Walking in ancient footsteps

Again on advice from Ben and Diny, we set off on another day of timetravel – back to prehistoric caves or grottes in the Vezere Valley around Les Eyzies. Even during the ice ages there was still vegetation in this valley providing wood for fire, and food for fish and game. So life for our homo sapien ancestors continued here almost fourteen thousand years ago when a lot of Europe was under ice.

Unfortunately the day we were at Les Eyzies, the main prehistoric museum for this whole area was closed. Then we found we had to book in for the grotte tours – numbers must be limited to reduce risk of CO2 damage to the caves and their contents. So after wandering about the little town for a bit we toddled off to a café for café et gateau. By this stage I had decided to give up on cappuccinos. They just aren’t in to them over here. Straight black coffee is the best option, and it goes so well with the local sweet specialties no matter where we seem to be!

In the Grotte de Gaume the black and red manganese oxide together with iron oxide changes in the light to provide a sort of iridescent chroma, changing from dark blue to pinky violet. There are lots of bison and reindeer in this cave, beautifully rendered with accurate perspectives and proportion utilising the undulations in the cave wall to enhance the 3D aspect of the animals. There is a particularly lovely depiction of one reindeer licking the nose of another. And I am sure Picasso was somehow influenced by these bulls and bison in his portrayals of bulls and minotaurs…

As the day went on there was either smoke or mist or both which made visibility outside quite hazy. Thankfully it shielded us a bit from the heat, but it also evoked a time travelling mood.

Roc St Christophe is truly amazing. It is a whole different troglodyte experience. A whole city once stretched from the river docks at the base of the cliff, up about five levels along ledges. We’re told people have lived here continuously for about 50,000 years until the town was destroyed finally during the wars of religion. At first it just looks like rock, but when the details are pointed indicating the blacksmith’s area, animal pens, the old docks and the machines for lifting materials up to the higher edges, the main street and buildings off it, shops, a safe, the church, a dungeon, sentinel points, a point where rocks were thrown from a great height down onto hostile boats… The past came alive again in a whole different way. Truly, follow the link, select the English flag, and go on a virtual tour yourself. (The video narration is still in French but it is still worth your virtual visit.

After Roc St Christophe, if we hadn’t been booked into Grotte de Combarelles, we probably wouldn’t have gone. But again, quite different, it is another absolute treasure. It is a very small cave long cave. In fact the floor has been excavated so visitors can walk through it rather than crawl, as our ancestors would have done. (And of course this protects the priceless walls.) As well as being so cramped, the artists, who would have been burning torches, would only have been able to stay in there for a maximum of 5 minutes at a time before the oxygen started running out… which makes their creations even more amazing. The walls are rich with etchings and carvings and painting using manganese oxide and the images become animated in the flickering torch light – bison, reindeer, an auroch, people and strange symbols.

Our guide, a native of this area whose forebears have been no doubt been here as far back as the last ice age, took on a magical persona himself, playing up the mystery of this artwork and the artists who created it. It almost felt like the artists had only just left, or maybe were still watching from the shadows to see what we think of it all.

Heather, Tina and Sharon

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