Dordogne I

October 19, 2010

It’s my 58th birthday!! And we are off to the Dordogne region of France to visit the prehistoric caves. We have educated ourselves to some extent. Our friends, Bob and Brenda Berry, gave H a great book on hypotheses of the origin of the caves’ “decorations” and we read several more books on the subject. But really no one knows exactly how and why, more than 10,000 years ago, prehistoric (Cro-Magnon) people decorated caves.

We experienced rain and incredible fog on our way there (about 200 miles). The crazy French drivers were passing in the fog—and I could not see more than 2 car lengths ahead of me! We drove cautiously and made it all in one piece. The Hartley’s Ford Focus is great! We found all gas stations open along the way and for good measure we filled up close to our ultimate destination.

Our first stop is the Grotte (cave) du Pech Merle, originally discovered in 1922 but other parts of the cave were discovered in 1949. The cave art dates back 25,000 to 13,000 years ago. The cave is known for its brilliant cave art depicting mammoths, bison and horses. The masterpiece is a spotted horse panel over 12 feet in length. The artists used the rocks’ shapes to enhance the bodies of the animals and create a 3-dimensional effect. It is surmised that the 3-D effect created a sense of motion as fire torches or candles were used in navigating the cave. This cave is also known for mud-preserved Cro-Magnon footprints; an extensive amount of painted symbols (dots, circles, geometric images that occur in other caves in the region); hand prints (minerals made into paint were blown from the mouth over the hand or fingers); and some stylized female figures.

There is only speculation (no one truly knows) about how many people created these cave decorations and why. Was it just one person or a few chosen people? Did successive generations create images on top of the “old” images? Did people in the same general geographical area share symbols/myths? Was it for religion or hunting rituals or what? It is pretty well-established that humans never inhabited the caves—they lived outside the caves and only used them for their efforts at decoration.

Another interesting thing about the cave animals is that the images show perspective—an art component lost after this time and rediscovered in the Renaissance era. The legs on the other side of the body of the animals might be without color or there is space between that leg and the animal’s body—all to show the perspective of the legs. Some animals are smaller possibly to make them appear to be in the background of the larger animals. Some animals have many legs maybe to show motion. When animals face each other they are different colors—one red and one black, for example. It’s theorized that one symbolizes male and the other female. The animals are never fighting and, in one case in a cave we will see tomorrow, it appears that a stag is licking a doe that lying on the ground in front of him—a tender scene.

Another interesting cave feature is the “pearls.” Limestone drips off the ceiling onto pieces of rock the size of sand. The sand particle rolls around as limestone coats it. Over millennia that piece of sand becomes a perfect “pearl” with about a ¾ inch diameter.

Many of the cave paintings have been destroyed by vandalism; inadvertent contamination (human breath increasing the humidity in the cave or the transference of bacteria from people’s hands when they touch the rock surface); or ignorance. One site we visited was nearly destroyed by workers excavating the site and not paying attention to what was dug up.

So back to our Pech Merle visit. In a group there is always one person who hogs the limelight and ruins it for others. An American man who “strutted” his knowledge of French (maybe I’m just jealous of his language skills), who had a girlfriend with a nose-ring like a pig, gobbled up a good amount of our allotted time (the time allotted to groups in the caves is strictly controlled to preserve the paintings) embellishing our tour-guide’s French remarks (although I think she did a good job describing the tour in English). I think our tour guide was as sick of him as we were by the end of the tour.

After our cave visit we were on our way to Auberge Veyret, a working farm with both rooms and meals (breakfast and dinner) just outside of the village of Les Eyzies (recommended by Rick Steves). Our room looks just like a bedroom at your grandma’s house and it has the French “signature” rolled pillows. The farm dog has 6 or 7 “toes” on each back foot—weird. And in the morning it smells like a working farm!

Madam and her daughter and son-in-law run the B&B& D (bed & breakfast & dinner). The food served comes straight from the farm: chicken, duck, pork, fresh cow’s milk and cheese, apple & grape juice, dry-smoked ham, pate, apples, walnuts, jams, aperitifs, digestives and more! For dinner we started with home-made walnut liqueur and Pineaux de Charante. 1st course was white bean soup; 2nd course was dry-smoked ham with sliced tomatoes in vinaigrette; 3rd course was Duck a l’ Orange (the farm’s duck) with really tasty garlic potatoes; 4th course was green salad with walnuts; 5th course was fromage blanc (an un-aged cow’s milk cheese maybe a bit like cottage cheese but with very small curds and not the sharp taste of cottage cheese) with home-made jams (blackberry, fig, rhubarb and melon—I LOVE the melon.); and last course is dessert which we politely declined. The coffee they serve is wonderful—not espresso (which is the norm in France) but a really flavorful, “American” (i.e. drip) coffee. A couple of Italian men were in the dining room with us the first night but I don’t think they stayed over—they were not at breakfast.

We were in bed by 9pm—about 20 minutes after finishing our grand dinner but fortunately we had antacid tablets!