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Dordogne & the Cro-Magnon Caves

I have a question/wish to ask for advice for anyone who has been to the Dordogne. I'll be going in May with my parents and am in charge of the detailed trip planning. We arrive in Toulouse on Sunday May 16 and will be there until we leave on Tuesday morning May 18th. Plan is to do a meandering drive to Sarlat that day with stop offs to see the bridge in Cahors and Domme before arriving in Sarlat with plan to just explore Sarlat in whatever time is left that day. Then I have two days to play with to see the caves and explore the small towns in the area before we go off to the eastern Dordogne on Friday May 20th. [We slowly make our way down to Carcassone via La Cirq La Popie and Albi after that]

So to that point... which caves have you found most interesting to visit? I'm not super big into cave art but it seems a shame not to experience some of the best the world has to offer. I'm most interested in Frotte de Gaume and Grotte de Rouffignac based on what I read in the book vs seeing the reproductions at Lascaux IV. I guess I have a thing for the "genuine deal" unless everyone here tells me it is really really worth it to go to Lascaux instead. Is it even possible to do Frotte de Gaume and Rouffignac on the same day or should I put them on different days? See one cave in the am and then explore the little towns along the Dordogne in the afternoon? Or by that note, can Frotte de Gaume and Lascaux be done on the same day? I saw the English tour was at 11 am so it didn't seem particularly feasible unless we were on the first tour of the day at Frotte de Gaume.

Regarding the towns, we would like to mainly see La Rogue Gageac, Chauteau de Castlenaud. and Beynac with greater emphasis on the last two. So if you tell me to split doing caves different days, we basically be doing a modified half of Rick's driving loop each pm with caves in the morning.

We'll probably be stopping a Perch Merle, if that makes any difference. And we will have a car. We very much know we'll have to get up early for Frotte de Gaume and we are pretty flexible in terms of itinerary right now!

Posted by
1149 posts

The reproduction at Lascaux is very impressive. Be sure to book in advance for an English tour.

Posted by
6728 posts

It is 'Font' not Frotte du Gaume and it is my favorite because it is the real deal. Roffignac is much easier because there is not a tight limit on number of visitors -- you take a train into the mountain and also the real deal. But the art at Font du Gaume is much more impressive -- similar to Lascaux although blackened through exposure. I would make time for a visit to Lascaux IV though as well -- We have visited the replica of the Chauvet cave in the Ardeche and also Lascaux II and both are breathtaking if you are interested in cave art, which I am. Font du Gaume requires commitment; they only allow a handful of visitors a day and those who get there early enough to nab the numbered seats in the waiting area are the ones who get tickets when the office opens. I think there are about 60. Once you get your tickets, while you wait for your time slot - if it is later in the day - you can visit the nearby archeological museum in Les Eyzies which is excellent.

The souvenir T-shirts at Roffignac are excellent.

Posted by
3331 posts

Another easily visited prehistory site is L’Abri du Cap Blanc. It’s a relief carving, not painting, of horses, including a now extinct species. The tour is short, about half an hour.

Posted by
786 posts

I did this as a day trip from Beynac: Lascaux / down the Vézère river valley to Roque St Christophe / Prehistoric Museum in Les Eyzies / back to Beynac. Easily done in one day.

So the only cave I went to was Lascaux, and it was impressive. But I also want to recommend Roque St Christophe. Its a weird rock structure where neanderthals lived, and later where locals defended themselves against Viking raids. It was the best part of that day trip for me. http://www.lascaux-dordogne.com/en/patrimoine-culturel/historic-site-and-monument-cave-dwelling-village-site/la-roque-saint-christophe

Posted by
2418 posts

I've been to Lascaux and to Rouffignac and much preferred Lascaux. It may be a copy, but you wouldn't know it when you're inside.

Posted by
3656 posts

...I guess I have a thing for the "genuine deal"...

Since that is the case then that is what you should do. We've been to Font de Gaume and were very impressed. While seeing a reproduction may be okay, it's still not like seeing the real thing. Nearby Beynac is a lovely place to overnight.

Posted by
6728 posts

To each his own. Peche Merle is a beautiful cave but there is very little cave art of interest IMHO -- the spotted horses are impressive, but not much else. Real cave art in France, the Font du Gaume is the best option for tourists. The two greatest caves Lascaux and Chauvet are both off limits except to researchers.

Posted by
11973 posts

I liked Pech Merle because it's a real cave with real cave art. I went about 30 minutes before opening (in June) and had no trouble joining the first group.

Posted by
173 posts

Wow! Thank you for the great responses. Seems like a lot of votes for Font de Gaume and Lascaux over Rouffignac.

Perhaps then one day we'll go up to Lascaux, consider a stop at Roque St. Christopher and Les-Eyzies, and then return to Sarlat for a scenic drive. The other day we'll try to get to Font de Gaume really early and hope at least for an am tour and then plan to explore Beynac and Castlenaud in the afternoon. Does that seem pretty doable? Or should I try to put both caves on one day?

We'll do Perch Merle before leaving Cirq la Popie to drive down to Albi and on to Carcassone. That's probably plenty of cave art for all of us.

Posted by
8510 posts

Don't miss Rouffignac!

Posted by
94 posts

I have been to all the caves mentioned and each is wonderful in some way.
I really enjoyed Rouffignac! The animals are easy to see and it is quite an adventure taking the little electric train in the dark to see them. Font de Gaume has a famous “tenderness” scene, but it really hard to make out. The guide used a light to highlight it and then you could make it out (sort of.) I was disappointed with my guide at Lascaux who repeatedly reminded everyone they were in a reconstructed copy.
One thing to think about is the agility of your group. Rouffignac, and Lascaux are easy to walk through, Pech Merle and Font de Gaume not so much. Lots of uneven walkways that can be slippery in the wet and dark.

Posted by
173 posts

My parents are a pretty young 60 and 62, thankfully, so I’m not too worried about agility. They do pretty well with long distance and rough walking.

Is it possible to do Rouffignac and Font de Gaume on the same day? Or a different mixture of two on one day and one on another? Obviously, we’d have to try to be very early in line to Font de Gaume to make sure we got one of the early tours. If we did that, we could head to Rouffignac after... I just worried about even getting a ticket before they ran out, though I know there are many more tickets available. I just don’t know what the crowds are like in mid May.

I wish Lascaux had more than one English tour in a day for guests who’d like to go later in the day. My dad is fairly fluent in French but my mom and I don’t speak it so we need the English tour.

Posted by
3714 posts

In case you haven't been to the official website for the caves, this link takes you to the Font de Gaume details mostly in English.

We went to Font de Gaume so many years ago that our guide to the area was able to get tickets for us in advance. Keep in mind that if things are the same, you cannot carry anything into the cave. You put your stuff in a locked area next to the cave entrance.

The walls are tight, the ceiling is low and the footing can be iffy. The floor has been dug down so that most people don't have to duck under anything.

It's a significant walk up to the cave entrance. Under Facilities and Visitor Comfort, it says it's a 400 m uphill path.

We loved Lascaux II and timed our visit for the English language tour. I didn't care that it was a reproduction. It was done exceedingly well and I'm for anything to preserve the original.

I haven't been to any of the other caves in the area. We did go to a unique place in the area that was fascinating to me. It's the 14th century Maison Forte de Reignac, built right into a large cave. The English version of the website doesn't seem to be working, but the pictures tell the story.

We were given a typed self-guide in English. I expect what you get now is more sophisticated. The place sent my imagination into hyper drive, putting myself in the rooms and thinking about living there. Scroll down almost to the bottom to find a picture with yellow circles. You can click on them or use the arrows to go from picture to picture.

Posted by
8510 posts

It's not a question of being early in line for an early tour, it's a question if getting a ticket at all. And there aren't many more tickets available, except I saw a local guide get someone in, so you could try that route for hundreds of Euros a day.

So, to get a ticket, any ticket at all, your whole party has to be there. The 75 spaces (numbered and seated in front of the building) could each have a derrière occupying them by 7am. If you're there and want an English tour, it might be much later in the day. So have a plan-B.

We went when tickets could still be reserved on line. My husband got them in early January for May. Yes, there is a demand in May. Once the tickets are handed out, the ladies in the building spend the rest of their day telling people there are no more tickets and to come early tomorrow.

Posted by
173 posts

@Bets ... Yes, I am aware Font de Gaume requires an early rise time. I am not truthfully that worried about getting there in time to get into one of those seats as we are a family generally willing to get up early if it requires it. I did two 3 am wake up calls so as to be able to ride a new attraction in Disney World with my mom last month, so getting up at 5 am to get to the seats by 7 am isn't something that phases me. I know we can do it this time around too :) We aren't people who sleep in on vacation [or at least this kind of vacation] and have a lot of chill time in Provence later in the trip. Depending on when the English tours run, if a French tour is more convenient for time, so be it. We get to see the art and can still read about it before or afterwards.

Your advice on a Plan B is certainly prudent though and I'll make some A,B, and C plans. I'm really just trying to get recommendations and to get everyone's opinions on what is potentially even feasible in a day. Lascaux can be reserved but I'm not sure if it can be done in combination with Rouffignac or if Rouffignac and Font de Gaume could be paired on the same day. Has anyone tried it? The book warns they are hard to plan exactly for and that seems to be proving true! The alternative suggestions have been very helpful.

Posted by
6728 posts

We have done Lascaux II three times -- IV opened just after our last trip to the area. We were able to get tickets easily each time with short waits. One time we just bought them in Montignac and had lunch and then drove up to the site -- our tour was a couple hours after we bought the tickets. Another time we had to buy them at the site and we had to wait maybe half an hour in the woods near the cave replica until our tour was ready.

We have done Roffignac twice and both times had a short wait after just walking in --

We were lucky to do the Font du Gaume before it became so difficult and when you could make reservations -- but we only reserved a couple of days ahead. Lots of sites like these are now so much more difficult. We saw the Font du Gaume with an English tour and with a French tour and I agree that while it is nice to have your own language, the thing is what you see and take whatever you can get. They sell all the tours at 9 am, so if you have an afternoon slot, you can go do the excellent museum and return for your tour.

Posted by
284 posts

Don't reject the idea of going to Lascaux II, III, or IV. I thought the replica I saw was wonderful, showing the grand sweep and scale of the animals. Actually, I thought it was better than Font de Gaume (agree with the person who said the animals there are hard to see), though of course the Lascaux copies don't convey the profound mystery of an original cave. Personally I was blown away by both. Haven't been to the others so I can't speak to them.

Watch the movie "Cave of Forgotten Dreams", a documentary film by Werner Herzog about the Chauvet Cave. You might end up becoming more "into" cave art!

Posted by
6728 posts

cave of forgotten dreams is great and the replica of the Chauvet cave is also excellent. The Font du Gaume was exposed to the elements for thousands of years so the polychrome is now just black on black art -- it is still the most impressive cave art I have seen, certainly much more so than Roffignac and Peche Merle (except for the spotted horses). I have never seen the Spanish polychrome caves to compare. Lascaux replicas are stunning but it is fun to see the real deal.

Posted by
173 posts

I have actually seen Cave of Forgotten Dreams (went on a documentary kick a few years ago) but I think I might give it a refresh watch before we go. I remember it being quite interesting. I think I’ve figured out a way to see all 3 caves and still be able to explore the valley. We’ll just be doing one cave before going east to the Rocamadour area. Might mean we stop less along the way down to Saint Cirq La Popie but it’s ok, we’ll be seeing a lot of small towns in France over our 18 days. And it just means we’ll get to return for what we don’t see this time!

Posted by
4 posts

Do not be put off by the fact that Lascaux is a replica. It was an amazing, mind-blowing experience for me. Aside from the smooth, finished floor and the concealed lighting, you wouldn't know you're not in a real cave. The art is stunning, and to contemplate the mysteries of its creation and creators—our brothers and sisters—is awesome. And there's more to Lascaux 4 than just the replica. There's a museum that includes duplicates of essential pieces of the cave, so you can study the art as long as you want. There's a film; displays on how modern art has been influenced by the cave are; a VR headset that you can use to explore the cave; an exhibition on the techniques the artists used; and more. And they give you a thing like an iPad to record your visit, which they later e-mail to you. You should plan to spend at least 2 hours there.

I would recommend seeing Lascaux 4 first, and then (on another day) going to Font-de-Gaume. Lascaux 4 gives you a comprehensive introduction to the world of prehistoric art, and then Font-de-Gaume gives you the experience of the real thing. That's what I did a couple of years ago.

After I got home, I really regretted that I didn't see other caves while I had the chance. This April, I'm going back and will repeat Lascaux 4 and Font-de-Gaume and then add Lascaux 2, Les Combarelles, Rouffignac, Cougnac, and Pech Merle.

As for doing more than one cave in a day, I would say that after seeing Lascaux, you're not going to want to do more caving on that day; you'll want to absorb what you've just seen, maybe relax outside. I'd recommend visiting the nearby village of Saint-Leon-sur-Vezere. But after Font-de-Gaume, you could do another cave depending on when you get in on the FDG tour. When I was there, we lucked out and got an English tour right away at 10 or 10:30. I think there happened to be enough English speakers at the time that they put us all together. If that happens to you, too, you could easily do a visit to Rouffignac later in the day. But they might put you into an afternoon tour. In that case, you might want to see Les Combarelles (which I have not yet seen). It's just a hop down the road from FDG, and you buy tickets at the FDG ticket office. It has engravings, not paintings, but people say it's pretty great.

Bon voyage!

Posted by
173 posts

Thank you for your reply @Sunrise108. Ironically, I decided we are going to do almost exactly as you just suggested.

This thread convinced me to give Lascaux IV a chance and tickets are now bought! We’ll be stopping at La Roque St Christophe and then exploring Commarque for the rest of that day. My dad loves old ruins so we get a mix of things everyone likes.

Second day we are going to Font de Gaume and we’ve already all committed to the early rise time, haha. The rest of that day is just visiting the Dordogne towns for a nice balance.

Then we do Rouffignac before driving off to Rocamadour as a stopover on our way to stay in St Cirq Lapopie. We will do Pech Merle the next morning before driving off to Albi.

Busy days but we’ll be ok. I bought myself a book a cave art of the Dordogne to read before going, particularly since I’d rather look at the art at Rouffignac rather than focus on the iPad thingie. Everyone has got me quite excited.

Posted by
4 posts

Sounds like a good trip, Laura. We went to Commarque after seeing Font-de-Gaume in the morning, and we really enjoyed it. I'm sure your dad will too. Do try to hit Saint-Leon-sur-Vezere if you can—like Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, it's one of the plus beaux villages de France.

Posted by
21313 posts

About Rocamadour: I went there last year. I took a bus and then had a long walk along the narrow shoulder of a rural road that was much busier than I was expecting; scrambling into the weeds to avoid the traffic really slowed me down, so I didn't have much time in Rocamadour and didn't get uphill to the religious sites. They may be very nice, but the main (pedestrianized) street at the bottom is terribly touristy and not--in my view--worth the trip when there are so many lovely towns and villages in the Dordogne and Lot. So I'd say go to Rocamadour only if you're going to have time to go up to the religious sites. I think it takes a good bit of time to walk even to the lower street from the nearest parking lot.

Posted by
173 posts

I’ve certainly seen Rocamadour referenced with a big +- in this forum. Some seem to love it and some seem to not. We were planning to likely go to the religious sites but some of that will be time dependent. We will already have hit Cahors earlier in the trip so not interested in going down there again, and we need to end the day by 5ish in St Cirq Lapopie.

I’ve seen many talk about Conques but I looked at that and it would be spectacularly out of the way so that was quickly ruled out. The other little towns RS mentions on his Eastern Dordorgne drive didn’t really stand out to me, but I haven’t planned that day in detail yet so I’m open to suggestions.

Posted by
113 posts

Since you plan to go to St-Ciroc-la-Popie anyway, go to Pech Merle. Amazing caves with art but also exactly what you want the experience to be: stalactites & stalagmites, cave pearls, even a bat! Great guides to help you see the art & understand what you’re seeing and how unbelievably old it is. Also, you can reserve online, unlike most other caves. They have a snack bar, too, which is nice.

We also went to Font de Gaume and, even though you can get very up close & personal with the art, there’s not much there. It’s a small cave, you have to line up by 9am or risk not getting in that day, cash only (if I remember correctly), and your entry time may be later in the day so you have to find something else to do somewhere else & worry about getting back in time. IMHO, you’d be better off going to Rouffignac & skipping Font de Gaume.

Castlenaud is amazing! Good parking (paid) then a short walk through the tiny tourist village to get to the chateau. Great English tour available & display of the “war machines” like the trebuchet. After the tour, you can wander through the rest of the castle. The views are simply amazing!

Beynac was under some reconstruction when we were there in Sept. 2019 so no tour but was worth visiting. Another amazing vantage point and gives you a good feeling for what life was like in the 14th century (including a peek into a room with walls painted 600 years ago!).

Sarlat was wonderful. Try to be there on a market day - basically takes up the entire old town and is a wonder unto itself. Easily walkable.

Our trip was similar (Sarlat to Carcassonne) and we did lots of driving. You’ll have a great time! It’s so beautiful there!

Posted by
208 posts

So, am I understanding correctly that the Grotto de Font-de-Gaume no longer offers any advance purchase tickets, and the only entrance option is to get there very early in the morning to line up for tickets?

Posted by
173 posts

@Matt. Yes, they stopped selling tickets online. They only way to have “advance tickets” is to go with a guided tour. I think RS mentions at least one gal in the area who you could do a tour with. My understanding is that there around 25ish advance tickets given to local tour guides and the rest is first come first serve the day of. We’re opting to try the “get there super early method” and hoping for the best.