Pech Merle Cave is without any doubt the most prestigious landmark of the Célé Valley but is, however, less famous than Lascaux which is located along the Vézère Valley in the Dordogne département.
Thousands of people visited Lascaux before scientists discovered, but alas too late, that the moisture produced by respiration and body heat transformed the balance of the cave and triggered the appearance of white mould, green algae and more recently black spots.
These caves are indeed real ecosystems, alive and very susceptible to contamination.
Fortunately Lascaux was closed to the public in 1963 by decision of André Malraux the Minister of Culture of the time.
The opening of Lascaux II, an extraordinary replica reproduced to the millimeter using techniques and painted using pigments and utensils identical to the originals, and the closing of Lascaux I (the original cave) to the public did not prevent the disease from spreading.
Experts first thought that the disease was halted because the evolution of fungi seemed to have ceased. Alas, in recent years black spots not only appeared but began to spread.
Fortunately they do not affect the paintings but experts are not sure that they will remain localized forever. They may destroy these wonderful rock paintings which made the reputation of Lascaux, since known as the Sistine Chapel of Cave Art.
Fortunately, recent treatments appear to have yielded encouraging results.
Pech Merle has benefited from the sad experience of Lascaux.
Experts can now evaluate the risks and the threshold at which human presence can cause contamination.
There is no excessive commercialism in Pech Merle, but a passionate and attentive staff.
There are never more than 75 visitors at the same time in the cave.
The third group begins the tour, while the first ends it and the second is half-way through.
The moisture produced by respiration and body heat therefore has minimal impact because the cave is very large and groups are never near each other.
These restrictions are necessary to avoid a situation similar to that of Lascaux.
In high season the ticket office does not sell more than 10 reserved tickets per visit.
The 15 remaining tickets are therefore available to whoever could not book on line or by phone and made the effort of coming at the opening of the cave at 9am.
This system gives everyone a chance.
One could make a film of it!
The cave was discovered in 1922 by two teenagers who were inspecting a gallery used as a refuge by the locals during the French Revolution (1789).
Pushing farther down into the galleries, they discovered 35 000 to 20 000 year wall paintings of horses, mammoths, bison, bears as well as human figures, foot prints and "negative hands".
The researches continued after the opening of the cave to the public and in 1949 the original cave entrance was found.
It has become the visits way out. It has been altered and, of course, we do not need to crawl through it anymore!
The cave is huge and spreads out over hundreds of meters.
A system of lights is powered by the guide during the time of the commentary to avoid the warming of air and therefore the appearance of moisture.
The visit takes the visitor along a series of chambers and galleries.
It starts in the upper level of the cave with the Mammoths' Chapel or Prehistoric Gallery (Galerie Préhistorique) which is adorned with a magnificent 7m long frieze depicting mammoths and bison.
The legs, head and trunk are formed by the natural shape of the rock. It is pretty spectacular!
It is quite moving to imagine the artist walking in the darkness of the gallery in the light of his torch and uncovering the basic outline of the mammoth already formed in the wall...
I wonder what went through his mind then?
The Hall of Discs (Salle des Disques) contains amazing rock formations which are almost translucent.
Imaginary animals, a gigantic stone horse, a Christmas tree, a mosque and many others were shaped over millennia by the runoff of water.
An endearing detail is the 17,000 year old footprints of a teenager which were preserved in the clay for eternity.
One of the walls of a narrow gallery has been engraved with a bear's head.
The artist who carved it used the concave shape of the rock to create the perspective and lines of the animal's head.
The hand prints known as negative hands were found in the lower part of the cave and were added at a later date on a frieze depicting horses.
The negative hands were obtained by pressing the hand flat on the rock then by projecting a liquefied coloured paint with a sort of blowpipe.
The meaning of these paintings is still unknown.
A recent theory suggests that these hand-prints are feminine and not masculine because of the delicacy and fineness of the fingers.
This theory, which I support, would change completely our appreciation of these astonishing cave paintings.
These painters were perhaps shamans or priestesses who alone had the right to go into the depths of the earth in order to draw, paint or engrave hunting scenes and religious symbols on the walls of the caves?
Their identity and the meaning of their paintings has been lost in the mists of time.
Without writing it is impossible to know, and the oral tradition has left no trace.
All that has been discovered to date is that it took about 3-4 days to create some of these astonishing friezes. Try to imagine these ancestors entering the wet and black galleries to the light of their rudimentary torches.
Try to imagine them surrounded by darkness and discovering the extravagant and sometimes frightening forms of the rocks.
Try to imagine them conquering their apprehension may be even their fear ... The mystery remains...
Another painted gallery connected to the Combel Gallery has been discovered, but not opened as one would have to crawl through a 40m long and 1m wide gallery!
Surprising detail, one can see the root of an oak that dug its way through the ceiling of the cave to get anchored in the ground.
The price of the ticket covers the entrance to the Amédée Lemozi Museum which displays the tools, weapons, bones and various artefacts linked to human occupation ranging from the Lower Palaeolithic (-2 000 000) to the Iron Age (-9000) and found in the many prehistoric sites of Quercy.
It also exhibits the stunning statue of the Neolithic Mother-Goddess (the Universal Progenitor) which dates from 3150BC and was discovered in the town of Capdenac-le-Haut.
The museum is also a research centre where the various artefacts are examined and classified.
Pech-Merle is a true pleasure to discover. To visit the original caves and not a replica like in Lascaux is an exceptional experience! It is a journey into the mists of time...
The only regret is that the souvenir shop closes fifteen minutes before the end of the last visit of the morning...
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