Even in September the temperatures in the Dordogne can reach a toasty 32 degrees, so a trip to a cave offers some welcome respite from the sun's strong rays. Descending into the darkness and to a constant 13 degrees was just what I needed...
Arriving just for the Gouffre de Padirac cave opening at 09:30 one September morning, I was surprised at how few cars there were in the car park. I'd heard stories of the horrendous queues and been advised to buy a ticket in advance of my trip. After half an hour I understood what they were talking about. This is certainly one of the most popular caves in the area and once you enter, it becomes clear why!
Although you don't need to pre-book out of high season we would definitely recommend that you book online during the busy months of July and August. There is a separate queueing system for those who have pre-booked and you can turn up at your allotted time, allowing plenty of time to enjoy a coffee or refreshing ice cream.
At the ticket desk I was advised that the tour would be in French but that I could ask my tour guide to explain things to me in English. A small booklet with an English description of the tour route was also available. If you are booking for a group or a VIP visit then you can request your tour in another language and they will try to accommodate you.
From the outside the Gouffre de Padirac is a gaping chasm in the ground, reaching down some 75m. This was once an immense underground chamber but due to erosion the ceiling eventually collapsed. Luckily for us it is now a particularly impressive entrance to a subterranean world. Descending the metal steps down into the chasm you can feel the air changing temperature and the moisture building. The cave is at a constant temperature of 13 degrees and is fairly damp with a few puddles so a jumper and some decent footwear is advisable.
The first part of the tour takes you down some more stairs and into the cave itself, past calcified formations and through passageways of amazing rock formations. Certain areas are lit up to give you a better sense of this magnificent underground world.
Once you are 103 metres underground you reach a strange sort of jetty with small flat-bottomed boats that reminded me of the gondolas of Venice - with a little less glamour! In fact the sign here says 'Please show your ticket to the boatman' and I couldn't help but think of Greek mythology and the boatman who carries souls of the newly deceased across the rivers...
In groups of eight you board the boats and the real tour begins. The boatman begins his description of the cave, the river and your general surroundings as you wind your way along the river and into the unknown. After 5-10 minutes you reach a small lake where you disembark and begin your walking tour with a sperate guide.
No photography is allowed in this part of the cave...and to be honest if I'd known what was coming it would've ruined the surprise! You are led past stalactites that have reached down an incredible 75 metres and are still growing and into chambers that rise up 94 metres above your head. Here we are told that only 9 metres of rocks separates us from the world above and you can finally understand why the first chasm collapsed. There is absolutely no sign in the landscape above of this incredible subterranean world below.
After exploring 1100 metres of the network of caves, caverns and calcium formations we reach the turning point of our tour and make our way back to the harbour by a slightly different route. It's a fairly strenuous hike up and down stairs so be prepared that this isn't a simple stroll along the river. So far around 42km of the underground passages and rivers have been explored but there is still plenty more to discover.
There are actually two nights a year reserved for special night time explorations and if I was planning this trip again I would be tempted to reserve this unique experience. The chance to delve deeper into the caves, along the river and to see what other tourists have missed is certainly a huge draw! This year it was the 22nd July and the 20th August.
Having discovered the caves, the lakes, the rivers, the rock formations and a little of the history of the man who discovered them, Edouard-Alfred Martel ('father of modern speleology' and a world pioneer of cave exploration, study, and documentation), you return to the harbour and board a boat back to the entrance. I felt that €12 was very reasonable for the hour long tour through some dramatic subterranean scenery, two guides and two boat trips - it's a trip that I'd highly recommend!
Sadly, at the end I had to ascend the steps back up the surface - yes, all of them. Sweating by the top as I returned to the 30+ degree heat of the surface. There is a lift that seems to take a maximum of six people and didn't appear to be running very frequently - hopefully that's a bit different in the busy summer months!