Explore the mysterious past of the Ardèche on a spell-binding journey of discovery.
The Chauvet cave paintings - an accidental discovery
If you happened to have paddled your canoe through the Ardèche Gorge near the Pont d'Arc on December 18, 1994, you might have glimpsed, out of the corner of your eye, three figures walking in the limestone cliffs above you. The three friends, Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, Christian Hillaire, and Jean-Marie Chauvet, were amateur cavers and they were about to make one of the most astounding discoveries of the century.
A world of ancient art
Following an air current in a cleft of rock, they began tunnelling their way through the limestone and emerged into a cave 400m long which, due to a landfall, had been sealed from the outside world for almost 29,000 years. Treading carefully so as not to disturb anything, the three cavers gazed in awe at the walls of the cave which were covered in prehistoric paintings of animals, including woolly rhinos, mammoths, bears, lions, horses and other creatures which are now extinct. Quite by accident they had stumbled upon the oldest cave paintings in the world - dating back 36,000 years. And thanks to the landslip, the paintings had been preserved in almost pristine condition.
Preserving the past
Following the discovery, access to the cave (now named the Chauvet cave) was immediately restricted in order to protect the environment inside and avoid the kind of damage which had occurred at the Lescaux caves in the Dordogne, where public access had allowed fungi to develop which began to destroy the paintings.
Only a selected few were allowed to visit the Chauvet cave, and then only for limited periods of time in order to prevent contamination. Visitors were mainly scientists, although in 2010 the German filmmaker Werner Herzog was given permission to film in the cave which resulted in 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams', which until recently, was perhaps the best way to get an idea of the paintings in situ.
A new window for all
That changed with the construction of a huge replica of the Chauvet cave, a few miles from the original site, which opened to the public in April 2015. At a cost of €55 million, the 'Caverne du Pont d'Arc' is a meticulously constructed replica which shows all the paintings from the original cave at full size. Using 3D modelling, the walls and the drawings on them have been recreated within a cave-like atmosphere (temperature is kept down to around 12 degrees Celsius) with a lit walkway leading visitors through the mysterious chambers so they can enjoy a unique, multi-sensory perspective on the magnificent works of art recreated from a prehistoric era.
A museum and discovery centre within the site contain interactive exhibits and detailed information about the formation of the original cave and how the paintings were made, and by whom.
See for yourself
PGL offers a number of adventures in the Ardèche where school groups, families and children traveling independently can enjoy the spectacular canoe descent of the stunning Ardèche Gorge. Since the opening of the Caverne du Pont d'Arc, many groups are including an excursion here as part of their itinerary, to discover more about the history of the area.
So as you paddle under the famous rocky arch of the Pont d'Arc, it's worth remembering that you're just a stone's throw away from the oldest and best-preserved prehistoric paintings in the world, a magnificent gallery of ancient artworks created at a time when lions, woolly mammoths and wild bears roamed the land.