Monday, April 02, 2007

from the Perigord Noir, in southwest France: the imprint of time

The tourist in me wakes up this morning and says: it’s not all about food. I want to step inside places and spaces that shake my soul. I want to see sights.

I want to see the caves.

This is a challenge. There are in this world only three known polychromatic prehistoric caves (the art dates back some 15,000 years).

One is near here, in Lascaux. But forty years ago, it threw the last tourist out. Unless I can come up with a fake ID attesting to the fact that I am a bona fide archeologist, I cannot go to the real Lascaux. I can only visit Lascaux II, a nearby reproduction. It wont do. I am in agreement with Oscar’s blogpost (put forth in a different context): if it’s not real, then the reaction to it is equally dishonest.

The second such cave is in Spain. I am not in Spain. Besides, that one, too, closed its doors to the mighty rush of tourism.

And then there is Font-de-Gaume, the only cave in the world with polychromatic prehistoric paintings accessible, in a limited way, to the likes of me.

180 people a day. In groups of twelve. That is all. In the summertime, you need a reservation months in advance. It’s sort of like getting tickets for John Stewart’s the Daily Show, only worse. It’s harder to get to Font-de-Gaume than it is to NYC.

Ahhhhh, the beauty of visiting the Perigord in the off off season.

I point my mini car toward Les Eyzies de Tayac, the small small town (just 15 kilometers south of where I am!) with a huge reputation: the first known bones of homo sapiens sapiens (not a repeat typo!) were found here. And, it is home to the cave with the stalactites and a bunch of other -tites, rarely seen elsewhere. Finally, it is the site of the Font-de-Gaume cave art.

Les Eyies on a warm spring day. Students at the local school take their break outdoors.


Children play, adults exhale.


It’s the kind of day where you don’t give up easily.

I go to the tourist office.
Can I get a ticket for the caves?
A shrug. You need to go to the site. Buy in advance. You wont get in now.

I pace the lovely and uncrowded at this time of the year blocks of the town. I go into a wine store and purchase the first great bottle of wine that I tell myself will grace the wine storage cooler in my new condo (a leap on my part; I have received numerous emails indicating that the condo is anything but a done deal; though if all fails, I will take my splendid bottle of wine, pop the cork and drink it prematurely, in big gulps, in a corner of a closet).

Undecided, I pace some more. I buy a huge amount of cheese because a street vendor convinces me that it will keep forever, without refrigeration. I believe her. I believe the world.


More pacing of sorts. I go to the Grotte du Grand Roc – a magnificent place where an intelligent guide tells a half dozen of us (the beauty of off season travel cannot be overestimated) all about the way these are formed (and yes, Ann, I thought of your post at numerous junctures throughout the visit):


growing every which way

It is early afternoon. I tell myself: bite the bullet. Go and beg.

I go and beg. People, I say in my best French, I want to see the caves. I want to see the art that graces their walls: the bison, the reindeer engaged in acts of love and sexual advancement, I want to see it all!
How many are you?

I am but one. Solo. Traveling alone, eating alone. I am by myself.
Okay. We will let you go with the 15:00 hour group as a thirteenth
(only twelve are permitted at a time).

I hope my eyes convey my thanks.

My ticket says : get there early! I do, but my group is already waiting. Two Spaniards, one American living in France, the rest -- French.

There is a sign at the entrance: this visit is tough on claustrophobics.
Fifteen years ago I developed a case of severe claustrophobia, a post-traumatic reaction to unfortunate circumstances.

I have been trying hard to overcome it. Fifteen years ago, I could not sit in an office without a window. I could not drive through the Holland Tunnel under the Hudson River.

But, two weeks ago, I took the bus that I knew would travel (for ten minutes!) underneath the Italian-Swiss Alps. And, blissfully, I fell asleep somewhere in the middle. I had wondered if that week-end in the Alps had cured me of a number of fears and foibles.

Still, a cave? For an hour? With no emergency exits (because cave people felt no need to put in emergency exits)?

It’s now or bust. I want so much to see this art!

Jean-Marie is our guide.


And let me say it straight, at the outset: the next hour, spent in that cave, is undeniably one of the best tourist-sight-viewing hours of my life.

If I were asked to recommend one important tourist attraction in this world, I’d probably say – go for the Eiffel Tower, the Grand Canyon, Venice.

But, after you have checked off all that our modern humankind, with a strong dose of good old nature, have had to offer, go (preferably with Jean-Marie as guide) to the Font-de-Gaume. Experiencing those pieces of art on the walls of the cave may change your life.

A French family is with us: a grandmother, grandfather, the middle generation, the teen son who guides grandma through dark, narrow passageways. She had been to many prehistoric caves in her days and still, you should see her face light up now! She is the most enthusiastic from our bunch. Fine, there's also me...

After a long corridor, we are before a masterpiece. The bisons – there are 82 of them in the cave and they are never aggressively positioned agaisnt each other. Our guide traces their contours, not always discernible in detail, with a beam from a flashlight.

Further down, he flashes a light onto the reindeer.

(cameras are not permitted: all of these are my photos of book photos)

The painters used color (red, black), but they also used the relief of the cave walls to give depth to the limbs and musculature of the animals.


Such a profoundly moving positioning of the beasts! A reindeer kneels down in a submissive pose. Another licks his (her?) head in what is a gesture of sublime caring.

look carefull at my arrow: do you see the snout? the eye of the smaller reindeer? You would have noticed the tongue as well, had you been in the cave

Which is the female? – I ask.
Jean-Marie is used to my questions. They are all unanswerable and not because I articulate them in French. Do you suppose the halls were temples? Did men or women paint? Was it one artist or many?

One of the women in our group muses – it’s nice to see a submissive pose on the part of the reindeer that is kneeling, if that is the male. Or of the soothing gesture of licking, if that is the male. So gentle!
Do you mean we are not gentle?
– Jean-Marie smiles.

A horse is straddling another. Natural, organic movement, Jean-Marie comments.
You know, we can do all this now, with computers, we can simulate it and create paintings not unlike these. But 15,000 years ago, our ancestors were painting by the light of torches, creating depth and movement and perspective that we can now only imitate. The intelligence and artistry behind it is incredible!

He gazes at the figures, as if seeing them for the first time. With each successive image, our group gasps audibly. Ahhh! We throw out spontaneous reactions, we comment on each others’ observations.

We are enthralled.

We are also over our time limit. Jean-Marie guides us out. Thank you so much for your attitude, he tells us. It is everything.

Yes, thank you, thank you.

I go down to the town center. It is not yet 6. I have not eaten lunch, but I need a break from big time eating. I wander into a café-brasserie and I ask if they will feed me. Too early! -- madame tells me. But for you

She brings an omelet with cepe mushrooms, a salad and a small bottle of rose. And a double noisette. I stay for a long time.