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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.
Examine the Paleolithic art of two UNESCO
World Heritage–listed cave regions: France’s
Vézère Valley and the northern coast of Spain.
Meet leading archaeologists for talks and private tours of cave sites.
Visit Castel-Merle with Isabelle Castanet, whose
family has excavated the site for generations.
Explore Sarlat, France, and Santillana del Mar,
Spain, two of Europe's best-preserved medieval villages.
Itinerary - 10 Days
Days 1 & 2 — U.S./Bordeaux, France/Vézère Valley
Depart on an overnight flight to Bordeaux.
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.
Hôtel Le Centenaire (D)
Day 3 — 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, on an excursion
to the majestic sculpted frieze of horses and bison
at Cap Blanc. Then see other local finds on a guided
tour at the National Museum of Prehistory.
After lunch on your own in the nearby town of
Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, end the day with a visit to
either Font-de-Gaume, home to more than 200
polychrome paintings, or Rouffignac Cave, known
as the “cave of a hundred mammoths.”
Hôtel Le Centenaire (B,D)
Day 4 — Sarlat/Lascaux II
Travel to picturesque Sarlat, whose original half-timbered,
golden-stone buildings and narrow
cobbled streets make it one of the best preserved
medieval towns in France. After time to explore
on your own, gather for a unique “prehistoric”
lunch, made with the ingredients once used by Neanderthals. In the afternoon, 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. Meet prehistory
expert Denis Tauxe for a private, behind-the-scenes
visit to Lascaux II, a painstaking re-creation of the
two primary chambers of the original Lascaux cave,
whose famous paintings have been off-limits to visitors
since 1963 to prevent deterioration.
Hôtel Le Centenaire (B,L,D)
Day 5 — 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 or spotted animals, and a mammoth drawn using the natural contours of the
rock. The cave floor displays children’s footprints
preserved 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 6 — Basque Country/Santillana del Mar, Spain
Drive southwest into France’s Basque region,
stopping in a picturesque village for lunch in a
traditional Basque restaurant. In the afternoon,
enter the Isturitz and Oxocelhaya caves with local
prehistory specialist Aude Labarge and meet
with the archaeological site director, Christian
Normand. Used by human beings 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
into 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 7 — 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 8 — 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 9 — 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
Hotel Miró (B,L,D)
Day 10 — Bilbao/U.S.
After breakfast, transfer to Bilbao Airport for your
flight home. (B)
James (Jamie) Shreeve is Executive Editor for Science at National Geographic magazine. Before joining the Geographic staff in 2006, he was a freelance science writer and author specializing in human evolution and biology. His books include The Genome War; The Neandertal Enigma: Solving the Mystery of Modern Human Origins, named by Doris Lessing as “Book of the Year” in 1996; Lucy's Child: The Discovery of a Human Ancestor (with Donald Johanson), and Nature: The Other Earthlings, the companion volume to the public television series.
Jamie received his B.A. in English from Brown University in 1973. A 1979 graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, he contributed fiction to various literary magazines before turning to science writing. From 1983 to 1985, he was Public Information Director at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts and founding director of the MBL Science Writing Fellowship Program. He has been awarded fellowships from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Alicia Patterson Foundation, and the Knight Foundation. He lives in Bellport, New York, and Washington, D.C.
Price is per person, double occupancy. For a single
room, add $1,280.
International airfare to Bordeaux and return from
Bilbao is not included in the expedition cost.
Featured Expedition Moment
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.