Imagine what went through the minds of those four French boys, hunting for a dog that afternoon in 1940, down in the Dordogne region of France. Innocently crawling into a cave, they looked up to see walls daubed with hundreds of vivid paintings—majestic bulls, wild boars, stags, horses, and deer—astonishingly lifelike figures painted by Stone Age hunters 15,000 to 20,000 years ago.
Opened to the public in 1948, the Caves at Lascaux speedily became one of France’s major tourist attractions, drawing a quarter of a million visitors annually—and causing such grave atmospheric changes that the precious paintings began deteriorating. The cave closed to the public in 1964, though qualified archaeologists can still apply to visit. But the kids don’t have to be disappointed: A short walk downhill from the real caves, Lascaux II is an impressive reproduction of the original, molded aboveground in concrete, where some 200 paintings have been faithfully copied. Come early, because only 2,000 visitors are allowed in per day; from April to October, buy tickets at a kiosk by the Montignac tourist office.
Also in Lascaux, up a hill from the caves, the intriguing site of a prehistoric bear cult has been preserved at Site Préhistorique du Regourdou. Alongside the sepulchers and skeletons of a Neanderthal man and several bears, you can watch a pack of quite live semiwild bears roam around a naturalized habitat (off-limits to humans, of course), a charming way to bring visitors closer to their bear-worshipping ancestors.
Three other authentic caves in the area can be visited as well, but be sure to call up to a year ahead for reservations. Along D47, Grotte de Font-de-Gaume (1.5km/1 mile outside Les Eyzies) and Grotte des Combarelles (17km/11 miles north of Bergerac) feature Stone Age paintings; in Rouffignac-Saint-Cernin, Grotte de Rouffignac, nicknamed the Cave of the Hundred Mammoths, contains nearly half of the existing paintings of wooly mammoths, as well as rare renderings of rhinoceros and ibexes. The Musée National de la Préhistoire, in Les Eyzies, displays a hoard of prehistoric artifacts unearthed in local excavations.