One of my favorite parts about our road trip around southern France over Semana Santa was the diversity of things that we saw and did: castles, gorges, cities, the sea, museums, caves, villages, rivers, churches, and even a cave! The variety was really fun as we could be doing something completely different from one day (even one hour!) to the next.
Padirac Cave, or Gouffre de Padirac in French, has been a tourist destination since 1898 and is currently the most visited cave in France. We entered the cave via stairs, but you can also take an elevator - it's only 103 meters (~337 feet) deep. There's a small area that visitors can explore on their own, but upon reaching the cave's underground river, we had to wait in line to be guided on a boat tour, which was kindly offered in both French and English. At the end of the part of the river that boats are allowed to navigate on, we were met by another guide who took us through the most stunning parts of the cave, in particular the Grand Dome, which is 94 meters (~308 feet) high and full of stalactites, pools, rivers, and interesting rock formations. Throughout our tours we saw countless eccentric, colorful, large, small, and very unusual rock concretions, as well as different lakes and rivers. Photos weren't allowed once we were on the guided portions, which was a shame, but we really did enjoy the tour - the cave is stunning! Rarely do I feel like our photos do places we visit justice, and this is certainly one of those cases, without a doubt.
D - This was my first "real" cave experience, as I'm not sure if Cave of the Winds in Manitou Springs counts (sorry everybody), and it was really amazing! I was tempted throughout various parts of the guided tour to sneak pictures like I did of the Sistine Chapel (shhhh...) but it was kind of difficult as Shannon and I were the only English speakers on our tours so we got special attention. The legend of the cave is that the devil opened the huge hole in the ground with a simple kick of his heel and then challenged St. Martin to jump over it in order to save the souls of the peasants that were about to go to hell. St. Martin wasn't sure if he could do it so instead he recruited his trusty steed (mule) and he jumped on his back. There's also said to be buried treasure somewhere inside, buried by soldiers at the end of the Hundred Years War. Unfortunately, we didn't see any devil, mules, or treasure, but we still managed to have a nice time.
I do have to add in, though, that I wish a national park service or similar organization was caring for the cave. I saw people touching formations and cave walls in front of guides and they said nothing to stop them - it was almost as though they supported it. Some portions of the cave that were along the pedestrian route had turned black from, I presume, being touched so frequently, which really saddened me. This is a truly amazing natural feature that is being exploited, rather than protected, for profit. So, do visit if you're in the area - the cave is still in pretty good condition and isn't so touristy that I couldn't enjoy it - but know that you'll be responsible for taking care of the cave, not the ones working there.