When I was a teenager, my family went to France every summer. The different trips are all mixed up in my head. I don’t really remember which campsite memory belongs with which French castle memory. There is one visit that I do remember very well, and that’s our trip to Gouffre de Padirac.
Gouffre de Padirac is a deep chasm with a scary lift that leads to a magical fairy tale cave where you take a boat on an underground river. At least, this is how I remembered it, but according to a quick web search this is pretty much the most accurate description possible. As it turns out, Gouffre de Padirac is a bit of a mystery.
The most comprehensive page I could find was Wikipedia, which doesn’t list any sources for the following section:
“The chasm was created at an undetermined point in time when the roof collapsed into a large internal cavern. It is known that the cavern existed in the 3rd century, and was inhabited during the 15th and 16th centuries during which time Potassium nitrate was excavated from the area.”
The official Gouffre de Padirac website, meanwhile, mentions a legend about the devil as origin story of the chasm.
See? It’s a mystery.
Even though the caves have been open to tourists since 1899, the majority of the underground area hadn’t been properly explored. Below is a news segment from 2009, announcing that spelunkers were going to go into the unexplored areas of the caves. It’s all in French, but they show a map at about 40 seconds in, and point to the small area that tourists normally access. Of the more than 40 km of passages, only 2 km are open to tourists.
When I visited the caves as a kid, I was in awe by how big and pretty they were, but now I’m mostly impressed by the fact that there is this enormous undiscovered area in a reasonably populated region of the world.