The Legend of the Gouffre de Padirac, Lot, France.
Legend tells of how either St Martin or St Peter (it varies) was wandering over the Causses plateau looking rather unsuccessfully for souls to save when he came across the Devil himself with a huge sack of sinners. Lucifer loves to brag, and in mockery of the saint proposed a challenge. Striking the ground with his foot, he opened up a huge chasm, and told the holy man he could have all the sinners’ souls if he could jump over it. The saint made the sign of the cross, leapt on his ass and jumped across the hole. It’s said the ass sprang so high that when it landed, it left the marks of its hoofs on a large stone that can still be seen today. Furious, the devil gave the sack of souls to the saint and headed back to hell through the hole he had made.
In a limestone area more riddled with holes than a lorryload of Emmental, a cave has to be pretty special to stand out. And even though the prehistoric Picassos who left their mark in so many places round here left it well and truly alone, the Gouffre de Padirac still manages to draw thousands of people every year.
First and foremost, it’s big. Formed by the collapse of a great dome hollowed by an underground river, it’s 77 metres deep and 33 metres wide, and has to be one of the prime candidates for the World’s Largest Hole award. Standing at the bottom looking up is not unlike looking through the wrong end of a telescope, and standing at the top looking down will make you clutch the barrier until your knuckles turn white. The visit kicks off with either a trek down a tower of ten flights of steps or a couple of lift rides. Once you reach the bottom of the chasm, the visit is far from over: there’s a trek along a walkway over an underground river to a subterranean harbour where you’ll be taken half a kilometre by boat to a landing stage on the other side. (Be warned, this is a tremendously popular attraction and you may have to queue for the boats, as you may well also have to queue for entry at the start) Once here, a guide will take you to a fabulously turquoise subterranean lake with a series of winding natural dams, formed by calcite deposits. A staircase takes you up to another lake in the incredible “Great Dome Chamber,” large enough to fit two cathedrals the size of Notre Dame in Paris. The scale of the chamber is absolutely unbelievable; it rises 94 metres above the surface of the river and apparently there are only a few metres between its ceiling and the surface of the earth above it. Once through the chamber, it’s back to the river.
The visit lasts between 90 minutes and two hours and the temperature of the cave is 13 degrees so you may want to take a jumper. Padirac is only a few kilometres from the breathtaking sacred site of Rocamadour, and it’s easy to combine both in a day.
For more info about the Gouffre, visit the website at http://www.gouffre-de-padirac.com/