We shuffle through the dusty darkness, trying not to trip and then, as we are bathed in soft light, our eyes rise and are filled with wonder.
This is Lascaux , a complex of caves in the Dordogne, which in 1940 was discovered by a group of four teenagers and their inquisitive dog. The revelations altered forever the world’s perception of our ancestors.
The French ability for patience in the creation of beauty found its genesis thousands of years ago. Circa 17,300 years in fact, which is when the art is estimate to have been created.
The walls in front of us are covered with elegantly crafted paintings of gigantic bulls pressed shoulder to shoulder; delicate red deer; and jumping horses.
The undulating surface has been used to create a feeling of movement while the innate understanding of perspective has led the artists to be called the Picassos of the prehistoric age.
Yet such a precious resource was thrown open to 1,200 visitors a day after the Second World War leading to the accumulation of destructive lichens and crystals on the walls.
Closed in 1963, the original caves known as Lascaux 1 are became a Unesco World Heritage Site and kept behind lock and key, with even director of Lascaux Guillaume Colombo not yet honoured with a visit.
He joins us in Lascaux 2, a reconstruction of 90% of the paintings opened in 1983, to explain what the art reveals about its creators.
Rather than scrawling on the wall indiscriminately, a chosen few would have been allowed to visit the underground canvas in Perigord and would have needed great patience to construct wooden scaffolding to complete the drawings which stretch across the walls and ceiling.
The extent of their imagination is captured in a unicorn-like creature while scientists are still trying to unravel a series of mysterious markings that are dotted among the animals.
In an effort to give the public an even closer facsimile of something their desire almost destroyed, the £49million Lascaux 4 , or Centre International de l’Art Pariétal, is due to be unveiled on December 15. Digital and 3D scanning has been used to re-create the entire three-armed cave and it also includes a lift, recorded sounds of the four boys and their dog and a CGI rendition of the landscape of 20,000 years ago.
We lunch at the charming La Maison Vari before taking a cycle tour through the vineyards of Monbazillac, still lined with homages to the 2014 Tour de France.
We stop at Chateau de Bridoire where you can take part in medieval games or have a pony ride in the courtyard and stay the night at Chateau des Vigiers in Monestier, named France’s Best Golf Hotel 2015. We’re told in between games golfers like to pluck prunes from the trees, but we luxuriate in a meal of prawns, guinea fowl and an incredibly light strawberry and Madeline dessert with Chantilly cream.
Seekers of beauty should head to the magical Gardens of Marqueyssac , just over an hour’s drive from Bergerac in the town of Vézac. It offers 6km of paths weaving among a sea of spherical greenery created by the hand pruning of 150,000 boxwoods. Have lunch looking over the valley below and you may find yourself joined by some of the bold peacock inhabitants.
Visit in the weekend closest to May 8 and a drive to the lovely village of Saint Jean de Cole is a must as every year it is adorned with thousands of roses and other blooms for the annual flower festival.
History buffs and food lovers will both be happy in Sarlat-la-Canéda in the Black Périgord region, where you can sample intense tomato tapenade while being swept along by the crowd at the food market. Or, step away from the throng and you will see why the wonderfully preserved medieval town was chosen as the setting for Drew Barrymore fairytale Ever After and attracts almost two million visitors a year.
Boasting 77 protected sites, its oldest monument is the mysterious Lantern of the Dead building, the purpose of which has baffled historians. Visit in July or August and you may catch the open air Sarlat Theatre Festival.
If you prefer a more leisurely tour of the past try a trip down the river with Gabarres Caminade passing castles, a cliffside village with a Mediterranean microclimate and view of Marqueyssac from below. Or take a stroll around Brantôme to see evidence of the Benedictine monks who lived there in the 8th century.
Fans of the Roman empire won’t want to miss Vesunna in Perigeaux, a museum built around a rich Roman house uncovered by archeologists, with artefacts revealing the habits and hobbies of those who live there.
Perigeaux itself is a town bursting with heritage, which can be best seen from the top of the Mataguerre Tower. Back on the cobbles there are plenty of narrow streets and small squares to stroll down discovering the local produce.
Whatever you decide to do, the Dordogne will teach you to take your time. After all, Lascaux wasn’t painted in a day.
Electric bike tours organised through Maison Vari .
Classic rooms in the main chateau at Chateau des Vigiers from June to August cost from €113 per night, while the hotel’s Prestige rooms start from €176 per night.
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