Friday, 13 July 2012 9:49 AM
France really is an art-lovers paradise, when you consider all the world-class galleries to be found here and the artists who come from the country. If you're planning to take a self catering holiday in the Dordogne, you can see the earliest art.
Situated near the historical town of Sarlat is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Lascaux Caves - and inside are some of the oldest drawings ever discovered, dating back more than 17,000 years to the Upper Palaeolithic era.
Read on for our guide to the famous attraction.
In 1940, four teenagers were out exploring when they came across the cave complex and decided to take a look inside. As Marcel Ravidat, Simon Coencas, Georges Agnel, Jacques Marsal and Ravidat's dog began wandering along the deep tunnels, they were surprised to see bright images on the walls.
It turned out the friends had discovered some of the oldest and best-preserved cave paintings in the world, which provided a fascinating glimpse at the life of prehistoric man. This was a time when Neanderthals - an early relation of today's humans - had just died out and modern man had become the only hominid species on the planet.
There is evidence dating back to this important time of drawings being made to depict the surroundings of the people - a feat that has never been achieved by any other creature. The Lascaux version shows pictures of the ancient equine known as the dun horse, huge stags, black bulls and even a rhinoceros. In total, there are some 2,000 figures etched on the walls of the caves.
The reason why Lascaux was so well preserved was that the isolated caves had not been visited by humans for centuries. The conditions within the complex were therefore perfect for protecting the precious images.
After the discovery, Lascaux was opened to the public and all that changed. With more than 1,000 people visiting on some days, the air quality and circulation in the caverns completely altered. Added to this was the inclusion of lighting to illuminate the drawings.
Crystals began to build up on the walls, which would have completely submerged the drawings if left to develop. To stop this, the number of visitors allowed in at any one time was restricted.
It only took a decade for this damage to occur, so a replica of the caves was built nearby, where tourists could see reproductions of the famous paintings. Luckily, the growth of crystals was halted and the algae and bacteria that had spread over the walls started to retreat.
The replica of the caves is only 200m from the original and is known as Lascaux II. While the fact it's not the genuine article may put you off going, such work was put in to making sure that it was a faithful replica of the real caves, you'll soon forget what you're exploring is a copy.
Around 200 of the original drawings have been recreated exactly as they appear in Lascaux I, while the cave itself looks like the one down the road - right down to the chilly temperature.
Complete your trip by stopping at the Le Thot Prehistoric Theme Park. This attraction is home to animals similar to those depicted in the caves and there is also a museum where you can learn more about what life was like in these times.