The restored chateau of the 16th-century humanist, statesman and essayist Michel de Montaigne is less than an hour’s drive from Gibeau

Grotte de Pech-Merle

My first visit to Pech-Merle had a powerful effect on me. I’d visited caverns before, and had read stories and seen pictures of early cave paintings, none of which prepared me for the experience of seeing close up murals dating back as far as 25,000 years.

The cave was carved by an underground river about 60 million years ago. The caverns are a series of seven chambers extending about a mile in total from the entrance. Pech-Merle is the home of one of the few prehistoric cave painting sites in France which remain open to the general public.

The caverns were probably used by early Homo sapiens during the last Ice Age as shelters from the Arctic climate. They completed hundreds of lifelike images of a the prehistoric animals that roamed southern France at the time — woolly mammoth, spotted horses, single-color horses, bison, reindeer. They also painted images of themselves, as well as dozens of handprint silhouettes. Part of what makes these images so powerful is the way the artists incorporated the geological features of the caves — the swells, bowls and colorations in the rock — to give the images a three-dimensional effect. Footprints of children, preserved in what was once clay, have been found more than half a mile underground.

Executing these paintings deep underground, with no natural light, was dangerous work. Many of the murals are on high rock walls and archeologists have found no evidence of formal scaffolding. All the explanations of why those early humans took the risk and trouble to do this work — religious awakening, hunting rituals, etc., — are pure speculation. Their motives are shrouded in mystery as dark as the caves themselves.

Pech-Merle is a few hours east of Gibeau, about a 35-minute drive from Cahors. Reservations are required at least 3-4 days in advance in high-season (www.pechmerle.com).

Gibeau. An authentic country home for vacation rental in Southwest France. Inquire about availability