The Padirac Chasm – Gouffres de Padirac – is an amazing, eerie, natural phenomenon not to be missed when you’re in the Dordogne region of France. It’s basically a huge sinkhole with a series of underground galleries hollowed out of the limestone of the Massif Central, the rugged, mountainous plateau that covers almost one-sixth of France. The vast chambers are filled with stalactites, stalagmites, waterfalls and strange rock formations, and a river runs through part of the system.
To see the Padirac, we took elevators (lifts) and then stairs about 240 feet down to a rock chamber and descended even further to a subterranean river. There we boarded a flat-bottomed boat and floated along the clear, cool, smooth water through an enchanting fantasy world. As we proceeded deeper into the cavern, the roof became ever higher until it was about 256 feet above our group of gawking tourists. Near the end of the boat ride, on Lac de la Pluie (Lake of Rain), we came to the cavern’s largest stalactite, the immense Great Pendant. It almost touched the surface of the water.
The most impressive of several caverns on the tour is the Grand Dome, which has a visitors’ viewpoint where we could admire the odd shapes formed over the millennia by calcite flows. There are many more chambers, but this is as far as the boat and walking tour goes. The tour takes about an hour and a half. We returned to the surface astonished and awed.
How did the Padirac Chasm, 325 feet across, form? Legend has it that some time in the past, Satan was headed for Hell with a bag of souls when he encountered St. Martin, riding his mule. Satan made a bargain with the saint: he would give up his sack of souls if St. Martin’s mule could cross a hole in the ground. He thereupon stamped his foot, opening a huge chasm. The mule leaped across, and its hoofprints are still visible (though some claim the prints are Satan’s wicked feet). St. Martin won the souls, and the devil, no doubt gnashing his teeth, went on down to Hell.
Science has a different version. Over millennia, rain and carbon dioxide reacted to form carbonic acid, which slowly dissolved the limestone, and the underground cave became so large the roof collapsed, leaving an open chasm. That, with the River Padirac steadily working its way through, formed an extensive network of galleries. They were first explored in 1889 by the noted speleologist Édouard Alfred Martel, and the site opened to tourists ten years later. Now the Gouffres de Padirac is one of the top tourist attractions in southern France.
A short drive from the medieval town of Rocamadour, the caverns are open for tours from April 2 to November 1. Hours vary, and it’s wise to arrive early, as there can be long waiting lines. Parking is free. There’s a picnic area nearby. No photography is allowed, and no pets. Bring warm clothing; it’s always chilly underground.
Written by Marilyn McFarlane for EuropeUpClose.com