Friday, October 06, 2006

Thursday, 5th October – Sarlat

Apart from food this region is famous for its concentration of pre-historic artifacts and cave paintings. Since there was a dense fog we figured underground was the best place to spend the day. The most famous cave is Lascaux, but we decided with limited time we wanted to see the real thing (Lascaux is closed for its protection, the one you can visit is a copy) so we went to 2 local caves, Font-de-Gaume and Rouffignac. We went first to Font-de-Gaume to book a tour (numbers are strictly limited) then drove to Rouffignac where we were warned we would probably have to wait. However as we walked in a tour was just about to start (the last tour of the morning – everything closes here for lunch) with only 3 other people, so our timing was impeccable. The guide said because we were such a small group she could show us things not normally on the tour. The guide spoke only French, but one of the others was an American French professor who has retired to live in France, and he did a great job of translating for us. Rouffignac is a deep cave complex – you travel on a little tram 3 km into the caves to see amazing paintings and carvings of rhinos, bison, reindeer, horses, ibex and mammoths. Fascinating, and spine-tingling to realize how old these paintings are – about 15,000 years. Pictures of mammoths – an animal that has been extinct since the end of the ice age, depicted by people who knew them first hand!

After lunch in Les-Eyzies-de-Tayac, the local village built under the overhang of a huge cliff, we went back to Font-de-Gaume for our tour. In French again, but the guide spoke very clearly and we actually managed to follow him pretty well. Font-de-Gaume is the only cave in the world where you can still see multi-coloured cave paintings (the others are Lascaux, and Altamira in Spain, which are both closed to the public). The impressive thing is not just that these paintings are mind-blowingly ancient, or that they have been preserved so well, or what they tell us about prehistoric people, but they are really beautiful works of art. And they show skill with realism and perspective that wasn’t rediscovered until the Renaissance. At the end of the tour the guide thanked the group for our attention but also for our attitude, and it really did feel a tremendous privilege to be able to see these paintings first hand.

The Musée National de Pré-Histoire in Les-Eyzies has a huge collection of prehistoric artifacts and rounded off our prehistoric day nicely. It’s a surprisingly modern well organized museum. There were a number of videos demonstrating ancient techniques of rock carving and tool-making, and thousands of arrow heads, skeletons and other bits and pieces.

Back to Sarlat for another wander – the town is floodlit at night - and another gourmet dinner, though this time we settled for one course. We had an assiette (mixed plate) so we still got to try a few local delicacies. Shelley ate a salad of walnuts, lettuce and goose gizzards. (I have no idea what part of the animal that is, and I don’t want to know, but it was delicious).