A journey to the centre of earth at the Pit of Padirac – Meanderings through France n° 171
By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
If exploring the Pit of Padirac won’t quite take you to the centre of the earth, it will however take you on a fascinating 103-metre deep journey, navigating an underground river and walking through impressive caves filled with spectacular stalagmites, stalactite and other mineral formations. It’s an absolute must-see if you spend some time in Quercy in southwest France.
As expected such a big hole (it’s 35 metres wide) on the earth’s surface has always played strange tricks on people’s imagination and many legends surrounds this unique site. Satan, sorcerers and even a tale of flames spurting out of the pit to defend a treasure hidden by the British at the end of the Hundred Years’ War!
If the pit had been known for centuries, it was not before 1889 that Edouard-Alfred Martel, founding father of modern potholing, properly explored this abyss. Many people before him had already been down to the bottom of the pit but he was the very first one to find the way to the underground river and to the huge caves below. The best guess is that a strong flooding of the river by the end of the 19th century created this opening allowing him to explore a new underground terra incognita.
Now imagine how daring and brave Martel and his companion Gaupillat were to follow the river in almost complete darkness, using dim candlelight to find their way. Having taken a small boat named The Crocodile, they navigated for 34 days, discovering the “Rain Lake”, the “Great Chandelier”, the narrow “Channel of the Crocodile”, the “Great Mounds lake” and other paths and tunnels. Thirty-four days to discover 2km of this unknown world, out of a 40km long network.
In 1890 after several other exploration trips, Martel almost lost his life when his boat capsized and his candle fell into the water, leaving him in total darkness. Fortunately he had had the very good idea to carry with him a box of matches in a waterproof bag! Small details make all the difference… Six years later, in 1996, the pit was open to the public and ever since it’s been the most popular one in France.
The site was equipped with elevators in 1930 to facilitate the way down… and up the abyss. But, then during your underground journey, you will go up and down stairs and walkways to get through the hugest caves. You will follow a 1,3 mile long tour, mostly onboard small boats skilfully driven by a guide pushing on a long pole, just like a gondolier would do on the canals in Venice! Attractive light and shadow effects illuminate the river, the stalagmites and stalactites or the mineral constructions evoking stacks of plates, chandeliers, rocky lace or whatever your imagination will make you see.
All of them have slowly, patiently been made with the combination of drops of water, minerals and time. It took two millions years to built this extraordinary decor, which is an awful lot of time for us, but only a fraction of time for our old planet. The highlight of the show undoubtedly is the 94-metre high Cave of the Dome where everywhere you look offers an outstanding perspective.
This year the Pit of Padirac will reopen on March 30th and celebrate its 130th anniversary. For summertime visits booking tickets online is highly recommended. Even when the weather is hot remember that in the caves there is a constant 55°F temperature, so don’t forget your sweaters.
More info and booking : www.gouffre-de-padirac.com/en/home
Feeling hungry? Before or after visiting the Pit of Padirac you can stop in Alvignac a charming village and stop at “Chez Ernestine” where young chef Joshua Laillier makes a delicious cuisine mixing traditional dishes with a pinch of inventiveness. He loves making copious plates filled with heaps of local products simply and tastily cooked.
Amandine will warmly welcome you and seat you on the outside terrace or in the pretty dining room with gay checked tablecloths. Duck confit, knuckle of lamb with prunes and gingerbread, grilled prime rib for two with homemade French fries… will be followed with a banana tiramisu, a soft walnut cake or the chef’s special crème brulée! By the end of your meal you will be nicely full without being upset by the bill!
“Chez Ernestine” is in Alvignac. You can phone to book by dialling +33 (0) 5 65 10 89 12
More about the Lot department: www.tourisme-lot.com/en
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny & Annick Dournes