Into the depths



One of the largest chasms in Europe, the Gouffre de Padirac is the most visited and significant in France. First discovered by the French cave explorer Edouard-Alfred Martel, it was opened to the public in 1899. It’s a sight to behold, an enormous 75 metre hole into the earth, 35 metres wide. This natural wonder then leads to a stunning cave system thousands of years old.

Visitors descend into the enormous sink hole by lift or the impressive metal staircase dating back to 1897. Designed by the architect Mr. Lequeutre, it was inspired by the work of Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame). Arriving at the bottom of the chasm, the small circle of sky is all that remains of life above ground. From there, visitors take a unique boat ride on an emerald green river, journeying into the depths of the earth 103 metres underground.

Impressively lit, the galleries have been carved out of the limestone rock by thousands of years of water erosion.

As the water has passed through the rock, calcite mineral deposits have been left behind growing into a diverse array of other worldly shapes. These enormous galleries, some 94m high feature underground pools and gigantic stalagmites and stalactites which tower to stunning heights, the largest 60m.

An audio guide is on hand in English to accompany and explain all of the finer points of the visit. It includes fascinating details on how Edouard-Alfred Martel first made his way through these caves by candlelight in the 19th century.

Open every day from March to November, schedules vary according to the months of the season and the total visit time is approximately 1h30. The cave is at a constant temperature of 13 degrees and for those with reduced mobility it should be noted that there are around 200 steps in the visit, even when taking the lifts !



For a unique experience, Les Visites Explorateurs is an unforgettable way of exploring the Padirac chasm. Like Edouard-Alfred Martel over 130 years ago, the entire duration of the visit is done with candlelit lanterns as the only light source. Only six or so of these select visits are organised each year.

The Gouffre de Padirac is also the setting of selected classical concerts in June, as part of the annual Rocamadour Sacred Classical Music



Until Edouard-Alfred Martel’s exploration, locals had been terrified of this place. They referred to it as the ‘Devil’s hole’ due to an unholy myth that had grown about the origins of the chasm. According to legend, Satan encountered Saint Martin at the edge of this sinkhole. While boasting of how many souls he had bagged for his trip back to Hell, and sniggering at the Saint’s haul of zero, he suggested a pact. Refusing to deal with the Devil, Saint Martin performed a miraculous leap over the chasm on his mule, unbalancing Satan and sending him plunging into the depths below. The footprints of the mule’s hooves are still embedded into the rock, on the edge of the chasm.



Less famous than Padirac, the chasm of La Fage is an impressive cave system well worth a visit. After descending into the chasm surrounded by green ferns and dense vegetation, the cave itself is full of stalactites and stalagmites of all shapes and sizes, beautifully lit. With guided tours in English, the cave is also the home of a bat colony. 100s of bats nest in the ceilings and accompany visitors through it - an interesting bonus!



The UNESCO Heritage Site of Lascaux is world famous for Palaeolithic art, home to some of the oldest cave paintings on the planet. In 1940 a group of young boys walking in the countryside accidentally stumbled upon the cave of Lascaux near Montignac in the Vézère Valley. This was to lead to one of the world’s most important archaeological discoveries, unearthing a wealth of prehistoric cave paintings that has since been dubbed the Sistine Chapel of Prehistory.

After having been opened to the viewing public, in 1963 the original Lascaux cave was hurriedly closed. Human foot traffic had begun to damagethe atmospheric balance of the cave and in turn the fine pigments of the cave art. After its closure, the painstaking work of recreating the original cave and its paintings with an exact replica began. The first replica was named Lascaux II and opened in 1983, followed by Lascaux III, a travelling exhibition of the paintings. 2016 saw the opening of the complete replica of the cave: Lascaux IV.

Both reproductions are an exact copy of the original although the latter is the only one to replicate 100% of the cave paintings. In order to achieve this perfect carbon copy, a team of 50 expert artists used digital photography and laser imaging to reproduce the paintings stroke-for-stroke. 20,000 years ago, our primitive ancestors dabbled with their creative sides and the results are extraordinary to the modern eye. They are remarkable in their lifelike detail, which depict animals and even hunting scenes rich in colour and relief. It’s fair to say that no othercave paintings can compete with those of Lascaux’s in terms of colour, size, quality and quantity.

Lascaux IV is housed in a stunning building designed by Norwegian architect Kjetil Traedal Thorsen whose company also designed the 9/11memorial museum in New York. 

The centre, with a gigantic glass frontage, contains not only an entire replica of the original cave but also an international centre of Palaeolithic cave art dedicated to the pre-art history of Lascaux. Open all year round, visits to Lascaux IV can be booked in English. The tour of the cave is followed by interactive 3D digital exhibits and video documentaries, all linked to a personalised digital tablet that visitors use, bringing a 21st century experience to this very modern museum of ancient prehistory.



Before opening for visitors in 1907, this chasm started off with a more dubious history. Located next to the road between Sarlat and Bergerac, the strategically placed sink hole was used as a place to dump murdered stagecoach passengers frequently robbed en route in the1700’s. Today it is better known as the ‘Crystal Cathedral’, an enormous underground gallery with a multitude of stalactites hanging from the ceiling. Accompanied by a spectacular sound and light show, it is also possible to descend into the chasm in a unique and exciting way. Like the original explorers, up to 11 people can descend into the depths below in an iron basket for a bird’s eye view.



Opened in 1905, this popular cave is 15km from Rocamadour, with visiting periods from February until November. Unusually, the trip begins with a ride on an underground electric train that actually travels upwards in order to access the start point. 12 galleries (1.6km long) include impressive stalagmites and stalactites and natural rock pools throughout. One gallery features a perfectly lit mirror reflection of the cave in water. Another highlight is a gallery lit entirely by ultra-violet light so that the cave is made phosphorescent and glowsspectacularly.