Easter Sunday. While the UK was basking in freak heatwave conditions, I was back in France and dodging rain showers. Perfect conditions, then, for a Jules Vernes-esque adventure… The Lot département is blessed with a great number of grottes (natural caves) and gouffres (chasms/abbysses), the most famous being the Gouffre de Padirac. However, some 20 km away is the lesser known – but equally worthy of a visit – Grottes de Lacave, and this was where I would undertake my first bit of speleology since visiting St Michael’s Cave in Gibraltar back in 2014.
The entrance to the cave is found on the D23 (if you are coming from Rocamadour direction it’s just before you get to the commune of Lacave. The road is long and winding, so it’s tempting to believe you have missed it, but do persevere and keep following the road round the huge cliffs of the valley. You will eventually find the visitor centre with a good amount of parking and a picnic area on the banks of a narrow section of the Dordogne. The admission charge is 11€ for adults (as of 2019) and for this, you are treated to a guided tour (in French) of the underground cave system that lasts for about 90 minutes. Access to the caves is via a ride on an electric train that takes you 500 m underground, beneath the Causse de Gramat, limestone plateau of the Massif Central. (Causse is an Occitan dialect word meaning limestone plateau, from the Latin calx = lime) The explored part of the tunnel system measures some 4 km, however the tour covers a section of 1.6 km in a loop. Once you disembark the train, there is the option of a lift or an 100-step staircase down into the first chamber, La Salle du Chaos. This large area hosts events ranging from wine tasting evenings to concerts. The acoustics must be fabulous! The tour returns to this point when it is finished and you catch the train back to the surface. Until then, the tour is undertaken on foot. The walkways can be slippery, so do wear good grippy shoes, and if you are unsure of balance, a stick might be a reassuring addition to your trekking kit. Another good idea to bring is a jacket, even though the subterranean ambient remains at near enough 14⁰C, you might feel a bit chilly.
The structures in each of the chambers through which you pass are spellbinding works of natural art, 150 million years in the making. Beautiful lighting showcases the huge stalactites, stalagmites, columns and straws; their perfect reflections cast in silent pools will have you disbelieving your eyes that these really are underground lakes and not some kind of trickery by mirrors. The caves were formed in the middle and upper Jurassic periods and are karst caves. Karst (a word borrowed from German) caves form in soluble rock when naturally acid ground/rain water seeps through faults and cracks. They typically form in limestone such as this, dolomite or gypsum.
There are ten chambers in all, the highlights undoubtedly being the 60-metre high dome, and the mysterious, ethereal Salle des Merveilles (hall of wonders), a dark 2000 m² chamber lit by ultra-violet light (this photo doesn’t do it justice – the deposits have a natural fluorescence only visible under this light, with each stalactite seemingly tipped with a sparkle).
According to written history, the discovery of the cave system at Lacave was a complete accident. Armand Viré, a pioneer of biospeleology (he founded the first underground laboratory devoted to the study of cave flora in Paris in 1896), working in collaboration with the ‘master of caving’ of the time – E.A. Martel, had been exploring many caves all over France. In 1902, they made their first descent into the nearby Igue de Saint-Sol (Igue being another Lot dialect word for chasm). After 15 months of digging a tunnel inside the Jouclas cave in order to reach Saint-Sol, on 27th May 1905, Viré happened upon the cave of Lacave by the greatest of chance. He charted the Lacave system while continuing to search for the underground passage to Saint-Sol – also discovering some archaeological remains in the entrance dating to the Paleolithic. Only a year on, in 1906, the first ‘tourists’ started visiting the cave – the train came much later in 1961. Viré made great contributions to the field of speleology throughout his life, writing dozens of books on the subject, as well as biospeleology, dowsing, geography and travel. He died in 1951, some months after suffering a fall when a cable ruptured during the ascent of a cavern. There is information on visiting the caves on their website: Grottes de Lacave. There’s also an interesting nugget of info about French legislation on property rights… The underground cavity belongs to the landowner of the cadastral parcel underneath which it sits, but only owns the volume decreasing in size in the form of an inverted cone, the tip being the centre of the Earth! Full circle back to Jules Verne!