A visit to the Lascaux Caves


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Lascaux is impressive: 20000 year old cave paintings now presented with high tech personal interactive tablets and headphones.

The Lascaux caves, which give us a window into our predecessors’ palaeolithic life, are located in the Dordogne region of central France.  They have  attracted world wide attention since their discovery in 1940 by a young lad out walking his dog.  He couldn’t have imagined quite how much the site would grow, and how high tech the tours would become!

High tech interactive tablet

High tech interactive tablet

It was a bit windy on our journey down – 5 fallen trees and an escaped flock of sheep, but we arrived early evening in time to buy tickets for the next day directly from the on-site ticket office. You can also buy tickets online at http://www.lascaux.fr

It was a windy drive...

It was a windy drive…

Lascaux IV

The new entrance

There are several tours a days in French, and one in English – at 11.06am. Yes, 06. That’s so that the guide can get back from the 45 minute tour and be “à table” by midday – and very few people in France would take a tour at this sacred lunch hour. The rest of the visit (which takes another hour and a half or so on average), is self-guided using a tablet.

We drove the 20 minutes to the St Christoper Caves – Les Roches de St Christophe – where we parked up for the night. There’s a parking aire for campervans (free; no facilities) with 200 spaces in total (cars and vans I think). There was only one space in use the night we were there, we had the whole place to ourselves.  That’s the beauty of visiting out of season.

Campervan stop lascaux

A lovely spot to stay over in low season.

Campervan stop Lascaux

It’s just beside the village of Peyzac le Moustier.

The rocks are a half day visit in themselves – it’s one of the biggest 55000-year-old (troglodyte) cave settlements in the world. This whole area oozes history.

We had a cozy night in the van, boiled eggs and soldiers for breakfast, then we made our way back to the Lascaux caves about 10. We planned to have the main part of the day there and the afternoon at the Parc de Thot (which is more about what daily life was like during the paleolithic period).  What the people wore, what they ate, where they lived, what daily life was like…  The eerie thing that’s commented upon a lot both at Lascaux and Thot is just how similar our lives were as regards daily problems and successes.  For the people living in this part of the world though, life was tough because of the cold.  The ice was just receding back up towards the poles, taking with it the reindeer and mammoths seeking colder weather.

One thing Thot explained very well was the Ice Age.  How the world when it orbits the sun is also tilting on its axis, tipping the top away from the sun.  Looking at it from the perspective of the top of the globe, this causes an ice age to spread downwards from the North pole every 120000 years.  20000 years ago, the ice was receding again as the Earth straightens back up to vertical.  Europe was warming up, mammoths and other cold-living animals were driven north and became extinct.  Trees could grow and animals less used to the cold could flourish.  It’s a scary reminder for us as humans, this 120000 year warming cycle being “fastforwarded” like a tornado the past two hundred years, not because of the natural tipping of the Earth like a spinning top, but because we’ve messed up the place big time.  If we’d have lived in tandem with nature we’d have had more than 7 million sleeps before the Earth reaches completely vertical and starts its tip to the side again.

So back to the discovery of the caves.  The 18-year-old who found the caves might not have immediately appreciated what his dog had found. He ran back home to get his mates and they explored the site in secret for a few days before the village and then the world found out (it was kept secret during the war). It was opened to the public from 1948 until 1963. But the entrance back then was literally a wooden shed!

When it became apparent that the caves were getting damaged by the amount of visitors (carbon dioxide in their breath caused mineral and fungal deposits on the walls), it was decided to build an exact replica in nearby caves. That opened in the 1980s, and then in December 2016, the brand new visitor centre (called Lascaux IV) opened. It was designed by the same architect who designed the Gound Zero memorial in New York.

Lascaux IV

The entrance area where you wait for your tour.

Lascaux has been dubbed the Sistine Chapel of palaeolithic times. Every square centimetre has been replicated exactly in the new Lascaux, every bump of the cave and every paintmark. The temperature is the same 13 degrees. Because some of the etched art is difficult to see now, interactive displays after the tour help you to see them. You can spend as long with the interactive displays as you like.

Lascaux IV

High tech open spaces between theatres.

We’ve visited caves before with stalagmites, caverns, lakes and rivers (there’s a post about the pretty spectacular Diros caves in Greece here http://travelteachtalk.com/greece-the-caves-of-diros-a-cool-place-to-park/) – these caves aren’t like that. They are quite small, more like a tunnel. But the enormity of such well-preserved evidence of human life so long ago is what makes this place special.

It took (me) a little while to master the tablet technology everyone is given at the start of the tour. This device starts as an audio for the tour – the guide speaks into a microphone. Then it becomes an interactive information tool as you wander round the exhibition. I didn’t realise you could actually choose English for this part – or Spanish. One of the guides said that 10 languages are planned.

Katie liked the interactive drawing tool best. I liked the ultraviolet and white-light displays that showed how the pictures had been built up layer by layer.

Lascaux IV

White light shows the build up of the etchings.

IMG_9047

There are interactive drawing screens to try out dyes and techniques.

We bought billet jumelée (double tickets) for Lascaux and Parc du Thot, about 5km away. It’s normally €16 euros for Lascaux and €9 for Thot; €20 for the joint one. Detailed prices, opening times and other multiple tickets are on the website. There’s a cafe in the centre – about €15 for a 3-course lunch – free wifi and a gift shop. There are 3 massive car parks – they are clearly expecting a lot of visitors. One is for campervans but it was so quiet today that we parked in the nearer bus section.

Parc du Thot is much smaller. It explains about life for people in palaeolithic times. It was pouring with rain when we were there, and much of it is outside, but there was a really good 3D film – we learnt loads about the Ice Age – it’s only in French though. There’s an interactive quiz about Palaeolithic times, and a guy who knows an awful lot about woolly rhinos and mammoths gives a hands-on talk. I think this place is more geared for kids maybe. I liked it though. You really need to speak French – much as I love France, they don’t do non-French tourism very well. I’m thinking back to Hallstatt in Austria for example http://travelteachtalk.com/austria-hallstatt-the-oldest-salt-mines-in-the-world/   ( where the tour is massively informative and slick in any language).

So yes, Lascaux is a fascinating tour – although quite expensive for a family – and I think the significance of the find might only hit older bods, not kids. That’s maybe why there are other workshops and treasure hunts available too (at certain times) for children.

Lascaux IV

One of the curious things about the paintings is that not a single reindeer is drawn in the caves, yet 90% of palaeolithic hunts consisted of reindeer. There are deer paintings, but not reindeer: this is the difference (on the right a deer, on the left a reindeer).

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