Grotte de Niaux

Grotte de la Calbière


Useful Information

photography
Bisons from the Salon noir (Black Hall) of the Niaux cave, replica in the Brno museum Anthropos, Niaux Cave, France. Public Domain.
Location: Niaux, département de l'Ariège.
(42.820160072583676, 1.5934869630778419)
Open: JUL-AUG daily 8:30, 11:30, 13:30, 14:15, 17, 17:15.
SEP daily 10, 11:30, 13:30, 14:15, 15 h, 15h45, 16h30, 17h15.
OCT-JUN daily 11, 14:30, 16.
[2021}
Fee: Adults EUR 14, Children (6-17) EUR 10, Children (0-6) not allowed, Students (-25) EUR 11, Disabled EUR 11.90, Families (2+2) EUR 42.
[2021]
Classification: SpeleologyKarst cave ArchaeologyPainted Cave
Light: torches provided
Dimension: T=12 °C, VR=417 m, L=14,000 m, A=678 m asl.
Portal: W=50 m, H=55m
Guided tours: D=105 min, L=2,500 m. Français - French English
Photography: not allowed
Accessibility: no, walking sticks and canes prohibited
Bibliography: Michel Bakalowicz Patrick Sorriaux Derek C. Ford (1984): Quaternary glacial events in the Pyrenees from U-series dating of speleothems in the Niaux-Lombrives-Sabart caves, Ariège, France, January 1984, Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift 38(3):193-197 DOI:10.1080/00291958408552125. researchgate
Address: Prehistoric Park, Banat road, 09400 Tarascon-sur-Ariège, Tel: +33-561-051010. E-mail:
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.

History

17,000-16,000 BP cave paintings.
1602 oldest historic inscription in the cave.
1776 first scientific cave description by Marcorelle, including some measurements in feet and temperature readings.
1820 visits regulated by prefectural decree, eg. "the removal of stalagmites and petrification is prohibited".
1864 prehistoric drawings of the Salon Noir noted by Garrigou in his excursion notebook.
21-SEP-1896 E.A. Martel and L. Armand vist the cave for the first time.
1905 Commandant Molard and his sons survey the cave.
07-SEP-1906 prehistoric paintings in the Salon Noir discovered by Molard who reported them to E. Cartailhac and H. Breuil who came to authenticate them.
1908 human footprints discovered and examined by Abbé Breuil and Cartheilhac. Dated 12.000 years old.
13-JUL-1911 declared a Historic Monument.
1924 cavers F. Barton from Cambridge and F. Oedl from Salzburg discover new entrance.
1949 second group of footprints dicovered by a group of boyscouts called Clan Mauvisseau and the cave guide René Clastres.
13-SEP-1953 Niaux and Lombrives connected by the Spéléo Club de l' Aude et de l' Ariège (Caving Club of Aude and Ariège).
1963 closed to the public.
1972 cave climate survey in the cave.
1994 new entrancew building designed by the Italian artist Massimiliano Fuksas.
2018 additional chamber opened for tours, but only 12 people at a time and only once a month.

Description

The Cave of Niaux is located on the right banks of the Vicdessos river. It is world famous for its prehistoric cave paintings from the Magdalenian. The valley has steep walls with vertical escarpments and cliff faces. The cave is located north of Niaux, at the upper end of a steep ascent and at the foot of an impressive overhanging cliff. The portal faces south and offers a great view on the village and the valley. In prehistoric times it was a great location to observe the movements of the prey. Right below are the Forges de Niaux and from here a footpath to the cave starts. However, most visitors will use the road.

From the north follow D8 through Niaux, at the southern end, after the cemetery, turn left on La Pujade D156. This road was built along the right side of the valley, above the town. It is quite narrow and a challenge for campervans and buses. About 350 m from the cave entrance is a large rock with a vertical surface. This surface is covered with dots and short lines in red and black. It is the first glimpse of prehistoric art, and there is the possibility to park and have a look. This place is called Grotte de la Petite Caougno, although it is just an abri. But despite what guides tell about this painting, its meaning is still absolutely unknown.

It is a good place for fantastic speculations. Some see dots as female symbols and lines as male symbols. Especially vertical lines are interpreted as male for obvious reasons. Similar explanations interpret bunches of dots as harem scenes and groups of lines as stack pile of Sarduanapal. Abbé Breuil saw a sort of map or maybe a public information display in this drawing.

The cave is neither developed nor electrically lit, but fortunately the floor is mostly level. Nevertheless good walking shoes are recommended and people with walking problems and children under the age of 7 are strongly discouraged, which seems to be an euphemism for not allowed. The visitors are equipped with hand lamps and then the tour walks 800 m through the main passage. On the way numerous historic graffities can be seen, which were left by visitors since 1602. At this time it was quite frequented by curists from the neighboring spa resort of Ussat-les-Bains. Over the centuries the cave was freely accessible and visited by numerous people. Actually the prehistoric importance of the cave was not realized until 1906, but then quickly numerous special remains were discovered. This includes paintings and engravings, but also human footprints, which are extremely rare. As a result the access was restricted and finally in 1963 the cave was completely closed, at least partly a result of the bad experiences at Lascaux and Altamira.

The cave was used for basic research on the cave climate and finally in the 1980s it was reopened with massive restrictions. To protect the prehistoric cave paintings there are only 11 visits per day of up to 20 people with 45 minutes between each group. It is absolutely necessary to make a reservation by phone or better online on their booking website. Be at the cave entrance at least 15 minutes before the start of the tour or your ticket is forfeited.

The tour actually shows the most impressive and interesting paintings in the Salon Noir (Black Chamber). There are extraordinary drawings of bisons (54), horses (29), ibex (15), deer and even fish. The depicted horses are similar to the modern pottok horses, endemic horses of the Pyrenees, which are still present in the Basque Country. The most extraordinary animal is the line sketch of a weasel, which is rarely represented in Magdalenian cave art. The paintings contain charcoal, which has been dated at 13,000 years by C14 dating.

In 2018 an additional chamber was opened for tours, but only 12 people at a time and only once a month. There is a two year waiting list for this tour. Another extraordinary feature of Niaux are human footprints on the cave floor. Today, only around ten areas with footprints remain. The size of the prints showed that not only adults, but also children had entered the cave. The footprints are not shown on the cave tour. The other decorated part of the cave, which is called the Réseau René Clastres, is also not open to visitors.

Niaux is part of a cave system which is 14 km long and has three main entrances, Niaux and Sabart in the Vicdessos valley, Lombrives in the Ariège valley. The cave system has two main levels, the upper level around 650 m asl and the lower level around 550 m asl. The levels are connected by numerous vertical shafts.

Nearby, in Tarascon, the Parc de l'Art Préhistorique is located. It is useful, to visit this site first, as it provides background information about caves, cave paintings and the Grotte de Niaux. This is especially useful for foreign visitors, as they have explanations in multiple languages, what the cave does not!