Our time in the Loire was over and it was time to head to Dordogne….about a five hour drive away. We were up early and out of the hotel by 7:00 am….regretting that we didn’t have time for another delicious breakfast but we had a 1:00 pm reservation at Font-de-Gaume and didn’t want to be late.
The long drive on smooth highways (with nary a pothole in sight) took us through farmlands and pastures. With just a few quick stops for coffee and sandwiches, we made good time and arrived at our destination a little early.
Font-de-Gaume is the only cave with prehistoric polychrome paintings that’s still open to the public. Since human breath can destroy the fragile art, the number of visitors is limited….as is their time in the cave. We were absolutely thrilled that we had scored tickets.
The cave is near the tiny town of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac…..one of those “blink and you’ve missed it” towns. We must have blinked because we drove right through the town without seeing the turn-off to Font-de-Gaume.
One U-turn and a few guesses later and we were pulling into the cave’s small parking lot (no need for anything larger). We parked and walked to the non-descript Visitor Center….an old, single-story buildling not much larger than our living room back home.
We picked up our tickets and started on the 15 minute walk up a steep, rocky path to the cave’s entrance. We were the first to arrive so we waited on nearby benches for the others in our group. Before too long, we heard voices and were soon joined by two middle-aged men and an English family…..mom, dad and their two, young sons…..probably 8-10 years old and definitely dealing with ADHD. Our guide arrived……a handsomely, rough-hewn archeologist with wavy, greying hair, piercing brown eyes and a lilting French accent.
He neeedlessly apologized for his poor English…..and our fears that our tour would be conducted in French were dispelled. He went over the rules for our tour:
No touching the cave walls, no photography and, if the sensors showed a change in the environment, we would need to leave.
The English mom took her sons aside one at a time, held their shoulders, looked them in the eye and let them know, in no uncertain terms, that they were to behave.
We stashed our purses and backpacks in the small cave near the cave’s entrance and passed into the mouth of the cave. Our guide, who I’ll call “Luc” because it seems to fit, led us further into the cave. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness surrounding us, he told us about the cave.
Font-de-Gaume was well known to locals….Luc intimated that many “date nights” ended in the seclusion of the cave….but in 1901 a schoolteacher recognized the significance of the paintings and the cave became an archeological site. Calcite formed over the paintings……which protected them and allowed them to be dated. The paintings we were about to see are over 16,000 years old. Luc paused a moment to let us absorb the enormity of this statement……these works of art were created 14,000 years before Christ walked the Earth.
Now that our eyes had adjusted to the dark, Luc directed our attention to the cave wall. With a laser light, he showed us the outline of a bison…..highlighting its perfect proportions and showing us how the contours of the cave were used to define the creature’s musculature…..then he softly asked what else we could see. As we looked at the dark walls, slowly, other bison came into view…..this wasn’t a lone animal…..it was a herd! Luc described how flickering candlelight combined with the curvature of the cave would make the creatures come alive with movement.
We moved on….deeper into the narrow darkness. Again we stopped, with Luc revealing more of the cave’s secrets to us…..the animals were first carved into the rock, then painted ……the carving adding yet another dimension to the painting. Small animals were painted next to large ones…..were they the babies or was this the beginning of “perspective” long before the Renaissance painters claimed it? Nearby, was a reindeer who seemingly shared legs with a large bison in the background…..definitely an indication of perspective. Animals were painted with both eyes on one side of their heads…..Sorry, Picasso, cubism has been around for a long time.
Luc’s passison for this sacred place was palpable and contagious. We were in awe of these primitive artists whose skills were far beyond ours. Luc acknowledged our enthusiasm by allowing us to stay longer than our alloted 45 minutes, “The group before left early, you can have their extra time.”
At the end of the tour, he thanked us for being a good group…..saying he also tells groups when they aren’t so good (perhaps the group before us fit in this category?). He made a point of bending down to the two young brothers to thank them for being very good guests. We left the confines of the cave and entered the bright sunlight. One of the boys walked along the rock wall….touching it with both hands saying over and over, “I can touch it now, I can touch it now!”
We walked back quietly…..in reverence to this special place…..and then journeyed north to Montignac where we would spend the night.
It was a hot day so we adjourned to a cafe across the street for a little liquid sustenance. While we were waiting for our drinks, a quintet of young muscians began playing classical music in the plaza across the street. We waited and waited for a hat to be passed around, but it never happened….. these young people weren’t street musicians, they were just playing for enjoyment….and we sure enjoyed it.
We walked back to the hotel….stopping to make dinner reservations at Flannagan’s…..an Irish-named restaurant that serves regional French cuisine on a terrace overlooking the river.
We had a few hours before dinner, so we ambled back to the lovely grounds behind the hotel. Craig took a nap on a lounge chair by the rose garden while Bev and I dangled our feet in the cool waters of the hotel’s pool…..the fragrant aroma of roses surrounding us. Life just doesn’t get much better.
Rested and revitalized, we cleaned up and headed a few doors down to the restaurant. Our table…..near the riverbank…..was waiting for us. We ordered the three-course menus and started with salads with gesiers (gizzards). Bev was wary, but I assured her that they didn’t taste like “offal.” One bite and she was convinced…..although she did apologize to our server for not finishing the ample plate. We each opted for steak that night….with pepper sauce or roquefort sauce and frites. French cuts of beef aren’t as tender as those in the US….but the sauces more than make up for it. Craig and I had a delicious peach tart for dessert. Bev bravely tried the crème brûlée…..it was good, but not as good as last night’s.
After dinner, we strolled along the river. Men were out fishing, dogs were romping around the water’s edge and the sun was just beginning to start setting. It was still light when we returned to the hotel, but it had been a long day and we were tired so we said our “Good nights” and headed off to bed.