Long before the Louvre housed its first painting, before Caesar conquered the Gauls, before humans first fermented the grape to make wine, even before prehistoric people ever daubed paint on a cave wall, France began to roll over a hotspot. Formerly submerged areas of southwestern France were uplifted, exposing vast swathes of continental shelf and shoreline to the ravages of weather and volcanism.
Beginning at the edge of the old limestone continental shelf, the geologically inclined traveler can trek all the way to the granite of the continent proper, taking in everything along the way from cave paintings to volcanoes to the excellent local wines. For the full trip, it will take about a week to 10 days.
Renting a car is essential to this geologic adventure, as some of the distances between major destinations are long. Once you've arrived in an area, however, bicycling is the ideal way to scout out the local geology. Many lovely hotels as well as bed and breakfasts rent rooms in the larger towns, or you can stay at the ubiquitous campsites scattered throughout the region. If you do decide to camp, bring gear for all weather, as the climate is variable and, even in the summer, can vacillate from hot and dry to cold and rainy from one day to the next.
Starting in Paris, drive south on Rte. E09 across table-top flat plains. The
landscape breaks into rolling hills just as you hit Limoges. As you continue
to the south past Perigueux, swing a bit to the southeast and you will arrive
at Les Eyzies de Tayac, a charming town between the Vézère and
the Dordogne rivers. Located at the epicenter of duck farming country, Les Eyzies
is a must for foie gras fans. While you're there, be sure to stroll along rue
Cromagnon, the street that gave Cromagnon man his name. The area is also home
to many caves of both historical and geological significance.
One of the most impressive caves is Font de Gaume. A limestone cave carved by water, it is one of the last caves with colored paintings that is still open to the public. Running bison, wild horses and the famous kissing deer fantastically adorn the walls.
A bit further along the road is Les Combarelles, another not-to-be missed cave, filled with prehistoric art created by etchings instead of paint. Also near Les Eyzies de Tayac is Roque St. Cristophe, a complex of cliff shelters inhabited almost continuously from prehistoric times through the Middle Ages. Look closely for shellfish fossils in the walls alongside medieval graffiti.
Collonges la-Rouge, pictured at right, is deep in the heart of central France in the Limousin region a region reputed as a cradle of romanesque art. Courtesy of Conceze.com.
From Les Eyzies, drive a few hours east to Rocamadour, the home of more modern cave dwellers. A historic town built into an anticline in a limestone cliff, Rocamadour has shops, restaurants and even people's homes with caves in the cliff as interior rooms. From the upper levels of the town, gaze out across the valley for quite a view. You can see the unmistakable signs of faulting: The trees in the forest are clearly offset in straight lines.
Before you leave Rocamadour, be sure to grab a bottle of the local vintage. Some connoisseurs claim they can taste the transition from limestone to sandstone to volcanic soils in the wines of the region. To test their taste buds, it might not be a bad idea to pick up a bottle every so often throughout your trip.
If you drive east from Rocamadour, stop when you get to Padirac and tour the local cavern. Buy your tickets early if you plan to go on a weekend, as it can become quite crowded. A sinkhole opened the surface, leaving a pool 103 meters below the ground surface. As you float through the water-filled cavern by guided boat, keep your eyes peeled for the gorgeous karst features and be sure not to miss the largest known stalactite in France at 75 meters tall.
North from Padirac is the lovely town of Collonges la-Rouge, built entirely of red sandstone, a dead giveaway that you've reached the ancient beach. It's a good stop to eat lunch and break up the long drive to the base of Monts du Cantal, a massive composite volcano well worth exploring by car or on foot. Poking around a bit in the charming towns dotted over the volcano will reveal pillow lava, cooling joints and a profusion of rhyolite rock. At the very top is Puy Mary, a peak 1,630 meters above sea level. It gives an unparalleled view of the old caldera. Glaciers have carved their mark here, leaving horns, troughs, circs, arêtes and morrains.
Collonges la-Rouge is routinely called one of the most beautiful villages in France, largely because the entire village is constructed of red sandstone from an ancient beach. Courtesy of Conceze.com.
When you finish exploring Monts du Cantal, you can head to the series of volcanoes
just northwest. Puy de Barme is a cinder cone covered in scoria. Puy de Dome
is a trachite dome volcano, with evidence of pyroclastic flows. In July and
August, hikers will be rewarded with fields of gold and purple wildflowers at
the summit. From Puy de Dome, driving just a bit further east will reveal outcrops
of granite along the road across from the hamlet of Gergovie. At last, you'll
hit the continent.
To reward your long week of cave crawling and volcano traipsing, stay over in la Bourboule. Neo-Byzantine thermal baths like this one run all the way up to Vichy. La Bourboule is the perfect spot to relax, enjoy the town's famously clear air and contemplate the geology that has shaped this glorious region of southwestern France.
Geotimes contributing writer
Font de Gaume
Roc St. Cristophe
Monts du Cantal
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