Sunday, October 4, 2009

France on $70 a Day – Lascaux Cave II and Forte de Reignac

This was written in the Dordogne, but, because Internet cafes were difficult to find, it was posted from California.

We slept so well that it was almost 8:00 before we got up, and then we had to scurry to reach the cave site before the office ran out of tickets. Our most important reason for visiting this valley of prehistory was to study what we could of Cro-Magnon man, and our first stop would be, perhaps, the most famous cave, Lascaux II.

We drove to Montignac where we easily found free parking and a short walk to the ticket office. The clerk assured us we'd be able to get to the 11:45 tour because the caves were only a five-minute drive away. She was right.

We joined the small group of fifteen or so and were led into the cave reproduction by our English-speaking guide. She explained that the caves were discovered in September, 1940, by some fourteen-year-old boys. When they rescued the dog, Robot, that had fallen down a hole, they stumbled upon the cave. The boys' vow to keep the cave a secret lasted all of a few days (They were fourteen-year-olds after all.), and soon archaeologists and scientists were studying these amazing 16,000 year old drawings.

The cave opened to the public in 1948 but was closed in 1963. Visitors' shoes were tracking in contaminants, and the breath of so many guests was causing damage to the paintings. In the mid-70s, though, when it was decided that a re-creation of the caves could be made available to the public, work began on Lascaux II.

The caves were painstakingly reproduced using resin and modern materials, and then one artist labored six years to create the drawings and etchings. The artist discovered the methods used by Cro-Magnon painters and employed them herself in the re-creation. One technique involved putting the pigment material in her mouth to mix with saliva and then blowing the result on the cave wall. Obviously, she was dedicated to her craft.

As we stood in Lascaux II, which surely is every bit as fascinating as the actual cave, our guide explained that Cro-Magnon man lived outside in the forest and used the cave walls for his art. Scaffolding must have been used because the drawings are high up on the walls, with light provided by primitive animal-fat “candles.” It is assumed, because of certain variances in style, that five artists created the drawings and signs that depict bison and the almost-extinct oryx. In the Lascaux cave, there is only one drawing of a human figure and no depictions of the deer that was hunted for food. No one knows why the artists chose the subjects they did for their drawings, but our guide hinted that there must have been a spiritual reason.

After leaving the cave, we blinked outside in the sunlight as we thanked our guide and gave her a 2 euro tip. Much as we'd loved seeing Lascaux II, we were anticipating our drive down the sinuous D 706 and whatever surprises it might hold for us.

We ate our picnic lunch on the grounds of a castle—there seems to be a castle every few miles in the Dordogne—then drove on until we reached the Maison Forte de Reignac.

This unusual castle, built high up on the cliff under an escarpment, has been home to man for 20,000 years. The brochure says it is, “...the only monument in France of the 'Chateau Falaise' type totally intact and preserved in exceptional condition, with period furnishings throughout.” It was not open to the public until 2006, so David and I felt almost like pioneers as we climbed the hill to reach the entrance.

The View from the Upper Floors

The entire back of the mansion is a cliff, of course, with walls and floors added to the front to comprise the mansion built during Louis XIV's time. We saw dining rooms, living rooms, kitchens and even a tiny chapel and a dungeon. The period furniture was fascinating, and I was particularly intrigued by the huge chair, beside the lady of the house's bed, that contained the chamberpot. She evidently had one of the first en suite bathrooms!

The En Suite Bathroom

After leaving the mansion, we toured the exhibition space next door which housed items of torture from the Middle Ages to today. This traveling exhibition, which has been shown in Mexico, San Francisco, Tokyo, Madrid, and Florence, contains authentic instruments of torture and execution. The aim of the presentation is to make people aware of the use of torture; judging by David's and my horrified response, the presentation certainly succeeded.

When we go outside tonight, I hope we'll forget the worst man can do with torture devices, and think, instead, of the beauty he can create with cave paintings. Cro-Magnon artists don't have much in common with David and me, but I'll bet we both looked at the same stars. That's what I want to remember tonight.


For a thorough explanation of Lascaux, see
Tickets must be purchased in the village of Montignac (not at the tourist bureau but close by), 8.50 euros, and the cave is a short drive away.

For a brief explanation of Maison Fort de Reignac, see were 6.50.

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