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BEAUX VOYAGES
Lot Department Article
Rocamadour, Gouffre de Padirac, Pech Merle- 3 Top-Notch Venues in the Lot
Department of France
by Walt Ballenberger   Beaux Voyages

Rocamadour  is surely one of the most spectacular villages in France or even all of Europe.  
It spans a cliff on three levels, with the castle on top, the church and religious area in the
middle section, and the village about 500 ft. below the castle.  The village is pedestrian only
and is very quaint.  An elevator is available to take visitors back to the upper levels. The
location was named after St. Amadour and reached its zenith in the 13th century as one of
the most famous pilgrimage sites in Europe.  Miraculous cures were said to occur for people
who kneeled at the Chapel of the Virgin.  Massive crowds of up to thirty thousand would
come on days of major religious celebration.  Upon arrival, pilgrims would strip off their
clothes and climb up the famous steps leading to the castle on their knees in only a shirt,
with chains bound around their arms and neck.   A priest recited prayers of purification and
removed the chains from the penitents who were granted a pardon for their sins and
received a certificate and a kind of medal bearing the image of the miraculous Virgin.  
Although pillaged during the 100 years war and the Wars of Religion later, the village was
rebuilt over the years.  For a truly spectacular view of the village and surrounding area, one
can take a hot air balloon ride.  This needs to be arranged in advance through the local
Office of Tourism.

The Gouffre de Padirac (gouffre means abyss or chasm), only about 25 kilometers from
Rocamadour, offers visitors boat rides more than 300 feet below the earth’s surface.  
Elevators provide access and exit from the cave. The view looking up from the bottom of the
chasm before entering the underground cave is unique, as one only sees a circular section
of sky as if being at the bottom of a long tube. Upon entering the caves, one eventually
arrives at the boat dock, and it is here that the guided tours begin.  There is a 500 meter
ride to the debarkation landing and the start of the walking tour, which features interesting
rock formations, and numerous stalagmites, stalactites, pools, etc.  One stalactite is
mammoth in size, almost three hundred meters high, and it took several million years to
form.  First explored by the speleologist, Edouard Martel, in 1889, the gouffre has been
open to the public since 1898.  The Grand Dome is an impressive open area, above which
the earth’s crust is only a few meters thick.  The tours are in French, but one can get a
description of the site in other languages before boarding the boats.  The return trip via boat
is another 500 meters, so the total boat travel is over a half mile.  This attraction is fun for
people of all ages.  It’s not often one is in a boat 300 feet underground!

Although Lascaux is the most famous of the prehistoric caves in the general region, Pech
Merle might be the most interesting to visit because the wall paintings, some more than
20,000 years old, are originals and are in excellent condition.  One can only see replicas at
Lascaux, and in fact that cave has been closed off for several years even to scientists
because of degradation of the wall paintings.  Pech Merle is a large cave complex, so the
effects of having too many humans visit are much less than at Lascaux and elsewhere.  In
fact there are a dozen other caves containing prehistoric wall paintings within 10 kilometers
of Pech Merle, but all these are closed to the public.  A maximum of seven hundred visitors
are allowed in the cave each day, so it is important to get a reservation beforehand.  One
can do this online at <a href=“http://www.quercy.net/pechmerle/contact.html/”>Pech Merle
Contact</a>. The reason the wall paintings are of such good quality is that the cave was
closed off for thousands of years and was not disturbed.  Two young teenagers
rediscovered the site in 1922 (a discovery story similar to that of Lascaux), and it was open
to the public in 1926.  There are about 700 depictions on the walls stretching over about
1,000 feet.  There are also footprints left from a prehistoric adolescent.  Here again the tour
is in French, but written guides in other languages are available.  The artifact museum is
also worth a look.  Not far away is the beautiful medieval village of St. Cirq Lapopie which is
also worth a visit or perhaps an overnight stay.

Rocamadour, the Gouffre de Padirac, and Pech Merle are three excellent places to visit in
the Lot department of France.  If you are in the region you can visit them all in two days.  
Spend one day split between Rocamadour and the Gouffre de Padirac, and the second day
at Pech Merle and nearby St. Cirq Lapopie.  These are really top-notch venues.
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