Saturday, June 27, 2009

Moving on from Blaye

It is time to move on. The week at Villa St Simon with Les (the crazy South African) has been great, but we have been going non-stop almost all week. Neither of us slept very well - probably because we knew we had to get going earlier this morning. We had hoped to hit the road about 9 - ha ha ha, we got to breakfast after 8 and by the time we drove off it was nearly 10. But we did get Les to show us his current project - he is renovating another building across the street to make self catering units available. He hopes to have it ready to go for summer 2010.

Lesley and Rob (the newly graduated and the newly passed exam youngsters who are studying in Cardiff, Wales [she is Canadian, he German]) are leaving as well and as they have been there much of the week, the farewell is a little longer.
It really was great to have some more time with Les - you are an amazing host mon and few would leave Villa St Simon without agreeing with me.

So off we set. I have set Kate to avoid the motorways so we are seeing rural France right at the grass roots. And by doing it this way, it is easy to duck down a side road if something takes our eye - which we do a few times today. Mind you, we still encounter the trucks - we have not seen this many since we left Spain!
Rural France offers wonderful examples of architecture over the years and today we are treated as we have been over the last week (and to a lesser extent during our last visit). The most stunning example today is the Chateau Hautefort – we don’t have time to go find it, but from a distance it is amazing! We also make a quick detour to Chateau d'Excideuil now an art gallery - we have not seen many of these English style fortified castles so far.

We are still travelling towards Lascaux when we see signs to the Villars Grotte. As it is only 7 kms off our route, we go down for a look, but bugger, it is lunchtime and the information centre/ticket sales for the grotte won’t be open for another hour (it is now 1 pm), so after a quick toilet stop, we push on.

The worst thing about our next visit is that we can’t bring you any photos. Lascaux II – the site of Cro-Magnon cave paintings is just outside Montignac. Now, picture in your mind’s eye, every cave drawing you have ever seen in a book or on TV. Now, throw that puny little image with its stick figures out – cos the real thing ain’t nothing like that! At Lascaux there is the greatest concentration of cave paintings anywhere in Europe. When the cave man had returned from the hunt, gazelle draped over his well muscled shoulders, and dragged his woman by her hair to the fire pit to prepare it for him; he laid down his club and with his mates, went in to the cave to hang out, and to express his artistic flair.

The paintings are huge and prolific and detailed and complex. I guess there are a number of things that hit your senses when you first walk in – firstly the volume of paintings, second the size of the painted area and of the individual paintings and then later, much later, you realise that they are only high on the walls and on the ceiling of the cave.

Our guide, a Frenchman speaking a heavily American accented English, gives us a wonderful insight into the world of these painters. As the colours they used are minerals, which you cannot date evidently, no one can be certain as to the age of the paintings. BUT they have dated candle holders and wicks, remnants of scaffolding, brush twigs and carved bones from the cave to 15,000 BC. (So this makes this cave the oldest evidence of human activity we have seen to date – only by 10,000 years!) The cave was discovered in the 1940s by a local teenager searching for his dog who fell down a hole. So for 14,956 years, the caves were undisturbed.

When the site was explored, they found more than 400 rocks that had been worn into candle holders, some still containing the rendered fat set with juniper wicks (juniper is one of the few timbers that burns without producing any smoke). They also found remnants of a scaffolding system. Cro-Magnon man was as tall as we are, but these paintings are out of the reach of anyone standing on the ground. They used five colours black (manganese dioxide), red (iron ore) yellow and brown (ochre) and white (clay). There are remains of ground powders, styli and stumps of ores. There was also a small amount of colour stained moss, indicating that they used a variety of techniques including sponging, outlining, spitting the mixed colour from their mouths as well as drawing.

And so to the paintings. They are all of single or grouped animals – cows, bison, horses, a variety of deer, one human figure and some felines. They are unbelievably realistic with depth and perspective being demonstrated by using the contours of the rocks and varying levels of darkness in the colours. They are life-like. When you look at the paintings, there is no way you can mistake what the subject is. Some are fully coloured, others partly, some are outlines with markings. There are repeated borders of horses or ponies, there is a bull (notable by having genitalia provided) with a number of cows. There are horses standing, nostrils flared, and others walking, trotting or at full gallop. There are deer with intricate (and slightly exaggerated) antlers. This is the veritable Sistine Chapel of cave paintings – figuratively and quite literally.

All in all we see more than 200 figures. Some are painted within other figures, others in front of or behind other paintings, and others standing lone and proud. The largest bison in the Bull Cave measures 8½ feet long from nosed to tail (that is almost 3 metres) and the largest cow is just 8 feet. The smallest pony is about 2 foot square. And they are all perfectly proportioned. See what I mean about throwing away old and erroneous thoughts. There is absolutely nothing small or insignificant about these works of art. And all of this was done by candle light! There is even one horse whose front is on a back wall and the rear is on the wall in front of it, separated by a cave tunnel!

There are also an abundance of symbols that no one has been able to decipher. Some are found at the beginning of a painted area, others at the end and some in all three areas. So much for the grunt!

In order to preserve the paintings, you do not go in to the actual cave, but rather an exact replica of it, contour for contour, bump for bump, rocky outcrop for rocky outcrop. And the paintings we see are exact replicas made using the same pigments and techniques. From the time of the discovery until they were permanently closed in the 1980s, a number of fungal diseases transported on the shoes or persons of visitors have attacked the real paintings. So, they survived for almost 15,000 years in pristine condition and when modern man bowled on in, came in his hordes and then arrogantly fitted air-conditioning, the paintings gave up their beauty to black spot and white spot diseases. Microbiologists are trying to cure them – particularly the white spot as presently the only way to remove it is to scrape it which also takes off the paint. There is a small museum attached with some of the artefacts found and a good explanation of the geology and the life of Cro-Magnon man as well as impressions of how they think that the paintings were done based on the items found.

It was a humbling and totally enlightening visit.

Dinner tonight at Hotel La Lascaux is amazing. They specialise in using regional produce and the results really show this to perfection. We eat at 7:30 pm (hey, it is now 10:40 pm and I just realise it is fully dark - amazing how much longer it stays light on the coast) as follows:
Foie gras de canard entier au naturel fait maison (Homemade duck foie gras natural) Michael
Coustillant de chevre chaud sur tomates confit (In wafer goat cheese with hot tomato confit) Maria
Cuisse de canard confite, pommes de terre salardaise (Leg of duck confit, potatoes and salad) Michael
Fillet mignon de porc au fair caramelise a sauce soja (Fillet mignon of pork with a caramelized soy sauce) Maria
Glaces Indochine et Framboises (Indochina [lychee, jasmine, mango, strawberry] and Raspberry sorbet) Michael
Creme brulee (no need to explain!) Maria

The food is f-a-b-u-l-o-u-s! Heaven help the french chef we might find who cannot match the wonderful food we are having!!!

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