Padirac Cave - Gouffre de Padirac - Quercy
Legend of Padirac
The collapse of a vast underground cavity's roof created the chasm, which for centuries, was a source of superstition.
Locals indeed believed that Satan created it in order to trick St. Martin!
Legend has it that St. Martin was on his way back home from the Causses, where he tried to evangelize local folks.
Suddenly, his mule refused to advance farther.
Satan had indeed appeared in the middle of the lane, carrying a bag full of lost souls.
The opportunity was too good to miss for St. Martin!
The holy man therefore begged the devil to give him the lost souls he carried to hell.
But the cunning devil proposed a deal.
He would give him the bag, on the condition that St. Martin’s mule jumped over a precipice he, the devil, was to create on the spot!
The brave animal successfully took a huge leap over the chasm, leaving only the mark of his hooves where he landed!
A deal was a deal; defeated, Satan couldn't retract his word!
He therefore handed the bag to St. Martin and disappeared into the abyss, back to the underworld.
The proof that this story is true is that the mule’s hoof prints are still visible!
Discovery of the chasm
The locals eventually overcame their terror.
All changed on Jul 9, 1889, when the speleologist Edouard Martel investigated the chasm after the underground river overflowed.
Sections of rock had indeed collapsed and left an opening that led to the network of galleries and their marvelous display of eccentric rock concretions.
The first non-official visit took place on November 1, 1898, but the Gouffre de Padirac was open to the public on April 10, 1899, after 9 nine years of work.
The electric network was not installed before the following year!
Today more than 400,000 visitors visit Padirac each year.
The many explorations conducted since its discovery have uncovered a 22km long network of underground galleries.
They also show that the underground river surfaces 11km north of Padirac in Montvalent Amphitheatre (Cirque de Montvalent) on the Dordogne River.
The Gouffre de Padirac is considered one of the major French geological curiosities and ranked as the first underground Heritage Site of France.
Formation of the Padirac chasm
The subsoil of the Causses du Quercy essentially consists of limestone.
Rainwater collects carbon dioxide as it traverses the air and during the infiltration process, and turns acidic.
Its level of acidity is strong enough to dissolve the soft limestone.
Limestone dissolution and erosion therefore shaped the Causses de Quercy over the millennia.
They carved deep valleys and canyons on the plateaux and vast underground networks of galleries and caves.
Water seeps into the rock through small cracks or lapiez.
However, limestone is not uniform in density.
It therefore dissolves more easily where it is softer, and created underground cavities of various sizes and shapes such as sinkholes, chasms, caves and canyons.
The ceilings of the caves located closer to the surface eventually collapse as the cavities enlarge and can't support their weight anymore.
The chasm of Padirac is a perfect illustration of this phenomenon.
The ceiling collapsed and left a 75m deep by 35m wide gaping hole, where the magical underground world of the Gouffre de Padirac starts!
Inside Padirac Chasm
Elevators and a 455-step Eiffel type staircase take you down to the bottom of the chasm.
As you look up, you discover the walls covered with lush vegetation
A footbridge, running above the cluster of rocks produced by the collapse of the ceiling, leads down to the underground galleries entrance.
Galerie de la Source Rivière Plane
Another set of steps (and an elevator) access the Spring Gallery - Galerie de la Source, a long and narrow corridor that slopes towards the pier.
Boats are waiting to take visitors along a 400m underground ride at 103m below ground level along the Smooth River - Rivière Plane.
The river depth varies from 50cm to 6m, however, its temperature remains constant at 12ºC.
The boats effortlessly slide on the crystal clear water under a canopy of eccentric rock formations.
Lac de la Pluie and Grande Pendeloque
The Rainfall Lake - Lac de la Pluie appears at a bend; it was named after the constant seeping of water droplets.
The giant stalactite known as Great Pendant - Grande Pendeloque is the first of a series of impressive rock concretions.
The 78m tall stalactite is suspended above the river and seems to defy all laws of gravity.
Deposits of particles of calcite on the caves’ ceilings produce stalactites, and millennia of constant dripping can create giant rock concretions.
The size of the stalactites depends on the intensity of the seepage flow.
The higher the flow rate is, the smaller the stalactites are because the particles don't have time to deposit on the ceiling.
The droplets therefore fall to the ground still loaded with high levels of particles.
Their point of impact gradually builds up into small mounds that rise over the millennia and eventually form stalagmites.
Grand Pilier in Pas du Crocodile
In low-ceiling cavities, stalactites and stalagmites eventually meet and form columns or pillars.
Their diameters grow indefinitely and can reach staggering sizes.
The 40m high Great Pillar - Grand Pilier in the narrow Crocodile Path - Pas du Crocodile is one of them!
Salle des Grands Gours
The Pas du Crocodile leads to the Hall of the Great Natural Dams - Salle des Grands Gours, a succession of pools separated from each others by gours.
Gours or dams form in areas where infiltration level is low and in sections with a gentle slope; they flow into each other.
The little water that drips into the pools moves slowly and triggers an irregular deposit of calcite on the edges of the pool in the area of flow, thus forming small dams.
The depth of the pools obviously increases with the height of the deposit.
Some pools contain submerged rock concretions formed by the progressive and slow evaporation of the water that triggers an over-saturation of calcite and its crystallization.
Thus appear extraordinary concretions on the bottom or edges.
Occasionally a grain of rock becomes captive of the pool and turns on itself under the pressure of the irregular water flow.
Calcite gradually coats it, forming stunning rounded shapes that are known as Caverns’ Beads – Perles des caverns.
Lac Supérieur and Pile d’Assiettes
The Upper Lake - Lac Supérieur is located 20m above the level of the Rivière Plane and is only fed by water infiltration and not by the spring.
This triggers the production of a very distinctive type of rock concretions.
The crystal clear waters of the lake are delineated by a dam composed of eccentric rock concretions.
The astonishing Pile d’Assiettes - Stack of Plates is one of Padirac’s most famous stalagmites.
It is the result of heavy infiltration.
The droplets indeed splash on the floor of the pool and project the calcite particles in the air.
Rock concretions are constantly building up as the drops fall from the cave’s ceiling, however, it would take centuries to be able to notice the tiniest change in shape or size.
Time seems to stand still and the only perceptible activity in the cave is the constant drip on the smooth surface of the lake.
A huge flight of steps take the visitors to the spectacular Hall of the Great Dome that can be admired from a platform especially built for the public.
Salle du Grand Dôme
The Hall of the Great Dome - Salle du Grand Dôme is often compared to an underground cathedral.
The vaulted ceiling indeed rises to a height of 94m and is only 10m below the surface!
The walls and ceiling are covered with a multitude of eccentric rock concretions.
Each rock concretion is the product of unique conditions that give them their unique shape!
The size of the stalactites is determined by both the strength of the water flow and the height of the waterfall.
Some stalactites are almost horizontal; others resemble fireworks, cauliflowers, shells, chandeliers, jellyfish, embroideries, flowers or animals, the list is endless.
Straw-type stalactites are created by a very low water flow.
They are hollow and very fragile often very spectacular!
They can, indeed, reach several meters and hang from the caves’ ceilings where they defy all laws of gravity.
Water does not always drip from the ceiling but also trickles down the walls of the cave.
The calcite particles then clump together to form concretions shaped like draperies, waterfalls and organ to name a few.
Coloured rock concretions
Calcite is white, however, many rock concretions come in shades of yellow, orange or brown.
This coloration comes from the acids produced by decaying organic matter the water traverses during the infiltration process.
Small amounts of acids indeed amalgamate with the calcite particles in a totally random way.
Amazingly, the colder the outside temperature is, the longer it will take for the organic matter to decay.
It will therefore contain higher levels of acids that will result in more pronounced colours.
Diversity in organic matters also result in diversity in colours.
The visit of Padirac is a fantastic experience.
Tips: The Gouffre of Padirac is only open from April to November.
People with walking disability should abstain because of the boat ride, the many steps and the uneven ground.
Finally, it is also advised to wear warm clothes as the temperature of the cave remains constant at 13°C.
N.B. Photos are not allowed inside. Wikimedia Commons photos used on this article are not from Padirac but other caves and are purely used for illustration purpose
Department of Lot
Coordinates: Lat 44.858273 - Long 1.750475