Situated south of, and well signposted from, Tarascon-sur-Ariège, up a single track lane from the village of Niaux. Try not to meet a coach coming up on the way back down, as we did - it was a rather long reverse to get back to the car park for passing purposes!
We had pre-booked, and almost all of those who turned up "on spec" for the only English tour that day were turned away. The visitors' centre is not open all the time (shop and tickets) but the first floor had an open air exhibition of the history of the cave (boards all in French) and of cave paintings of the era across Europe. There are also public toilets hidden behind the shop.
We arrived a bit before our tour time, to take in the spectacular view, and also to do a quick change - stout walking footwear is essential, and we had be also advised to wear warm clothes.
Please note - there is no photography, or light other than the torches supplied, allowed in the cave.
Our guide explained the cave system and which bits are accessible - the tour is basically to the Salon Noir (Black Chamber) as other parts of the system are beyond underground lakes.
The caves had been known about by locals for a significant time - graffitti (rather elegant script!) has been dated back to 1602 - but their importance and age only recognised in the late 18C. There are dot-and-dash finger paintings before the Salon Noir, but the main images are all found along one side of the salon. And they are incredible! Analysis of the drawings shows that crude brushes were used for some, and the drawings were made without hesitancy - just amazing for art that has been carbon dated to 14,000 years old, that's late in the last ice age!
The majority of the images are horses, bison and ibex. The cave's unique item - a stoat - is past a lake and hence not part of the tour.
Tour time - over an hour. The cave floor is wet and slippery in places, you have to duck and negotiate a couple of narrow passages, and there's a climb up a sand dune - so for adults of reasonable mobility.
The Cave of Niaux is located in Niaux in the Ariège(9) département of south-western France.
Like Lascaux it contains many prehistoric paintings of superior quality, in the case of Niaux from the Magdalenian period.
From the very beginning of the seventeenth century, the cave was of great interest for tourists who left numerous traces on its walls. People, visited the cave, did not imagine that the paintings of the "Salon Noire" were so old. Only in 1906 thanks to captain Molar and his sons who made a plan of the cave and discovered the paintings of the "Salon Noire". Niaux attracted the specialists' attention. In 1907 it was investigated by H. Breuill and E.Cartailhac. But discovery of the "Salon Noire" paintings was only the beginning. In 1925 J. Mandeman found a gallery with some black paintings and called it Cartailhac Gallery. Later it was established that the paintings had been emerging on the cave walls during a long period between 11500 and 10500 years BC.
The main entrance to the Niaux cave used for visitors is now further up the hillside than it once was. In ancient times, there would have been several lower, smaller entrances.
The visits to the cave are strictly regulated in order to maintain an even temperature of 12 degrees C and thus preserve the wall drawings of bison, horses and ibex.
July through September there are 11 visits per day of up to 20 people with 45 minutes between each group, including a tour in English at 12:30pm. Three visits per day the rest of the year (no English tours). The caves are not lit up, visitors are handed torches, approximately 1 torch pr. 2 visitors, another measure to protect the paintings. Furthermore there is always the risk for one or two of the torches running out of battery during the visit, small children and anyone afraid of darkness should not go on this tour, once the tour has started there is no turning back. The walk to the paintings lead through both big caves and narrow passages. The cave floor has been left in its natural state: wet, very uneven and slippery in places so sturdy walking shoes are essential. It is recommended to book ahead. However, outside the ticket office a sign indicates how many spaces are left (if any) in the day's scheduled tours. If you arrive in the morning you might be able to reserve a spot in a tour in the afternoon. But don't count on this in July and August.
A newer site with up to date info on tours times and languages. We booked by email a couple of days in advance (firstname.lastname@example.org) as I didn't think my French was up to an attempt at phone conversation.