Saturday, July 14, 2012

Caves and Castles

The Dordogne River Valley is known for its both its prehistoric sites and its medieval towns and castles.   Yesterday we toured several sites used by Cro-Magnon man, including Lascaux II, a painstakingly faithful replica of Lascaux, a cave housing the best known and most stunning cave paintings and engravings.   To help us understand the sites we had hired Steve Burman, a professional archaeologist who now lives in the area and owns Caves & Castles tours.  This was a smart move; not only did Steve do a great job of making the paintings and ruins come alive for us, but he did all the driving, no small thing in this very hilly region with its narrow winding roads.  We had a very full day with him, seeing three different sites. 

The first, Le Thot, wasn't actually a site but a museum that prepared us for what we'd see at Lascaux.  Through the excellent displays and Steve's explanations we learned how the paintings were made, how to "read" them, and about Cro-Magnon life.

Then it was on the Lascaux II, which was the main event of the day.  Discovered in 1940 and opened to visitors in 1948,  the original cave was closed to the public in 1963 by the French government when it was determined that the artwork was being jeopardized by the millions of visitors it had received.  An intensive effort was made to build a replica very close to the original, and that is what visitors see in visits now.  You might think that seeing a replica would not be very rewarding, but you would be very wrong; it was amazing.   When I entered the cavern and saw the paintings --their size, detail, dimensionality -- I was stunned.  Steve said he had clients who cried when they saw the artwork, and I believe it.  

After a sandwich break we went to La Madeleine, one of the many cliff dwelling sites that line the Vezere River.  The Cro-Magnon people lived in these rock shelters, not in caves.  Much later they were used by medieval people who build towns right in the cliffs and castles on top of the cliffs to protect the towns.   It was very cool and we all enjoyed being there and learning about it. 

The last stop of the day was in Les Eyzies, a town which is billed as "the world capital for prehistory," for ice cream and then to see a maker of flint head, tools, and weapons.  Bernard takes huge chunks of flint rocks and whacks away at them and files them  in just the right manner so they are transformed into tools and weapon.  We all would have loved to own his neat spears, knives, and arrows, but alas, it just wasn't practical for our lifestyles.  

Last night we went back down to Sarlat for dinner.  Paul discovered that he likes Croque Fromage, a grilled cheese sandwich.  Go Paul!

This afternoon Steve is taking us to a castle with an excellent weapon collection.  Should be fun! 

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