Friday, September 23, 2011

Ancient Art and Underground Thrill Rides 20 Sept 2011

20 Sept 2011

Up too early, or so Luke's watch said. It insisted it was 5.57am and refused to change. Either a miracle had occurred and time had stopped right here in France or it was time for a new watch.

Queueing for tickets

We hustled to get ready and hooned off back to Les Eyzies to queue for tickets to the Combarelles cave. It was 9.10am when we got there, cold and foggy and already 20 people were queueing outside the Font De Gaume Office/Shed/Shack, most of them American, from what we could discern, although the people in front of us were English. We shivered, breathed out condensation, admired the carvings on the doorways on the building across the road and waited.

A tremor of excitement ran through the crowd as the office ladies arrived in their precision gift shop driving team formation. It was spectacular to watch. Meanwhile, a pushy tour guide led a bevy of fat Americans past the line and through the locked gate. One of them proudly displayed a jacket label that said "American Natural History Museum" so they may have been experts. Or else they were just showy jerques.

I decided that the really fat lady among them was Jean M. Auel, just to liven up the moment. She wasn't.

Then the precision gift shop team invited in all the people with reservations. Another disgruntled murmur ran through the crowd. Reservations? Bastards! Especially since a lot of us had tried to buy tickets the day before only to be refused. Turns out you have to book a month in advance or else just try your luck on the day. They only sell 150 tickets on the day.

Finally the ticket window opened and we slowly moved forward. It took a full 20 minutes to get to the window, by which time we'd made the full spectrum of "I'm here to buy Iron Maiden tickets" jokes. Thankfully we were able to get early Combarelles tickets, 10.45pm. Since we'd lined up I asked about the possibility of Font De Gaume tickets. Could only get in at 4pm. I think the people behind us were in for disappointment.

We had a bit of time to spare so went to enjoy the delights of more seatless, paperless public toilets before driving to the Combarelles site 2km from the town centre. The fog had cleared into a bright sunny, though cool, day. We eventually walked into the tiny office and idled a while with the 4 other people who were on our tour - they only allow six at a time. Finally our short and very knowledgeable tour guide arrived and led us to the locked gates of the cave. We passed through a locked door and walked single file along the hollowed-out walkway that leads into the deep rock.

Outside the Combarelles cave. Our guide is the short woman in brown

Originally you could only reach the Combarelle cave if you crawled on your belly through a small hole but thankfully they've widened the whole thing to allow easy access. We went about 120m along a narrow passage, maybe 1m wide and 1.5m tall, originally created by an underground river. There are a few stalegtites but it's mainly just water-shaped limestone.

The engravings in Combarelles don't immediately impress like the polychrome paintings that you might see at Lascaux. It's a far more subtle experience. You are in a very cramped space with little light and you rely on the tour guide to bring the wall to life in front of you. If the light faces the wall front on, there's nothing. If it's held to the side, things become easier to see. Sometimes the image leaps out at you and other times it takes a few moments where you study the various lines... and then you find yourself saying "AH!" Even then it can take a bit of prompting by the guide... but it's worth it.

There were mainly horses but also an ibex, mammoth, bison and even some human-like figures. For me, the best one was a cave lion, beautifully sculpted and carefully placed on the wall so that the contours of the rock looked like muscles, the eye well positioned. It was just so perfect, my stomach turned over. There's something about this ancient art that can move you deeply. It's incredibly old, created in incredibly difficult circumstances and is often highly skilled. I wanted to feel that at Pech Merle but there were too many people and not enough time. This time around, in that tiny space with 7 people, it was magic.

Lion engraving in the Combarelles

Most of the images were simply engraved into the soft rock, often with flint tools, although there are a few remnants of paint (manganese) as well. It seems that some of these images were well-realiseding but time has eroded them down.

Our guide spoke mainly in French but she would occasionally point a few things out in English for the benefit of Luke and I. She really knew her stuff and stayed to answer questions afterwards.

We celebrated a successful tour with a coffee and chocolat eclair in the coffee shop in town and then went wandering. As per usual, everything was shut, mainly because it was 1pm and lunchtime.

Les Eyzies rock overhang and prehistory museum

We ended up hanging around in the fossil shop because it was open and bought some iron pyrite and flint just for the fun of making fire. The shop owner recommended Grotte de Rouffignac so we decided to change plans and drive the 15km out to it.

By then the weather was fine and hot, the sun was out and everything was very pleasant. At the cave things were casual, no tour buses or queues. Rouffignac is different to the ones we've seen before. It's more of a "Hollywood" cave - a huge arch leading down into the mountain. This one is studded with nodules of flint and was used as a flint mine in ancient times.
The entrance to Rouffignac cave

This tour saw us loaded onto a little train and driven more than 1km under the earth - a very slow subterranean roller coaster. I was wondering where the Gringott's vaults were. Once again the guide spoke in French so we missed all the finer details. it takes about 10 minutes to get to the paintings, incredibly deep and far in. Once again, the air is cold and damp, about 12 degrees and it's pitch black. Occasionally the guide would turn off all the lights and my heartbeat would instantly increase.
Very slow underground roller coaster

Rouffignanac boasts several friezes painted with black manganese, a very stable chemical that has survived well underground. The first shows 3 woolly rhinoceros in a row and - interestingly - also boasts graffiti dating from 1770. The second features mammoths and horses as well as some engravings. The train then proceeds to a spot very deep where the stone age artists have drawn at least 40 images on the smooth white ceiling.
Some of the 100+ images from the ceiling
Three woolly rhinoceros in a row

At one point the tour guide was discussing a mammoth in great detail and he kept pointing his torch at it's bumhole... carefully rendered in black. The original scientists thought the flap of skin over the anus might be graffiti. Turns out this was a careful attention to anatomical detail by the original artists and was only verified once modern day people had found a frozen mammoth to study it. More here.

As with so many of the caves, there was a section where the public was not allowed. This particular one contains human figures. The Combarelles has some of the mysterious symbols that are found only in that area (also at Font De Gaume). I have a vain wish of someday being able to access these hidden areas, although I have no idea how. I'm sure a degree in archeology does the trick. Or a hat and whip.
Luke did a spot of flint mining outside
We had a quick look at Laugerie Haute (Jondalar's home cave) which was closed

After our successful cave visit we were starving and drove to the local supermarket to buy peanuts, camemert and cider. We then gobbled that up sitting by the Vezere river, watching the sun set.

In theory we were supposed to go out for dinner tonight to enjoy duck bread, duck entree, duck soup, duck tape, duck dessert. We were too full from our snack. But we headed out to Auberge Veyret - the restaurant we went to 3 years ago - to see what was on the menu. Same stuff. Alas, booked out.

Thus, we drove back to the cabin and walked along the banks of the Dordogne, skimming stones. We had to cross a bit of water to get back on the bank and Luke gave me a piggy back.
The "beach" on the Dordogne at the Soleil Plage caravan park

Then we ate chicken, bacon and leek risotto again. Am now knackered. Tomorrow we have to clean this cabin and move to the next one at St Emilion Yelloh caravan park.

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