Don’t save these terrific underground beauties for those rare ‘if-wet’ days – they’ve been waiting millions of years to meet you. So go, travel deep, deep down and far back into the Earth’s turbulent history to witness the wonder beneath your feet.
Cave of Altamira, Cantabria, Spain
The Cave of Altamira, just outside pretty Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, features paintings etched out over a 20,000 year span, starting when humans first entered Spain, over 35,000 years ago. There’s a modern interpretation centre (and reconstruction of the cave) complete with a fascinating exhibition looking at the Upper Palaeolithic age, the time the painters of Altamira created their breathtakingly beautiful depictions.
High on the mountain ridge of Sierra de Cardó, the mysterious limestone caves of Benifallet are gouged deep into the rockface. Two of the six caverns are open to the public – one of which, Maravillas Cave (Cave of Wonders) has only just been opened up, allowing a peek inside a pristine underground world. Within, a forest of stalagmites and stalactites, and weird shaped anemolites (curving, wind-shaped protrusions) and whole fields of calcite “pasta” tubers. It’s a fascinating, otherworldly environment.
They say the Serinyà Prehistoric Cave Park has been home to three distinct human species. The complex gave shelter for pre-Neanderthal, Neanderthal and modern man – from 200,000 years to 39,000 years ago. That’s longer than any house we can think of! The cave’s most important discoveries include a skull found in 1973 – the oldest human remains of in Catalonia (22,300 years old). It’s a suitably atmospheric and powerful spot.
The world-famous Lascaux caves feature cave drawings reputedly over 17,000 years old. Visitors don’t get to see the originals, but can view replicas in another cave, which was constructed over 15 years to prevent further damage to the original drawings. Tickets are available on site but you can also book a tour in Montignac, by the Montignac tourist office. In high season tickets go on sale at 9am and allocate specific times. Try to take one of the (usually busy) guided English tours.
The Gouffre de Padirac is a natural limestone cave, formed over millennia. The visit lasts 1.5hrs and takes in 2km of twisting subterranean passages. The underground cavern is large enough to contain the Notre Dame in Paris. Embark on a fascinating 45-minute walk and see the caverns brought to life by stunning son et lumiere shows. Part of the trip is by gondola, adding to the atmosphere of this great show cavern.
The beautiful hanging valley near Lons-le-Saunier is lined with fascinating caves. The caves of La Balme, a full 70 metres below the surface, are complemented by light and sound shows that show off the natural limestone formations in a different light, quite literally. Meanwhile infra-red cameras allow the visitor to observe the bats which live in the caves – kids should love it.
The caves of Moidons, located in the heart of the Jurassian forest, were discovered in 1966, and were opened to the public in 1989. You can even do the tour with a baby buggy. This is a veritable feast of stalactites and stalagmites, the best show cave in the Jura region.
Visit the Gouffre de Proumeyssac and see the incredible ‘Cathedral of Crystal’ – the show-stopping centerpiece of this terrific cave system. The caves of Proumeyssac are mainly one huge cavern, with an incredible collection of stalactites and stalagmites. From the ceiling hang four huge stalactite formations. These resemble, and are named after: a siren, a waterfall, a jellyfish and an octopus. You can pay extra to be lowered down in a basket from the ceiling, to enter the caves just as the first explorers did!.
The spectacular Aven d’Orgnac, formed over a million years ago, is a series of giant underground chambers, each festooned in magical crystalline rock formations and rare gems. Humans lived here 35,000 years ago, and you can learn about their lives in the adjoining Cité de la Préhistoire. The cave, the only one to be labelled a ‘Grand Site de France’, is one of the best sites in the country, and definitely worth a visit.
The Black Forest’s geology doesn’t allow for many cave systems – but this one is a little-known beauty. The Erdmann cave offers the visitor a large number of fascinating stalactites. The largest of them, recognized by the Guinness Book of Records, is about four meters high and over two meters thick at the base. The caves are good for younger explorers, as steps are minimal, and the paths are easy to navigate.
Deep within the Zillertal Alps in the Austrian state of Tyrol, ten kilometres of cave have been navigated, with 500 metres open to the public. Spannagel Cave is Europe‘s highest-lying subterranean show cave, hewn out of Jurassic calcite marble.
Guided one-hour tours take visitors deep into the mountainside in the labyrinth of marble-lined caverns. Inside, sparkling crystals, marbles, and perfectly spherical glacial stones await. Alongside, treasures from the inside of the mountain are exhibited in the Cave Museum. Intrepid explorers can take a challenging three-hour cave trekking trips.
What’s better than a cave? An ice-cave of course! Eisriesenwelt, German for “World of the Ice Giants”) is a natural limestone and ice cave located about 40 km south of Salzburg. The cave is inside the Hochkogel mountain, and is the largest ice cave in the world. And it’s quite a jaw-dropping experience. Temperatures inside the cave are usually below freezing, so wrap up well. Highlights include the Great Ice Embankment, a massive formation that rises to a height of 25 metres, Hymir’s Castle, with stalactites creating a formation called Frigga’s Veil, or the Ice Organ. Know someone who loves Frozen? This will make all their dreams come true. Let them go! (see main pic, above).
‘The Cave of the Big Wind’ is one of Italy’s best. It’s a labyrinthine landscape of huge caverns (the Big Hollow, at 180 meters long and 200 meters high is one of the biggest in Europe), crystallized lakes and frozen waterfalls of pure calcite.
The clue’s in the name – this giant underground network of caverns is just an hour’s drive away from either our parcs on Italy’s Adriatic coast, or our parc in Umag in Croatia. And it’s well worth the journey. Recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest show cave, the main cavern’s volume is a whopping 400,000 cubic meters – its floor and ceiling are covered in stalactites, stalagmites and other strange growths of all sizes. Star of the show, Colonna Ruggero rises a full 12 metres above the cavern’s floor (even more impressive when you realise that it grows at just 1 millimetre every 15 years!).