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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 - 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.
Hôtel 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.
Day 3 — Castel-Merle/Lascaux II
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. 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.
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 or 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. (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.
Day 9 — Bilbao
After breakfast, transfer to Bilbao Airport for your
National Geographic grantee Ana Pinto is a Spanish archaeologist working in the field of human evolution. She earned her masters and doctoral degrees in the Human Origins group at London's Natural History Museum, then worked as a post-doctoral fellow with Donald Johanson at Arizona State University's Institute of Human Origins. Her fields of interest include fossilization processes, ancient environments, early human diets, and the origins of modern human behavior as expressed in Europe over the last 40,000 years. Ana has conducted much of her research in caves and rock shelters requiring vertical rope techniques in Spain, Tanzania, and Kenya. She has also participated in excavation and field research projects in England, South Africa, and Armenia. In 2001 Ana discovered the Sopeña rockshelter, which contains a long archaeological stratigraphy bearing evidence to the last millenia of Neanderthal life and the immediate substitution by Cro-magnon. Ana was part of the Atapuerca team during the years of major discoveries at this World Heritage-listed archaeological site, and received the prestigous Prince of Asturias Prize in 1997 awarded to the Atapuerca Team. She was the 2005 Humanities Awardee of the Wings World Quest Foundation and named Spanish Distinguished Researcher in 2006 by the Spanish Government.
Price is per person, double occupancy. For a single
room, add $1,280.
Airfare to Bordeaux and return from
Bilbao is not included in the expedition cost.
Featured Traveler Photo
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.