Sunday, May 12, 2013

Le Gouffre de Padirac

300 feet down through the limestone under our feet in the hills of the Lot region, just north of Rocamadour, there is an amazingly beautiful cave full of vaulted ceilings and curtains of stone. Padirac Cave (Gouffre (Chasm) of Padirac) isn't the biggest I've been in, and others have had more spectacular formations, but there was something special about this place. We went down a long metal staircase past layers and layers of rock, watching the light mist coat the ferns and moss and drip down to the bottom, continuing the process of cave formation.

This cave site has been open to visitors for more than a century, and it's one of the most popular tourist attractions in France, for the French, I mean, as well as for international visitors. It was discovered at the end of the 19th century when part of the ceiling collapsed, forming the circular hole you go down to get to the caves. This entire region is riddled with cave systems, but this one apparently was closed, so there may not have been people exploring or living in it earlier than this.

The stairs continue down to the level of the underground river, and a ten-minute boat ride through a hidden canyon takes you to the main part of the cave with all of the formations. No photos are allowed at that point, and I didn't use my flash to try to get pictures in the open sections. The guided tour after the boat trip takes you up several stories along the edge of the open spaces, to look down on blue-green pools surrounded by flattened mushrooms of stone, or to look up to see the curling waves of stone falling down in infinitely slow motion.

The boat tour guide told us that each Sunday in August they do one "nocturnal" visit where all the electric lights are put out, and only candles are used for illumination. The visit is done in silence, so that you can hear the beating of your heart, and the flutter of bat wings, and the millennium-long pulse at the heart of the earth, slow and calm, there long before you and lasting long after, flowing smoothly into the dark.

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