about ten minutes or so passing other tourists in boats on their way back to the cave entrance. We reached the end of the river and we were allowed to continue on foot along another concrete path. This part of the cave was damp and you could see the water slowly dripping down the sides leaving calcium deposits in its wake. There was a huge stalactite called The Grand Column that was 10 meteres long! Its crazy that these strange formations are created by dripping water over thousands of years. It really puts time into perspective. I bet it barely changes over a human lifespan.
We continued along the concrete path and entered a chamber called Lac Des Gours that was filled with rock pools of crystal clear water. It was quite spooky being able to see straight to the floor although the water got a lot darker towards the back. I wondered how deep they were. The next chamber was absolutely jaw-dropping, its called Le Grand Dôme or Cathedral. It was this huge open space, the ceiling was at least fifty metres up, stalactites and stalagmites covered both the sides and floor in places. We had the chance to walk right around the chamber, it was amazing seeing it at all the different angles. I really wish I was allowed my camera out at this point as honestly it was just such an amazing view. There was this crazy stalagmite that had formed from water dripping above it. It looked like a pile of grotty plates stacked up on top of each other. Honestly, it really was just amazing.
Sam pointed out a rickety staircase high above us drilled into the cave walls, no doubt from earlier days of cave exploration. It didn’t look like it had been climbed or used for a fair few years though.
We explored roughly 2km of the cave system but the river goes on another 46km.
Gouffre de Padirac has been known since the 3rd century and apparently was inhabited during the 15th and 16th centuries. Edouard-Alfred Martel is considered the founding father of the cave and he first explored it in July 1889. It was his passion to open the caves up to tourists and he spent a lot of time and considerable effort to get the caves ready for public exploration. He was also interested in preservation; I remember the tour guide telling us about the gas lamps that left dirty soot marks on the rocks that Edouard-Alfred had replaced with state of the art electric lighting. He wanted the caves to be preserved and respected.
Sam and I headed back to the gondolas and back towards the entrance of the cave. It was echoey and each sound was crystal clear. I took in the cool air, murky water and the fresh damp scent. I was a little sad that I didn’t get any pictures of the main chamber but I understand why they don’t allow photography. I wanted a little reminder of our visit so we stopped by the gift shop. I chose a piece of orange calcite; I love collecting rocks and crystals. I didn’t have one in that colour so I thought it would make a good addition to my collection.
Have you ever visited Gouffre de Padirac? What did you think?