The Grotte de Niaux (pronounced new) is located 2km southwest of Tarascon-sur-Ariege. To stand any chance of seeing the cave paintings the visitor must book well in advance on one of the six-daily twenty-person ninety-minute guided tours. There is one English speaking tour at 1:30pm and this is very popular. When going in to the cave don’t bring a camera, don’t chew gum, and don’t touch the walls. This is one place where you must leave it exactly the way you found it. Any foreign bacteria could harm the paintings irreparably. These are the original paintings the visitor sees, not carefully copied modern versions as is the case at Lascaux.
The opening to the cave is under an enormous rock overhang. Each visitor is provided with a flashlight so they can find their way carefully into the cave. There are some steps and walkways over the rougher parts of the terrain, but there are still puddles and slopes to negotiate. This is a real cave and water still gets in – the cave system has not been hermetically sealed! After 800 metres, visitors have to leave their lights on a raised rock and continue by the single light of the guide for a further 200 metres into the ‘Salon Noir’ where the best three sets of paintings are found. No natural light penetrates this deep into the cave.
Little is known about the paintings at Niaux other than they are approximately 12,800 years old (possibly the most modern cave paintings in the Pyrenees) and were painted using a crayon comprising Bison fat and Manganese Oxide. Fire would have been the only form of illumination available to the painters, which begs the question why go into the dark recesses of the cave to paint rather than at the front of the cave? Did the painters regard the ‘Salon Noir’ as a spiritual womb which would produce animals for them to hunt if those animals were painted on the cave walls? Presumably not because the animals bones found in the cave indicate that the horses, bison, ibex, and stag depicted on the walls were not their main food source.