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Trace the footsteps of early
humans as we explore the cradle of
civilization in southwest France and on
Spain’s northern coast. On an expedition
designed with paleoanthropologist Donald
Johanson, examine carvings and cave
paintings that illustrate life up to 40,000
years ago. From the Dordogne to Basque
Country, stay in beautiful medieval towns
that dot these long-inhabited landscapes.
Join Christine Desdemaines-Hugon, one of the world’s leading experts on Paleolithic art, for a guided tour of the National Museum of Prehistory and the Rouffignac Cave in the Vézère Valley.
On a specially arranged visit to the International Center for Cave Art, meet Lascaux expert Sandrine Géraud, a research technician and conservationist at the site.
Alongside a prehistory specialist, explore Isturitz and Oxocelhaya, caves that have yielded tens of thousands of ancient artifacts.
Meet National Geographic grantee Dr. Ana Cristina Pinto-Llona for a guided tour of Atapuerca, where Europe’s oldest known hominin fossils were unearthed.
Itinerary - 9 Days
Day 1 — Bordeaux, France/Vézère Valley
Arrive in Bordeaux and journey to the beautiful Dordogne region—still commonly known by its pre-Revolutionary name, Périgord. Here, rivers have carved up the limestone landscape, leaving cliffs and caves where humans have built their homes for tens of thousands of years. Settle into your country hotel in the Vézère Valley, and gather this evening for a welcome reception and dinner.
La Roseraie or Le Centenaire (D)
Day 2 — Prehistoric Sites of the Vézère Valley
Set out with Christine Desdemaines-Hugon, one of the world’s leading experts on Paleolithic art and author of Stepping Stones: A Journey Through the Ice Age Caves of the Dordogne, for a guided tour of the National Museum of Prehistory.
After lunch on your own in the nearby town of
Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, continue with a visit to
Font-de-Gaume, home to more than 200 polychrome paintings. End the day in picturesque Sarlat-la-Canéda, whose original half-timbered, golden-stone buildings and narrow, cobbled streets make it one of the best preserved medieval towns in France. Return to the hotel for dinner.
La Roseraie or Le Centenaire (B,D)
Day 3 — Castel-Merle/Lascaux IV
Accompanied by Christine Desdemain-Hugon, depart for Rouffignac Cave, known as the “cave of a hundred mammoths.” Then join archaeologist Isabelle Castanet for a visit to Castel-Merle, a complex of prehistoric stone shelters more than 300 feet long, excavated and preserved by several generations of the Castanet family. Gather for a unique “prehistoric” meal made with the ingredients once used by Neanderthals. On a specially arranged visit of the International Center for Cave Art, meet Lascaux expert Sandrine Géraud, a research technician and conservationist at the site. The Center was opened in December, 2016 and houses Lascaux IV, the most complete re-creation of the original Lascaux Cave system, whose famous paintings have been off-limits to visitors since 1963 to prevent deterioration. A team of scientists, technicians and artists have painstakingly recreated the hundreds of paintings and engravings in great detail utilizing cutting-edge laser imaging and 3D-printing technology.
La Roseraie or Le Centenaire (B,L,D)
Day 4 — Pech Merle/Toulouse
This morning, venture into the spectacular natural galleries of Pech Merle, an enormous cave system filled with prehistoric art and artifacts dating back 25,000 years. See rare representations of human figures, engraved and spotted animals, and a mammoth drawn using the natural contours of the rock. The cave floor displays children’s footprints set in the ancient clay more than 12,000 years ago. Following lunch on your own, continue to the lively university town of Toulouse.
Grand Hôtel De L'Opéra (B)
Day 5 — Basque Country/Santillana del Mar, Spain
Drive southwest into France’s Basque region, stopping in a picturesque village for lunch. In the afternoon, enter the Isturitz and Oxocelhaya caves with a prehistory specialist. Used by humans for more than 80,000 years, these superimposed caves have yielded tens of thousands of artifacts, including flutes, sculpted reindeer horns, and whalebone tools. Cross into Spain this afternoon and trace the Bay of Biscay to the Cantabria region. Check in to our charming hotel, a manor house situated in the heart of the medieval village of Santillana del Mar. Parador de Santillana Gil Blas (B,L,D)
Day 6 — Puente Viesgo Caves
Come face-to-face with some of the oldest artistic representations in human history on a visit to the caves at Puente Viesgo, part of the Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain World Heritage site. Recently identified as the oldest cave artwork in the world, the paintings in El Castillo Cave date back at least 40,800 years. Explore the nearby Las Monedas Cave—the longest in Puente Viesgo—and later, delve deeper into the prehistory of the region on a visit to the Altamira Museum. Parador de Santillana Gil Blas (B,L,D)
Day 7 — Hornos de la Peña Cave/Bilbao
Continue our exploration of Cantabria’s World Heritage–listed caves at Hornos de la Peña. Here, large-scale naturalistic engravings depict horses, bison, aurochs, goats, and other animals, as well as an unusual anthropomorphic figure with a human-like arm and a tail. After lunch at a local restaurant, transfer to Bilbao, the largest city in Spain’s autonomous Basque country. Explore the city on your own this afternoon, and if you wish, stop in at the world-famous Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry and located just a short walk from our hotel.
Hotel Miró (B,L)
Day 8 — Atapuerca/Bilbao
Today we are joined by renowned archaeologist Dr. Ana Cristina Pinto-Llona, an expert on the origins of modern humans. Ana is a two-time National Geographic grant recipient for her work in the Asturias region of northern Spain, and she also spent several years excavating at the Atapuerca archaeological site. Visit Atapuerca, near the town of Burgos, where the oldest known hominin fossil remains in Europe have been unearthed. Return to Bilbao and celebrate your prehistoric adventure at a festive farewell dinner.
Hotel Miró (B,L,D)
Day 9 — Bilbao
After breakfast, transfer to Bilbao Airport for your
Magen O’Farrell is an American archaeologist who has lived and worked in France for the past 30 years. When she first arrived in the Dordogne region to participate in excavations at the Lascaux Cave, she knew very little about prehistory. The experience changed her life and inspired her to study archaeology. She earned a B.A. and the Faculty Memorial Award at New York University, and continued at the University of Pennsylvania with a National Science Foundation Graduate Student Fellowship. She finished with a degree from the Université de Bordeaux I in France. She is now affiliated with the PACEA research laboratory in France, and runs her own company, Archeocom, devoted to education, communication, and public outreach in archaeology. Her research interests include the origins of modern human behavior, stone and bone tool technology, prehistoric art, and the enigmatic relationships between these aspects of prehistoric life. Magen has participated in numerous excavations and research programs in France, Italy, Austria, Germany, Australia and the United States. She has authored many scientific publications, and collaborates in the creation of exhibitions and educational programs for children and adults.
Travelers should be in good health and comfortable walking or standing for extended periods of time. Daily activities may include city walking tours, visits to sites, game drives, or easy hikes, with options for more physical activities such as hiking, kayaking, snorkeling and biking.
Click here for a description of all activity levels.
What To Expect
This is a moderately active trip that involves walking up to two miles a day, and several cave visits. Conditions within some caves will require guests to maneuver through small spaces, at times over wet, uneven ground (often without handrails). As a result, this expedition may not be suitable for those with a serious medical condition, claustrophobia, or limited mobility.