The Amazing Gouffre de Padirac (Limestone Cave Complex) in the Dordogne Valley of France

Since I’m a geologist, you won’t be surprised to learn that some of my favorite travel destinations involve geologic features.  Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, but suspend your skepticism for  a minute and picture the French countryside in the Dordogne Valley:  rolling, green hills occasionally bisected by deep stream valleys framed by sheer limestone cliffs,  often decorated by a dense patchwork of green farm fields,  ancient stone villages and farms.  Altogether tranquil, and every view from hilltop or valley floor is another potential postcard photo.

Wendng your way through networks of sometimes narrow country roads with nothing but the soothing voice of your GPS unit to guide you, there’s so much to see above ground that ducking under it might seem dull and pointless.   But the yawning opening of the Gouffre de Padirac is strangely alluring…IMG_1918

This is a view from the bottom of the 103-meter deep pit that forms the main entrance to the Gouffre.   It’s impossible to appreciate the scale of the crater without seeing it in person.   Because it’s a feature that is so unusual, it takes a few moments to grasp what you’re seeing as you approach it from the top.  A vast, dark hole in an otherwise unbroken landscape that descends deep into the earth…definitely not something most of us see everyday.

The opening is secured by sturdy wire mesh fencing, of course, but you can approach to within a few feet of the sheer lip of the crater to get a view that is literally breathtaking, especially if you’re not fond of heights.

The public entrance and ticket sales building lies just beyond the vast crater opening.  Admission prices in June of 2014 were 10.30 euros for adults, and 6.90 for children between 4 and 12.  Children under 4 are free, but if you decide to take one, keep ’em close!

As you can see from the photo above, there are metal stairs leading to the floor of the crater where you can enter the caverns.  If you didn’t do the math on the 103-meter depth, it’s roughly the equivalent of a 34-story building.  If that doesn’t appeal to you, you can always take the elevator at no additional charge.  But I highly recommend at least descending on the stairs because it allows you to grasp the enormity of the pit, and to see some of the geology that that forms this portion of the French terrain.  It’s classic layer-cake limestone with well-defined bedding planes and lots of groundwater seeps that vary between slow trickles to steady  waterfalls streaming into  the pit.

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The pit is visually stunning, but the caverns are the main attraction.  You enter them from the bottom of the crater through a fairly small opening that follows the rushing course of the stream that is responsible for carving the caverns out of the limestone rock. The first 100 meters or so is a fairly narrow tunnel, with a man-made walkway suspended above the underground stream.  The tunnels are dimly illuminated, but there’s enough light to see smooth cave walls and ceiling, which recedes into deep darkness in many places along the walk.

After trekking along the walkway, you will reach a landing where you’ll board a small aluminum skiff.  The tour guides here will ask for your preferred language  – you may need to wait a little longer for an English-speaking tour guide.  Consider choosing this option even if you’re reasonably proficient in French because some of the descriptive terms may be a little esoteric.  Our boat guide spoke perfect English, which once again made me ashamed of my poor French.  But his descriptions of the cave system were fascinating.

The skiffs themselves are stable, and the journey down the subterranean stream is quiet and surreal.  Dim lighting reveals enormous caverns, with the ceiling stretching to over 90 meters above the stream in the largest rooms.

After about 1 km on the boat, a landing has been constructed to accommodate boats and visitors.  At this point, the cavern is festooned with all the glorious formations of limestone caves: stalactites, stalagmites, curtains, columns, and all the many forms that travertine can take.  It’s stunningly beautiful.

Because the caverns receive over 400,000 visitors a year, I wasn’t able to linger nearly as long as I would have liked to appreciate the supernatural beauty of the grand caverns.  And since the guide that took us on foot from the boat landing through the remainder of the public tour spoke only French, I missed a lot of the specifics of this part of the tour.  I do know that at least some of his talk focused on the dimensions of different caverns, and the ages of the different formations, as well as the sizes of individual columns and stalagmites, along with the time required to form them.  We’d earlier been introduced to a grand stalactite by our English-speaking boat captain near the landing that he claimed had a mass of over five tons, and that, given it’s current rate of growth, would reach the surface of the stream within another 100 years or so.

The portion of the caverns that is available to the public is about 3 km long in total.  The known extent of the system is over 40 km, with only about 20 being fully explored.  Much of the system is either under water, or lies beyond submerged portions of the tunnels.  There is an old iron ladder with a boat tied nearby at the end of the public area, a tantalizing reminder that the caverns go on…and on and on into the blackness beyond.

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My photos are dim, taken with an iPhone 5, sadly.  I had seen signs featuring a camera with a red circle and slash through it, and assumed that photography was forbidden.  But since most of my fellow tourists were frantically snapping flash photos, I took a few of my own.  Visit the official website for some great photos and slide shows, along with details of the cave’s history, and it’s intrepid discoverer Edouard Martel.

The Dordogne Valley has over 1,000 chateaus, countless charming villages, exquisite cuisine, miles of spectacular hiking trails, gorgeous river with scenic tours and kayak rentals, and more charm than a whole pallet of that famous cereal.  But the geologic features are stunning, too, and the Gouffre de Padirac is not to be missed.  Combine your visit to the Gouffre with a stop at Rocamadour,  a lovely medieval village and top pilgrimage destination built into a cliffside.  You’ll have a full day and enough photo opportunities to overwhelm your hard drive.

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