Across their long time-span of up to some 30,000 years these images and the methods used to create them have revealed to anthropologists many important clues into the evolution of the early human mind. The ancient subterranean caverns housing them also hold keys to other practices from an even earlier past before Neanderthals gave way to modern humans. The Castillo cave complex in Spanish Cantabria can even boast archaeological levels 130,000 years old.
Our route through France encompasses wider time horizons on occasion as we fast-forward through encounters with eventful chapters of this region’s tumultuous history – from Viking invasions, Albigensian crusades and Santiago pilgrimages to the Hundred Years’ War and church schisms. None of these will trouble us today though, especially during a relaxing visit to the beautiful Dordogne, an area widely renowned for its outstanding cuisine and wines.
- Discover amazing examples of the earliest forms of human creativity and expression through cave art created originating as long as 30,000 years ago
- View within the accomplished Chauvet cave replica the most spectacular early Homo Sapiens imagery ever uncovered
- Explore famous Niaux cave and the paintings of the cathedral-like Black Salon with a prehistory scholar as your guide
- Be tempted by delicious regional cuisines and local wines – and enjoy luxurious stays in beautiful paradors
WHAT TO EXPECT
Sep 15 – 29 with Roy Larick
Sunday, September 15: ARRIVE IN MADRID
We arrive into Madrid and transfer to our first hotel where we will meet for dinner.
Monday, September 16: BURGOS
This morning, we enjoy a welcome lecture where our scholar introduces us to the multifaceted, millennia-old history and archaeology of this region. Afterwards, we drive to visit the ruins of Burgos Castle, the history of which stretches from Roman times to the Peninsular War. Archaeological explorations of the area around the castle have also found evidence of ancient prehistoric settlements on the hill which the ruins of the castle now sit. This evening, we enjoy a welcome lecture, where our scholar introduces us to the multifaceted, millennia-old history and archaeology of this region.
Tuesday, September 17: SANTILLANA DEL MAR
We begin at Atapuerca, the caves here hold some of the earliest evidence of homo sapiens in Europe, with fossil and skeletal remains dating back almost one million years. A combination of archaeological excavation, DNA analysis and other scientific techniques have revealed incredible detail about the way of life of our most remote ancestors. We then head north to Cantabria, stopping for lunch at El Convento, a former Cluniac monastery. This afternoon we visit Monte Castillo cave complex, with archaeological levels 130,000 years old. Inside we come face-to-face with painted bison and mammoth. Our hotel for the next two nights is in the lovely town of Santillana de Mar with cobbled streets and medieval-houses aplenty.
Wednesday, September 18: SANTILLANA DEL MAR
We visit El Pindal, where a beautiful horse is depicted as well as fish and mammoth representations — particularly notable pieces, as fish are infrequently found in the Palaeolithic art of this region. We continue to Ribadesella to visit the World Heritage site of Tito Bustillo, a vast alcove-rich cave and striking new museum. Sealed away for millennia, art up to 40,000 years old survives in a remarkably preserved state.
Thursday, September 19: HONDARRIBIA
We enjoy an excellent visit to the Altamira II replica cave and museum, which has excellent interpretive materials. Dating suggests that Altamira’s Great Ceiling animal assemblage was decorated 35,000 to 14,000 years ago. Farther back in deep alcoves, we see anthropomorphic masks.
We then drive east along the Cantabrian coast, known for its mountain-ringed estuaries. Entering the Basque country, we visit the replica cave of Ekain. Declared a World Heritage Site in 2008, the original cave is home to engravings up to 14,000 years old. The animals depicted include horse, bison, goats and deer – often depicted in an exceptionally realistic style. We continue to our hotel, built inside a medieval fortress, which itself dates to the 10th century complete with thick stone walls, vaulted ceilings and courtyards.
Friday, September 20: ST-GIRONS
We begin our ascent into the foothills of the Pyrénées, a land of cave art and Cathar castles. Our first stop is Saint-Bertrand de-Comminges, founded on an important Gallo-Roman city of the Pyrenees. The hilltop town is best known for its Gothic cathedral, which dominates the town. After lunch in we continue to the evocative Gargas cave, famous for its stenciled handprint alcoves and fissures, drenched with red ocher.
Saturday, September 21: ST-GIRONS
In Niaux’s cathedral-like Black Salon, we find alcoves painted with horse, bison and ibex. Visits are conducted by torch-light, the dim light gives an even greater feeling of connection with the people who first painted these walls over 13,000 years ago. We move onto the incomparable site of Mas-d’Azil: Carolingian abbey and crucial Protestant stronghold. As our bus tracks along the Arize River, we explore the gigantic Mas-d’Azil cave. We return to St Girons for dinner this evening and have a little free time to explore this charming town on the Salat river.
Sunday, September 22: CAHORS
We head northward across the Garonne Valley to Quercy – the land of spectacular caves. In Cahors, the Pont Valentré is a pilgrimage route and engineering marvel; the bridge was built in the 14th century and has no fewer than six gothic arches and three fortified towers. After lunch, we explore the immense, flowstone-laden galleries and famous decorated alcoves of Peche-Merle, including the Spotted Horses. Described by Teyssédou as “an art gallery in a palace of nature,” Peche Merle was lost until 1922, when it was discovered (and explored in some detail) by two local teenage boys, aided and abetted by the local priest-come-archaeologist, Father Amedee Lemozi.
Monday, September 23: LES-EYZIES-DE-TAYAC
We continue northward to the Santiago pilgrimage way-stop of Rocamadour. Here, cliff-side chapels preserve Cluniac frescoes. In Souillac, the Byzantine Romanesque Eglise St. Marie has a rare Cluniac sculpture of Isaiah. In Cougnac, we find a small gallery boasting alcoves painted with Irish elk. We end the day at Les-Eyzies-de-Tayac, our base for the next four nights. Perched on the Vézère River cliffs, this market town lies at the Périgord region’s center.
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, September 24, 25 & 26: LES-EYZIES-DE-TAYAC
The following three days focus on Paleolithic caves, important medieval fortifications and beautiful countryside. Our program includes Abri Cro-Magnon, where famous burial finds date back some 27,000 years, the Upper Paleolithic rock shelter at Abri Pataud, and La Roque-Saint Christophe, France’s most amazing example of a medieval stronghold. We enjoy a miniature train ride to view mammoth, rhino and the incomparable Grand Ceiling at Rouffignac Cave. We also get close to Neanderthal skeletons and grave goods at the National Museum of Prehistory and most excitingly, we will have an opportunity to visit the new Lascaux IV replica.
Friday, September 27: VALLON PONT D’ARC
We leave Dordogne for a long but scenic drive east, through central France to Vallon Pont d’Arc. The Pont d’Arc is a natural stone arch or bridge, crossing the river Ardeche. We make several stops en route at Figeac, Severac-le-Chateau, and Gorge du Tarn.
Saturday, September 28: MARSEILLES
Our tour concludes with a visit to the Chauvet replica cave and museum. Chauvet revealed the most spectacular Paleolithic imagery, hundreds of animals of at least 13 different species including lions and hyenas. The paintings are at least 25,000 years old. After this wonderful visit, we will drive to Marseilles to enjoy some free time relaxing and reminiscing about our experiences on the tour.
Sunday, September 29: DEPART FROM MARSEILLES
We transfer to the airport for our individual flights home or onward travel.