The Sistine Chapel of Prehistory

Trip Start Jun 01, 2012
Trip End Aug 13, 2012

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Flag of France  , Aquitaine,
Wednesday, July 4, 2012

In some ways, we didn't do much today, but the time still flew past -- a phenomenon that's become particularly notable around 2pm when we think about having lunch, only to discover that everything's closed down for the afternoon. We did manage to find a pizza place on a plaza, sitting directly below a looming castle (Castelnaud), so I can't really complain. And the pizza was decent, if quite large (why didn't they warn us? we would have shared one), though it made for a perfectly acceptable dinner as well.

In the morning, we'd gone out to see the prehistoric (by which I mean, 17,000 years old) cave paintings at Lescaux. In fact, one can't go into Lescaux, due to the white disease and green disease. These diseases are just what you think: green marring of the paintings, due to bacteria brought in on the soles of people's shoes that finds heaven in the damp atmosphere of the cave; white marring of the paintings due to the carbon dioxide breathed out by people. The cave itself was discovered around 1940 by two boys and their dog. The dog, Robot, had fallen into a hole and as they were pulling him out, they heard stones falling away. Getting it into their heads to explore, the teenagers stumbled upon what was an unknown, untouched wonder, to soon be dubbed The Sistine Chapel of Prehistory by the preeminent pre-historian of the time. The cave had managed to be so untouched for so long due to rubble that had closed off the entrance, keeping the temperature and humidity constant over the millenia, and by a layer of clay in the soil above that prevented water damage. However, opening the cave to the public meant destroying that equilibrium. By the 1960s, the decision was made by the cultural ministry to close the site and plans got underway to try to create a reproduction, which is what we ended up seeing. It took close on 20 years to construct, with a local artist using contemporary dyes and techniques to copy the paintings as accurately as humanly possible. The effect was stunning. Somehow, even though I'd seen the pictures in brochures, I was expecting stick figures. These were huge, graceful, delicate, detailed, creations that expressed movement, and possibly even a sequential story of a single figure. Most of the paintings are of animals (bison or wissent , stags, horses, cattle, a bi-corn that gets referred to as a unicorn (a chimera in its construction)); there are a few symbols (dots and lines); and one humanish figure. We managed to get tickets for the English-language tour, which was pleasantly informative and also a boon for the local town of Montignac. All tickets had to be bought in the town, which is 2 km down the hill from the site, meaning that we had approximately 45 minutes to poke around the market that had been set up that day, trying wines and buying another bottle. We're up to about 7 rattling around in the back seat at this point. We're banking on mathematicians being thirsty at Luminy. 

After the tour, our afternoon was spent as a driving tour. We popped in at a couple foie gras shops along the road (no free tastings, alas, but a wealth of odd canned goods) and saw some castles on hilltops. We'd intended to tool around Domme, but the weather (rain) defeated us, so we drove through the town instead. 

In the evening, we went out for a stroll in Sarlat, where we're staying a second night. It rained while we were out, but for the most part not too badly. There was an aperitif maker/distributor that offered free tastings, though none of them were particularly good to my mind. The eau de vie was far better, but at 20 euros for the smallest of not small bottles, we couldn't quite justify it. Doubtful even the mathematicians would be able to finish it off before we'd have to board our next flight. 

Tomorrow we're off to Carcassonne, which I'm exited about, though am probably setting my expectations too high. Still, we'll be seeing Rocamadour on the way, and that cliff-side village looks stunning from the pictures. Hopefully the weather will be cooperative and give us some nice views.
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