Big news! The prehistoric Chauvet cave in the Ardèche region of France has been granted World Heritage status by the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO. At a recent gathering in Doha the delegates at UNESCO's World Heritage Committee voted to grant the status to the Grotte Chauvet after considering cultural and natural wonders for inclusion on the UN list.
UNESCO said the Grotte Chauvet 'contains the earliest and best-preserved expressions of artistic creation of the Aurignacian people, which are also the earliest known figurative drawings in the world'.
The cave itself is hard to access and now sealed to all but archaeologists as a conservation measure but, as I explained last month, a near perfect replica is currently under construction. I am in the Ardeche as I write, enjoying the rivers, rock cliffs and forests and taking in panoramic views across the Coiron plateau to the Alps from the beautiful La Mirande farmhouse. I had hoped to visit the replica site once more, to see progress. But the site is now closed for two months to all visitors while work is carried out involving heavy machinery.
Never mind, I had a really complete guided tour back in March and this project is even more exciting now the UNESCO World Heritage status has been granted to the cave itself. The organisers of the replica project are hoping for 300,000 to 400,000 visitors from around the world each year when it is open to the public next June.
The nearby Pont du Gard, a well preserved Roman aqueduct across the Rhone river, is a good example of the impact that this status bestows. Around ten years ago, there was a steady trickle of visitors but after it was given a UNESCO decree, tourism really built up and even in March this year I saw around a dozen coaches in the parking area. In summer, it is heaving.
The Chauvet Cave replica project promises even more to see. The Razal site, on the hills of the Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, seven kilometres from the actual cave, is the location for the replica, the biggest perfect replica of a prehistoric site in Europe. Set within a vast wooded area covering 29 hectares, the site will include (alongside the replica cave) a discovery centre and a permanent exhibition dedicated to the Aurignacians and wall art, as well as five sheltered interpretation stations, a temporary exhibition space, an educational area for young people, an events centre, shops, cafes and restaurants.
The project is funded by the EU, the French government and the Ardèche regional authority. I was really impressed by the fact that almost all the work involved is being carried out by local companies and craftspeople, most from the Ardeche. Also impressive is the environmental and ecological sensitivity of both the building designs, which will blend into the landscape with their living ‘green’ roofs, and the site works, using stone already on site to make paths and retaining every possible tree and shrub.
More next month about the paintings and how they are being recreated. Meanwhile, to plan your visit, take a look at accommodation in our guide to the Ardèche.