HORNS raised and legs outstretched, the bison cuts a majestic figure. The great beast with its chestnut brown flanks seems set to charge, its shoulders bulging towards us.

Nearby a graceful horse lifts its forelegs and gallops – head and tail raised as a pair of unfamiliar-looking creatures clash in a brutal display of strength. Looking on, a woolly mammoth, shaggy fur hanging from its back, seems oblivious to the drama while a woolly rhinoceros crowned with magnificent twin horns, stands its ground defiantly.

The cave paintings of Grotte de Font-de-Gaume are one of the artistic wonders of the world. A UNESCO World Heritage Site the cave contains 200 images dating back to 17,000 BC.

Considering they have been there so long, they were only rediscovered relatively recently – a little over a century ago by a curious local schoolmaster. People had always kind of known about the paintings, of course, it's just that they thought nothing of them – and in this corner of south west France, along the rivers Lot, Vezere and Dordogne there are many.

One can only imagine what that teacher, a chap called Denis Peyrony, thought when he realised what he'd stumbled upon – a menagerie of fabulous beasts coloured red, ochre and brown, given three-dimensional form by bulges in the cave wall and through incredible artistry, animated into action by a moving torch. And old Denis only found the half of it. The most impressive tableau - a frieze of five bison - was only discovered in the mid 60s by scientists clearing the cave. Heaven knows what else is still down there.

If there were nothing else here, Font-de-Gaume – one of the few exceptionally painted caves in the world which visitors are still allowed to enter – would be reason enough to make the journey to this land of deep valleys and pastoral scenery, due east of Bordeaux.

Actually this is just the start. Caves honeycomb the limestone – from narrow decorated tunnels to cavernous cathedrals dripping with stalactites.

At Pech Merle in the Lot, I encouraged (okay, bribed) my two claustrophobic sons to head deep underground into the oldest art gallery imaginable. In a cave carved out by a now vanished river, we went face to face with racing horses, their handsome muscular flanks spotted with paint, mammoth, reindeer, oryx and - most incredible of all – the outlines of hands of the artists themselves, dating back to 25,000 BC. They could have been made yesterday – the handprints, created by blowing paint around their fingers through a straw, a tangible link to our inventive ancestors.

Why did they do it? One theory is that these were places of worship – temples if you like - in which tribal shamans entered higher states of consciousness and communed with the spirits of the animals on which they depended for food and warmth. The respect with which they held the natural world, and their artistic prowess – their mastery of perspective and use of rock relief to portray 3D shapes – shines through in these haunting paintings. But there's also a playfulness - a lightness of touch at work.

The Dordogne is still a spiritual place, though these days all eyes are raised skywards. Great cathedrals pull in the faithful in the pretty stone-built towns of Sarlat and Perigueux. The latter is crowned by a graceful structure based on St Mark's Basilica in Venice – laid out in the form of a Greek cross and topped with domes and turrets and a beautiful 12th century belfry.

The landscape is incised by its broad rivers, villages tucked into cliff sides, or scattered atop bluffs. The vertically-sprawling village of Rocamadour perched 279m above the Alzou gorge is a honeypot for tourists, who come to climb the vertiginous streets and visit its religious complex – with the Chapelle Notre-Dame complete with Black Madonna statue, and the Romanesque-Gothic Basilica of St-Sauveur. A million tourists a year flock here, and for good reason.

But you can escape the crowds by taking in any one of hundreds of equally beautiful, but quieter spots: Beynac-et-Cazenac with its towering castle; Castelnaud-La-Chapelle with its turreted chateau; the bastide village of Domme with its sturdy fortifications; and impossibly pretty La Roque-Gageac, tucked into an overhanging cliff face in the side of a gorge in the Dordogne valley, and from where you can take to the river by canoe.

Further afield – in fact just along the river from Pech Merle cave is the most romantic of all: Saint-Cirq Lapopie. Perched 100m above the river, the village is almost too perfect to be real. If Disney were to dream up the perfect medieval village, it would look like this. One of the blessed Les Plus Beaux Villages de France ('the most beautiful villages of France') family, it is a place of steep cobbled roads, climbing to a church on a rock – affording extroardnary views along the valley below and forested hills beyond. Yet despite its beauty it is a living village. The cafes and restaurants serve great homely, but perfectly executed, dishes of regional produce (don't miss the duck) at very reasonable prices and affable villagers stop and say 'bonjour'.

In a land of such extraordinary beauty, the best thing you can do is stay as close to the land as possible.

We stayed with French glamping company Les Castels at its site at St Avit Loisirs – a five-star campsite and holiday park in the heart of Perigord Noir.

It's a fabulous place for families. A typical Dordogne-style cluster of stone buildings serve as cafe, restaurant and shops, extending on to a terrace overlooking sports courts and pitches, a great playground and amazing complex of four swimming pools and some hair-raising waterslides. Inside there is a heated indoor pool and lazy river along with a spa for some welcome pampering. The site dips down to a pretty lake surrounded by woodland. Fishing is allowed, with a little jetty built over the water. And though we failed to catch even a minnow, we had a fabulously relaxing time, soaking up the spring sunshine.

We shared a large luxury wooden cabin in the woods, looking over the lake.

There was room for the boys to run around and play and heaps of organised activities. But mostly we just sat on the veranda and chilled, enjoying the silence – the delicious peace only broken in the morning by the most incredible dawn chorus of waterfowl and songbirds drifting across the water.

We also tucked into barbecues and, after dark, spread out in the large lounge area to watch films dubbed into French and, for them, make use of the good wi-fi. I prefered to take a digital holiday (well, most of the time...)

Day trips included the nearby village of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil – Dordogne's capital of prehistory.

The National Museum of Prehistory is built into the cliffs, a striking piece of architecture. A terrace leading along a rock ledge leads to the Pataud Shelter - the remains of an Upper Paleolithic dwelling dating back an almost unimaginable 47,000 years BC. It contains the carved form of a slender, possibly pregnant young woman, known as the Venus of l'Abri Pataud.

Less graceful, but certainly imposing is the iconic modern statue of a Paleolithic man who gazes out proudly from the cliff edge across the valley.

For a taste of more recent history, we loved Le Bornat – a living history museum complete with vintage funfair and old workshops. Here we joined potters and blacksmiths and even leant a hand to mill walnuts, grinfing them on an old wooden press into sweet-tasting flour and rich highly scented oil - a bottle of which we took home. 

Around us a farmer herded a flock of geese with a dog (we saw the same thing for real on remote farms out in the country).

We also rode historic carousels and fairground rides and, best of all, took to the river in canoes, for a serene taste of a part of France which, in the best possible way, seems stuck in the past. And long may it remain so.

Fact box:

  • Get there on Brittany Ferries:

A car is essential in the Dordogne, so take your own. Brittany Ferries operates the longer routes from Portsmouth, along with Poole and Plymouth, to Western France, saving miles of unnecessary and costly driving.

Travel overnight by luxury cruise-ferry in the comfort of your own cabin with en-suite facilities or be whisked across the channel in just three hours.

From Portsmouth to Caen, fares start at £79 one way for a car plus two passengers.

Book online at brittanyferries.com or call 0330 159 7000.

The Oxford Times:

  • Stay: St Avit Loisirs is part of the Les Castels group of quality campsites. Stay in a chalet, with beautifully equipped kitchen, lounge and bathroom - and outdoor deck with barbecue. Facilities on site include five swimming pools inside and out, with water slides, splash pools and lazy river, spa, cafe-bar, supermarket, sports facilities and fishing lake. And it is right in the heart of the best part of the Dordogne.

Book at saintavitloisirs@les-castels.com or call +33 (0)223 164502

For more on this and other Les Castels sites around France, go to camping-castels.co.uk