Down, down, down we descend, 103 metres below the surface of the French Dordogne on an adventure to discover what lies beneath at Gouffre de Padirac, just like explorer Edouard-Alfred Martel.
This is Europe’s most famous cave, visited by more than 24 million people. Our guide tells us that in July, the peak month for visitation, more than 7,000 people a day take the tour. We are here in October and there are no queues and plenty of space to move around.
You can take the stairs, and some fit souls do, but the lift for the 75 metre descent works for me. Half way in to Gouffre de Padirac there is a path leading out in to the middle of the cavern when light streams down to highlight a statue. It’s an amazingly peaceful spot, but I imagine at peak times the feeling would be quite different.
Another lift down and more walking until we come across the underground river and the tour proper starts.
Gouffre de Padirac’s subterranean river is filled with what the guide describes as galleries where different rock formations amaze and delight. The stunning Grande Pendeloque, a gigantic 60-metre-tall stalactite and the 94-metre-high Salle du Grame Domes vault are impressive sights.
Martel was a great adventurer and explorer but lacked the funds to make his discovery open to the public until fate came to his aid. He left his bag of Gouffre de Padirac maps and his design ideas in a Parisian cab by accident. Luckily, the next passenger was George Beamish, heir to the Irish beer brand of the same name. He browsed Martel’s plans and was amazed by the project. Beamish contacted Martel and started the project going.
The cave first opened to visitors in 1898 and the first tourists were greeted in 1899. Only two kilometres of the 40 kilometres of the cave system are open to visitors. As you glide along the underground river, punted by your guide, you’ll see incredible caverns with rock gardens and stalactites.
Leaving the boat for a while, guests climb a steep staircase to view the cavern from on high. At the end of the tour, the boat returns to the starting point and you retrace your steps to the surface.
After exploring the cave we went to a delightful cafe, Chez Ernestine, for lunch and enjoyed some local cheese with our meal.
Where is Gouffre de Padirac?
You find Gouffre de Padirac about 15 minutes drive from Rocamodour, another one of France’s not-to-be-missed destinations. Padirac, Gramat, Gourdon, Lot, Midi-Pyrenees, 46500, France