by Karoline Cullen
“I’ll light this candle,” the guide explains, “so you’ll be able to see this as the artist did.” The dim flame wavers as he crouches below a painting and holds the candle close to the wall. In the flickering light, a huge, powerful beast is revealed. A rough curve of rock gives dimension to its rounded haunch. Its nostrils flare and beady eyes stare, its ochre colour as vibrant as the bison itself must have been.
We are in a narrow cave called Font-de-Gaume, near Les Eyzies in the Dordogne Valley of southwest France. This is the cradle of prehistory, where 10,000 to 20,000 years ago Cro-Magnon man celebrated the world around him with cave paintings. Font-de-Gaume is the first of three different caves we visit for a glimpse into the lives of our relatives from distant times.
On the climb to the entrance of Font-de-Gaume, we are told Cro-Magnon man was not so different from us. If he was in a suit and got on a bus today, you would not think twice about it, the guide delightedly relays. In the cave, one of the last in France with polychrome paintings still open to the public, the guide constantly reminds us to not touch the walls or brush against the paintings. Many have deteriorated with age and some are marred by graffiti. It’s dark and damp but when the lights shine on a frieze, there are audible gasps of appreciation at the vitality, colours, and exactness of scale of the animals. Some outlines are engraved while others make use of the rocks’ curvatures to give depth. Bison, reindeer, mammoths, and little black-brown horses are mixed with a variety of undeciphered symbols. Some figures are static and others portray motion quite effectively. A favourite scene features a long-antlered reindeer licking the head of another kneeling opposite in a moving display of tenderness. After leaving the darkness of Font-de-Gaume, we meander northwards along the Vézère River to Lascaux II, a cave near Montignac.
Grotte de Lascaux’s streams of ochre and black bison careening over its walls are the classics of cave paintings. They are the earliest known examples of representational art at a mind-boggling 17,000 years old. Access to the originals is highly restricted as the cave was closed to the public in 1963 to protect the paintings from further deterioration caused by visitors’ body heat and breathing. The French government built Lascaux II nearby, a precise centimetre-by-centimetre replication of two galleries of the original cave. The public can again browse the tableaux detailing the story of a hunt. In some places, entire sections of the walls and ceiling are teeming with stampedes of stags, horses, ibexes, and long horned bulls. As stunning as the display is, it is difficult to forget we are not in the original and the visit feels somewhat stilted. I want another “real” cave to visit.
We head for Grotte du Pech-Merle by the Lot River. Photo 2 On our way south, we pass through towns perched precipitously on hilltops; golden-stoned Turenne and the pilgrimage destination of Rocomadour. Photo 3 & 4 The region is known for truffles and foie gras so food is elevated, as only the French can, to almost impossible culinary standards. Even small country restaurant menus have one or both of those luxurious ingredients prominently featured. Did our prehistoric relatives hunt for truffles to garnish their bison?
The French prehistorian Abbé Breuil describes Pech-Merle as “the Sistine Chapel of the Lot district, one of the most beautiful monuments in Palaeolithic pictorial art.” The cave’s silence is broken only by the sound of water, whose drips created the sculptural stalactites, stalagmites, and other free form backdrops for the paintings. Friezes of horse, bison and mammoth in black charcoal outlines date from 16,000 years ago and there are some red markings about 20,000 years old. A wonderful painting uses a thin outcropping of rock shaped like a horse’s head to portray a spotted horse with a black mane. Human handprints outlined in black are signatures from another time. It is a visual feast in a series of caverns of surreal rock forms decorated with evocative figures.
The cave paintings provide an ephemeral connection to our prehistoric relatives. Thinking of that bison lit by candlelight in Font-de-Gaume almost makes me scan for thundering herds as I emerge from the cave’s darkness into the sunlight of modern day France.
If You Go:
♦ Reservations at Lascaux and Pech-Merle, particularly in summer, are necessary.
♦ Grotte de Font-de-Gaume, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, France – eyzies.monuments-nationaux.fr
♦ Lascaux II, Montignac, France – vimeo.com/40849516
♦ Grotte de Pech-Merle, Cabrerets, France – www.pechmerle.com
About the author:
Pursuing superb travel experiences to later share in words and photographs keeps Karoline travelling. She is a freelance writer and award winning photographer and regularly contributes articles and photos to a variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites. www.cullenphotos.ca
All photos by Cullen Photos.
Hill town in the Dordogne. [K. Cullen photo]
At Font-de-Gaume entrance. [G. Cullen photo]
Along the Lot River. [K. Cullen photo]
Evening in Rocamadour. [K. Cullen photo]