T errasson is located on the Vézère river. The river is part of the 'European Ecological Infrastructure' (NATURA 2000) and the valley is classified as a world heritage site by UNESCO. The cave-lined Vézère valley is known as the 'Valley of mankind' due to its wealth of prehistoric sites.
Vézère valley long distance hiking trail
For those who like hiking there is a long distance hiking trail through the Vézère valley:'90 km of marked trails through woods, the shade of cliffs and shelters and the top of sunny hills', the total hike will take 7 section/6 days. We could drop you off in the morning at the start of each section and pick you up in the evening at the end if arranged in advance.
Starting from Terrasson, the first section takes you to Saint-Amand-de-Coly (12km), the second section ends in Montignac (16km), the third section takes you to Sergeac (17km), the forth ends in Les-Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil (22km). The fifth & sixth sectons take you Le Bugue (14km) and Limeuil (11km), where the Vézère meets the Dordogne river. The last section to Le-Buisson-de-Cadouin (6km) will bring you to a train station that is outside the valley.
Condat sur Vézère
The Coly stream once powered two watermills in Condat-sur-Vézère before dropping into the Vézère through a little cascade. The village has been home to the Gaulois and the Romans and was a base for the Hospitallers whom left their mark.
The name Condat derives from the gallic word 'condate', meaning 'confluence of two rivers', in this case the Vézère and the Coly. The first writings evoking Condat go back to the Middle Ages. Today the village is known as Condat-sur-Vézère (occitan Condat de Vesera) to avoid confusion as the name is 'Condat' is quite common.
Condat was occupied by the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem (also known as Knights Hospitalier or Hospitallers for short) from the 12th till the 18th century. After the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 during the first crusade, the organization became a religious and military order charged with the care and defence of the Holy Land. Pope Clement V dissolved the rival order, the Knights Templar, in 1312 and turned over much of their property to the Hospitallers.
The village was the seat of the principal commandery of the Hospitallers which had authority over a genuine network of commanderies of the Périgord. The commanders had the right on high and low justice and his authority was exercised over the many possessions in Périgord. From 1291 to 1790, thirty commanders succeeded one another in Condat. During the wars of religion the parish of Condat was devastated several times.
The commandery of Condat has conserved the majority of the buildings as they were (re)constructed under the command of François de Touchboeuf Clermont by 1540. The small watermill (1), large watermill with the common bread oven (2) (four banal), the church (3), prison (4), commanders lodge (5), noble house of Verdier (6), remnants of the ancient enclosure wall (7) and fishponds. The Hospitallers exploited the hydrolic power of the Coly through mills to work grain, nuts and hemp though this last 'fulling mill' has today disappeared.
From the Castle of Condat, the 16th century lodge remains and the 14th century prison tower, registered as historical monuments since 1948. The rectangular building has an adjacent square on one side, fishpond and ramparts on the other, and in the opposite corner a 16th century tower. The Romanesque church of Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Jean-Baptiste, dates back to the 12th century with its fortified flat bell tower with four bays, that is accessible through a staircase in the right buttress. The old residences include the noble house of the Verdier and some half-timbered (à colombage) houses (8).
The four banal (commune oven) is a reminder of the restrictions in feudal tenure in France which obliged peasants to use the facilities of their lords, until the 18th century. These included the required use-for-payment of the lord's mill to grind grain, his wine press to make wine, and his oven to bake bread. Both the manorial lord's right to these dues and the banality-dues themselves are called droit de banalité. The object of this right was qualified as 'banal', e.g. the four banal.
La Commanderie, former 13th century safekeeping post of the Knight Hospitallers, is a historic place that nowadays serves day menus inside its dining room with thick walls and vaulted ceiling, or outside in its parkland gardens.
You can walk around Condat in 30 minutes or hike one of the following trails :
Hiking trails starting from Condat-sur-Vézère
Boucle de la Commanderie; 9km – 3h.
Boucle du Pech; 2,7km – 1h.
Boucle de Maurival; 11,6km – 3h.
Halfway between Montignac and Terrasson this castle provides for a nice break. Owned by a famous french TV personality the castle was brought back from being a ruin. It features showcase rooms and curiousity cabinets, but its biggest attraction is found in the cellars.
The vaulted cellars are the oldest part of the castle and house one of the largest private collections of pre-historic art and artifacts. Much of the collection dates back to the time before the 'pre-history' was even recognized, and pieces from every well known archeological site can be found here! (entrance fee)
Hiking trails starting from Aubas
Boucle des Châteaux; 14,5km – 4,5h.
A pretty small town on the Vézère River, most famous for the original Lascaux caves (as well as the Lascaux II and International Center of Art Parietal). Montignac is well worth a visit in its own right. The river is the center, with its attractive stone bridge and balconied houses, and during summer restaurants use the bank as terraces.
The tourist office provides a 'carte touristique' (tourist map) a walk around town takes about half an hour to complete. There are plenty of nice bars and restaurants along the way, Montignac is also the starting point for a number of circular walks.
These internationally renowned caves (II and IV) with their pre-historic paintings are in fact a replica of The original Lascaux “I" (paintings which shocked Picasso). In the re-creation each ripple of the rock has been reproduced in order to give viewers a full appreciation of the beauty and skill of the paintings and engravings. The most important is that the natural shapes of the rock have often been used as part of the pictures.
The colours of the walls are absolutely gorgeous, with deep red, rich ochre and black being the dominant tints. The pictures are beautifully painted and show a sense of perspective and movement.
Lascaux IV The latest addition to the Lascaux project this gigantic building took many years to build and perfect. Apart from a full reproduction of the cave, information is presented in various ways. A guided visit will take about 2.5 hours (entrance fee)
Lascaux II This cave has long been the 'gold standard' for replication as an alternative to the closed original cave. With the opening of Lascaux IV it might be slowly phased-out or re-purposed, a tour takes only 40 minutes and with an lower entrance fee it saves you a little time and money.
Hiking trails starting from Montignac
Boucle des Etangs de Coulonge; 13,8km – 4,5h.
Boucle Promenade de Lascaux; 7km – 2h.
Château and gardens de Losse
You enter the castle across a bridge over the moat and on to a fortified gatehouse which is the largest of its kind in Europe, inscribed with the motto: 'L'homme fait ce que peut, La fortune ce que veut.'(Man is doing what he can, Fate is doing what it wants). This leads to the courtyard from where you get nice views of the Renaissance castle.
A large terrace at the back of the castle offers great views over the river. Surrounding the Château de Losse are gardens - awarded 'Jardin Remarquable' status in 2004. The gardens are laid out in a French formal style with walls of box hedges clipped into symmetrical shapes. (entrance fee)
The church in the village is small but worth a visit. There are traces of the Gallo-Roman villa on the side of the church next to the river. Its lauze (dry stacked natural stone) roofs create a domed ceiling with remains of frescoes. The church is one of the oldest pre-Romanesque-style churches in the Dordogne area, dating back to the 12th century.
As Saint-Leon is classified 'one of the most beautiful villages in France', it attracts quite some visitors. This explains the choice of places to have lunch here, from informal 'crepes' to more formal settings along the main road.
With a population of about 430 people Saint Leon is a small village. The main road cuts through and offers a variety of restaurants, but the charm lies in exploring the small alleyways. A short hiking trail (3.4 km - 45 min) takes you over the old towpath next to the river passing the Saint-Léonce church (1) with its pre-romanesque nave (without arches) meeting the vaulted (coupled) brace and apse forming a Latin cross on the traditional east-west axis.
The tower is positioned on the central vault. The southern (right) and the main apse have remnants of several layers of frescoes applied between the 12th and 17th centuries. Visible are the faces of three apostles, the lion associated with Mark, the cow associated with Luke, a kneeling saint in prayer, three angels and a mixture of plants, branches and palm leaves.
From the church follow the river and pass the 16th century Château de Clérans (2) the trail will take you through the fields and returns passing the 14th century La Chapelle Expiatoire (4) with its newly restored lauze roof and enters the village Manoir de la Salle (3), a strong house that dates back to the 14th century. Strolling through the village you will find the tourism office and public toilets (5), for those looking to kayak, the rental is across the bridge (6).
La Roque Saint-Christophe
The Roque Saint-Christophe Fort et Cite Troglodytiques cliff has been occupied by man for 55,000 years; then the place was a fort which became a city in the middle ages. Here you will travel through times understanding the life of the people of the cliffs. This prehistoric and historic site is unique in its size (1km long, 5 levels, more than 100 shelters carved into the cliff face), its age and the length of its human occupation.
La Maison Forte de Reignac
This is described as 'the strangest, most secret, most extraordinary and most mysterious' castle of the Périgord, and the best preserved cliff castle in France. Not very imposing from the outside, this fortress makes it up on the inside which is entirely conserved and furnished according to the 'epoque'. It also features a permanent exhibition on 'torture and the death penalty' with over 60 authentic 'machines infernales'.(entrance fee)
Site de la Madeleine
The Madeleine shelter in Tursac is the reference site for the Magdalenian culture (18,500 – 11,000 years ago) with its increased use of bone reindeer antler to produce artefacts that include some masterpieces of realism like the Bison licking its side (now at the National Prehistory Museum see Les Eyzies section below).
The site has the typical layers upon layers of history setting with the shelter (closed to the public) at the botton, an VIIIth century troglodytic fort and village hanging halfway up the cliff, and a XIVth century castle at the top. Below the castle and the village the entrance of a cluseau is visible and an information panel provides information. The site is smaller than that of La Roque Saint Christophe, but more of the structures were preserved. (entrance fee)
Or just Les Eyzies for short, village of 900 inhabitants receiving up to a million visitors per year. It was in a rock-shelter near to Les Eyzies that the CroMagnon man was discovered, together with the cave paintings at Font de Gaume (last multi-colored prehistoric cave-painting site still open to the public), the Combarelles cave (160 meter deep tunnel decorated with over 800 engravings and drawings), the rock shelter of Cap Blanc (masterpiece of Magdalenian Era monumental sculpture, covering 15 meters depicting 14 animals) and the Abri Préhistorique de Laugerie Haute, it warrants the name 'Capital of the Prehistory’! You can also visit the Abri de Cro-Magnon, it’s free of charge.
The National Prehistory Museum
Houses one of the world’s most complete collections of prehistoric artifacts. The museum houses a (very) large collection of flint tools. Some carved and engraved objects are spectacular. (entrance fee)
The Arts et Métiers en Périgord exhibition
Units several of the region's finest craftsmen, is open from mid-June to mid-September: on show are leather goods, ceramics, artworks, and original jewellery (free of charge).
More information on some of the caves
Font de Gaume cave.
The Font de Gaume is the last cave with polychrome (multi-coloured) paintings open to the general public. To limit the effects of visitors on the artwork the number of visitors is strictly managed. Therefore, during the high season people sleep in front of the ticket office to get in!
As the cave has always been open, past generations of visitors have left their marks. So, the cave can now only be visited in small groups with a guide. The tour starts with instructions on how to preserve the cave: no bags, no touching the walls and no photography. Humidity and CO2 levels are closely monitored to inform on the carrying capacity of the cave.
The guide showed a selection of the 200 paintings and engravings that decorated the walls depicting bisons, horses, mammoths, reindeer and 'tectiforms' (abstract geometric shapes and repeated lines, like a form of a roof).
The cave's main gallery is 120 meters long, with three smaller side galleries.
Cave art has inspired us to think about how much we don’t know about knowledge, feelings, art, past, present and future? When the guide turned off the light, using only a small torch light, and asked what do we see? In the ancient time the artists very likely only had a tiny candle or fat-lamp when carving these works, now the whole atmosphere changed. I saw a horse slowly floated to the surface right in front of my eyes. It came to life, looked at me and moved side to side as the guide swaying his little torch.
Deeply touched by the power of art, astonished by the use of the natural shape of the rock, awakened by realizing the sources of light they were using… and feeling ashamed by used to think early humans were less intelligent than us.
Cap blanc shelter.
The rock shelter of Cap Blanc is one of the more accessible of the 'well managed caves'. It differs from the others in that it actually was a 'shelter', originally on one side open to the air, and that the wall art was thus originally 'open' or within sight.
The art was well preserved as a landslide covered the shelter until its excavation. A small museum was build over it to protect the art, receive and provide some background information to visitors.
The shelter presents one of the greatest masterpieces of Magdalenian Era prehistoric monumental sculpture, covering 15 meters it depicts 14 animals, some of them superimposed. Carved in high and low relief there are horses, bison, aurochs and deer. At the center an almost real-sized horse.
The Combarelles cave is a very narrow, low-ceilinged, zigzagging, 160 meter deep tunnel decorated with over 800 engravings and drawings. Decorations start 70 meters from the entrance, subjects depicted range very widely: From the more common bisons, horses, aurochs, mammoths and reindeer, to some spectacular cave lions, and human representations.
Looking at the famous 'headless women', it is easily said: 'So that is where it all started to go wrong..,' but who says the original artist were men (and hence representing their views)?
Could the cave have played a role in some ancient initiation rituals? Like Sze was able to observe first-hand in the Kalahari, Botswana (sorry, Joost was excluded as it was a 'women's only' occasion).
Prehistoric shelter of Laugerie Haute.
Tickets to the Laugerie Haute are sold at the Font the Gaume office. We joint this guided visit because the main attractions were sold-out. The abri is locate on the outskirts of town. The abri is located on the outskirts of town. We were not knowing what to expect, it was a great experience!
First the bad news, there is actually very little to see here, and much of what is on display is a documentation of past ideas (no not mis-labeled, the knowledge about the pre-history has greatly progressed, in no small part thanks to this site). We joint a French language tour, but the guide was very fluent and willing to speak English.
The guide was wonderfully enthusiastic about the display and his enthusiasm brought the dry earth walls to live! It was probably his passion and movement more than the actual display. He was able to communicate so much about the ‘history of history’, and how our ideas about it formed and changed... from time and time he pointed to a position in space where something was found that was now on display in some museum or another...
So, surely not for everyone, but a great experience for us.
The cave of Bernifal can be found following the Beune upstream from Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil for a few kilometres. What sets Bernifal apart from other caves is that it is privately owned by an elderly ‘peasant farmer’, named Gilbert Pémendrant, who guides small groups the ‘old school way’. He seems to enjoy the company and the status, as he is a bit of a celebrity to the ‘in-crowd’. So much so that the documentary movie ‘‘Le dernier paysan préhistorien’ (official English title ‘The last farmer-cum-prehistorian') was made of him.
The Bernifal cave has a few ‘chambers’ that are quite spacious, the cave as a whole is large enough to accommodate small groups and floors have not been modified to facilitate access (as is the case with Font de Gaume, Combarreille and Rouffignac). The cave was discovered in 1902, and a century of sightseers have left their marks. Together with layers of calcium deposited naturally over millennia, the visitor needs to make an effort at times to make-out representations. But the cave does have its share of unique representations, that are supplementary to the other caves.
One of the representations is a 'Tectiform' (abstract geometric shape) very similar to ones found in Font de Gaume and Rouffignac. According to Mr. Pémendrant it shows a shelter, closed on one side, supporting a pointed roof with a chimney, and smoke coming from the chimney. It seems positioned in a blur of ochre, but closer examination reveals some interesting features. The lines are actually made up of dots, and there are ‘decorations’. This is the only example of what appears to be a tectiform, but is not made up of lines, it even seems to have details the other similar ‘abstract’ shapes do not have. This opens the question to what is represented here, is it ‘abstract’ or ‘an abstraction’ of something.
Apart from the usual representation of mammoth, aurochs and horses, there is an engraved donkey, a star like shape based on six lines, and a few triangle like shapes with rounded corners. Most peculiar are a number of human representation, in particular a clear human face looking out from underneath some calcium deposit. Close inspection and moving light reveal the surface of the rock has been altered to ‘carve-out’ the face, or at least improve its features. The cave further has both positive and negative representations of hands, as well as a rare pair of engraved human hands.
With some enthusiasm Mr. Pémendrant showed us the ‘Bernifal horse’ which in his eyes proves prehistoric people already domesticated horses, close by he showed a human face that was discovered only recently by a student, the discovery was confirmed by researchers and published in a 2012 paper "La grotte de Bernifal Dordogne nouvelles découvertes Serpe 2012".
Mr. Pémendrant, now in his 80s, seems to enjoy life. You need his phone number (landline) and some patience to contact him, there is no internet site or ticket office. You also need some patience, for he arrives at his own time and pace. Before entering the cave he took out a spirit level and went through his bags and pockets carefully searching for the batteries to be inserted. One end of the spirit level had a red ‘laser’ light, very convenient to draw-out the engravings on the walls in front of us without touching them. Do not expect a ticket or a receipt, but do expect to be fooled at times. A picture with him will cost the ladies a kiss on his cheek; ‘That is the rule’, he affirmed. And as he is the owner, he is making the rules anyway!
The ‘cave of a hundred mammoths’ is a few kilometres into the hills. The caves are very extensive with over 10 kilometres spread over 3 levels. A small electric train brings the visitors deep into the caves, as the first drawings are only found about a kilometre from the entrance. The drawings and engravings are mostly mammoth, but there are some spectacular wholly rhinoceros as well as bison, horses, ibex and some abstract symbols including tectiforms. The train stop at the end of one of the tunnels where you are allowed to get off to admire the ‘great ceiling’. Because of its out of the way location, size and electric train this cave has a relatively high carrying capacity for visitors, but if the train is full, it’s full. (entrance fee)
Domain Départemental de Campagne
The Departmental domaine of Campagne consists of a castle, some service buildings and a 6 hectare large landscape garden and a 367 hectares of classified biological reserve forests. What makes the domain unique is the landscape gardens (not the typical french style Renaissance gardens) with large trees, winding streams and ponds and an escalator that reaches out to a cave/cluseaux. During summer the castle hosts art exhibitions. And no entrance fees!
The whole site is a protected historical monument, as it preserves the buildings and gardens as laid-out in the 1862. They were 'renovated' since 2007 as the domain was passed to the state by the last private owner (it had been in the family since 15th century). The park is great for a stroll, a picnic, or tree hugging the giant sequoias, ceders and magnolia trees (and get high by their resins)! The park landscape style embraces the picturesque, romantic and emotional features that are typical to the 19th century: (1) castle (2) labyrinth (3) vegetable garden (4) orchard (5) winding stream & ponds (6) water mirrors (7) bridges, 139 steps 'Escalier des Dames' (8) caves (9) cascades.