The Grotte de Niaux (pronounced new) is located 2km southwest of Tarascon-sur-Ariege. To stand any chance of seeing the cave paintings the visitor must book well in advance on one of the six-daily twenty-person ninety-minute guided tours. There is one English speaking tour at 1:30pm and this is very popular. When going in to the cave don’t bring a camera, don’t chew gum, and don’t touch the walls. This is one place where you must leave it exactly the way you found it. Any foreign bacteria could harm the paintings irreparably. These are the original paintings the visitor sees, not carefully copied modern versions as is the case at Lascaux.

The opening to the cave is under an enormous rock overhang. Each visitor is provided with a flashlight so they can find their way carefully into the cave. There are some steps and walkways over the rougher parts of the terrain, but there are still puddles and slopes to negotiate. This is a real cave and water still gets in – the cave system has not been hermetically sealed! After 800 metres, visitors have to leave their lights on a raised rock and continue by the single light of the guide for a further 200 metres into the ‘Salon Noir’ where the best three sets of paintings are found. No natural light penetrates this deep into the cave.

Little is known about the paintings at Niaux other than they are approximately 12,800 years old (possibly the most modern cave paintings in the Pyrenees) and were painted using a crayon comprising Bison fat and Manganese Oxide. Fire would have been the only form of illumination available to the painters, which begs the question why go into the dark recesses of the cave to paint rather than at the front of the cave? Did the painters regard the ‘Salon Noir’ as a spiritual womb which would produce animals for them to hunt if those animals were painted on the cave walls? Presumably not because the animal bones found in the cave indicate the horses, bison, ibex, and stag depicted on the walls were not their main food source.

The paintings in the Salon Noir are detailed and some, showing bison and goats standing, have 3-dimensional perspective where a leg on the opposite of the animal has been drawn in to add depth to the picture. Some of the bison are shown with arrows in them and in places there’s primitive writing with lines and dots grouped together. These paintings weren’t meant to be seen by human eyes very often and it’s tempting to believe they were meant to create a spiritual place where hunters went to ‘pray’ for good hunting.

What most impressed me the most was the freshness of the paintings – they looked to have been created yesterday and were very accurate renditions of these creatures, especially the ibex with its flowing coat. Whoever created these paintings in this particular place thought very differently about the world and were more in tune with the natural wavelengths of the animals around them and The Earth in general than we are today.

Tarascon-sur-Ariege is at the centre of an unequalled selection of prehistoric paintings and artefacts in the surrounding caves including the Grotte de Niaux, the Grotte de la Vache, the Grotte de Lombrives, and the Grotte de Bedheilac. The reason there are so many caves is the local rock is permeable limestone, ideal for creating large caverns such as the four mentioned. These could all be visited in a single day from Tarascon, however I would recommend also spending some time in the town.

I walked up to the Tour du Castella or Clock Tower which provides a panorama over the five valleys that converge here. The hills head off in all directions and there appear to be endless hiking opportunities along the river and up into the mountains. In the old town a huge main square was decorated with large, multi-coloured flowerpots. On one side were the Tour St-Michel and Porte d’Espagne, remnants of the old town walls.

Through the gate I found a war memorial commemorating Jean Joseph Marie Gabriel de Lattre de Tassigny, one of the grand commanders-in-chief of the French Liberation Army from 1943-1945, who led many successful campaign battles including those on the Rhine and the Danube. He was the only French general of World War II who commanded American units and was the French representative at Berlin on May 8, 1945, along with Eisenhower, Zhukov, and Montgomery.

This extract is from the book Travels through History : France by Julian Worker