Dazzled in the Dordogne

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

 

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It was not easy leaving Chinon, and we will definitely be returning someday…but our journey was moving further south to the Dordogne.  Which brings me to my first point…

Dordogne vs. Périgord.   Americans call this area the “Dordogne”…that is what travel books call it, that is what travel websites call it….and even Rick Steves calls it the Dordogne….so that must make it official, right?  Well,.. not really.  According to a few of my French sources, I learned that most French people refer to this area as the Périgord and not the “Dordogne”.   The Dordogne is the river that winds its way through the area, and “Dordogne” is the official name of the area’s Department that was created in March 1790 after the French Revolution.  But historically, going back hundreds and hundreds of years, this was a province and a natural region known as the Périgord.   However, for the sake of clarity, I will call it the Dordogne (but now you know the “real” name for the region).

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So, I’ll start by saying that this area has its own vibe and is quite different from anywhere else that we have visited in France.  For the lack of a better explanation, it feels and looks older than the rest of France….you could say that it is the Grandfather region–an old man in a cloak with a long white beard– as opposed to say the Côte d’Azur which is more like Grace Kelly with sunglasses and a strand of pearls.   That’s an awful description, but I think you get the point.  And to be honest, it IS a very old region that has seen a great deal of history.  People were living here over 20,000 years ago (we will get to that later) and much of the action seen in the Hundred Year’s War took place in this area, thus all of the fortified castles and towns.

For our stay in the Dordogne, we chose Le Domaine de la Millasserie a very quaint little B&B with only 4 guest rooms/cottages and in the middle of nowhere.   When we were choosing where to stay back in January, we were a bit worried that this place seemed very distant from anything and it would prove hard to find restaurants….Google maps made it seem very isolated.  But that was not the case at all.  We were only a 10 minute drive from towns and not far from many of the places we wanted to see.  Sometimes you have to trust your gut when choosing where to stay.

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The road leading to our B&B

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A photo from the B&B’s website which gives you an idea of how “in the country” we were. 

 

We didn’t arrive until 4PM…it was a 3-1/2 hour drive from Chinon, which took us more like 4-1/2 hours.  My navigatrix took us down some very small roads in the middle of farms and sunflower fields where I could only drive so fast….and of course, we stopped at a few Aires (see previous post).

 


One of our hosts was waiting to greet us and took us to straight to our room, which was very roomy, well-appointed and comfortable.  We wasted no time getting changed and taking a dip in the pool.

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Our lovely room

 

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The Pool…we were the only ones there

Travel Tip:  I have to pat myself on the back and say that of all the places we have stayed, they’ve all met or exceeded our expectations.   We pour over the internet to find just the right place to stay.  When we pick a house/hotel/B&B, our guidelines are: 1) ratings from several travel sites, 2) aesthetics and 3) location.  I suppose budget is in there somewhere, but for me, at least, it comes after the first 3.  So far, ratings have pretty much always been accurate, aesthetics are completely subjective–but I have very high standards, and the location is a combination of factors, such as distance from itinerary stops, convenience and whether you want the ocean view, the city view or seclusion, etc.  We rely heavily on Trip Advisor and we’ve used Homeaway for several apartments and houses in both the US and Europe and it has always served us well.

That evening for dinner, our hosts had already called in a reservation at a little bistro about 6 miles away in Trémolat, a tiny postcard-perfect village.  We sat outside at Le Bistrot De La Place, which in theory was lovely, but I was pretty much blinded by the sun for the entire dinner…the promises that the sun would soon go behind a roof line never came true.  But dinner was really delicious.   My entrée (what Americans call an appetizer) was really inventive…it was foie gras “sushi” with a fig compote.   For our plat, I had duck confit and Josette had pan fried perch in a butter sauce.  And dessert was a cassis sorbet on a chocolate cake and a citrus granita over lime gelato.

 

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Trémolat is all of 5 square miles and has a population of about 600.  There’s a church and a village hall, and then there is Le Vieux Logis, a boutique hotel in a 16th century priory (although I don’t know if Monks or Nuns lived there).  They run 3 of the restaurants in Trémolat, including the bistro that we dined at.  They also have a Michelin-star restaurant that we plan to visit on another evening.

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The Church in Trémolat

 

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We drove back to our B & B that evening and fell asleep pretty early…the wifi was so slow that uploading photos to my blog post was basically impossible.

The next morning, we walked to the main house for our first breakfast at La Millasserie.  The two men that run the B & B, Byrne and Alain, had everyone sit around a large round dining table where we were served coffee, fresh pastries, baguette, yogurts and ham.  As I have mentioned before, this is a very typical breakfast served in France, and what we encountered pretty much everywhere we stayed.   There was one other couple staying there that were from Guernsey, which is a island in the English Channel, quite close to France.  We chatted about where we were from and we spoke briefly about life under Trump….and then Byrne and Alain went over different itinerary options for the day.   We decided on touring a few towns and also seeing a winery.

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We had already pre-booked a tour of Lascaux 2, the 20,000 year old cave with the prehistoric paintings of horses and bulls that I’m sure you studied in a World History class.  We had somehow gotten in our heads that the tour was on Monday (the next day), but upon checking the tickets, we found out that our tour was set to start in one hour!!!!  We totally freaked out and started grabbing keys, phones, chargers and maps.  When we did a google map search, it said that the drive would take about 70 minutes, and the roads looked like they twisted and winded along the Vézère River the entire way.  Somehow, someway, we actually arrived at Lascaux just in the knick of time.

 

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Visiting Lascaux involves a few decisions.  First, you should know that the actual, original Lascaux cave is now closed to visitors.  So these days, you can choose between Lascaux 2, which is a recreation of part of the original and is just a few hundred yards away from the actual cave.  This exact copy (down to the millimeter) was completed and opened to the public in 1983.  Lascaux 3 was a traveling exhibit in 2012 that made stops throughout the world, and now there is a Lascaux 4 which is a massive, modern museum with not only a replica of the caves, but interactive exhibits and hand held tablets that help to explain cave art in a more broad sense.

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A photo from the internet showing the impressive Lascaux 4.  The original cave and Lascaux 2 are up the road at the top of the hill (to the upper right of this photo).

I have to admit that I didn’t give the choice between Lascaux 2 and 4 a whole lot of thought.  I knew that I wanted to go, but at the time, I left Josette to do the research.  I think if Lena (our 9 year old) was with us on this trip, we would have chosen Lascaux 4, because there is more to see and it’s not just another dry, boring tour (from her perspective…having gone on MANY dry, boring tours).  However, I thought it would be better to go to Lascaux 2 because it was literally feet from the original and would seem more authentic.

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Entry into Lascaux 2

I should mention that we were some of the first people to arrive for our 11:30 tour.  So we weren’t late at all.  You pass by the large Lascaux 4 on the way to Lascaux 2 and there is very little signage or clear direction on where to go.  Many of the people in our group parked at Lascaux 4 only to find out that they were in the wrong place.  So if you plan to visit…check out a map on google so you don’t make the same mistake.

I suppose before we talk about the cave art, I should tell you a brief synopsis of how the caves were discovered.  On September 8, 1940, 18 year-old Marcel Ravidat was walking on a hill outside of the village of Montignac with his dog Robot.  As they were walking, Robot got ahead and found a hole in the ground and went down to inspect it…as dogs do. Marcel became a little concerned when Robot didn’t come back out of the hole for a while…and he began whistling for Robot and saying “come here boy!”.   Eventually, the dog emerged and a curious Marcel started to throw rocks down the hole…which disappeared into what seemed to be rather deep space.  There was a well-known myth in this area about a hidden passage underground that led to a treasure…so you can imagine what Marcel must have been thinking.

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Robot the dog…who actually deserves the fame for finding Lascaux

Marcel decided that he would grab a few buddies and come back to the cave in a few days.  So four days later, Marcel returned with Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas.  They took turns sliding down a narrow shaft until they entered what would have been a dark, dank “room” with echoing walls.  One of the boys turned on a lantern and their jaws must have dropped when they looked up.

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While it wasn’t exactly a treasure chest full of gold and jewels, the boys knew that they had found something very special.  They made a pact then and there that they would tell no one about what they had discovered.  Fast forward just 4 days later…and 15 year old Jaques was knocking on the door of his teacher, Leon Laval, to tell him about the cave that they had found.  Mr. Laval went with the boys to see the paintings on the 18th of Spetember and immediatly contacted archaeologist Henri Breuil  who then came to authenticate the paintings.  Mr. Breuil was shocked beyond belief, calling the place the “Sistine Chapel of prehistoric times”.

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Marcel in the cave below one of the paintings.

 

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Marcel and Jaques with their former teacher Leon Laval (on left) and the archaeologist Henri Breuil (on the right). 
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The 4 discoverers of Lascaux

 

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Visitors venturing into the cave

After the end of World War II, in 1948, the Lascaux was opened up to the public.  Approximately 1,200 people were visiting the cave per day and just seven years later there was noticeable damage to the paintings.  Carbon Dioxide, heat, humidity and contaminants brought on visitor’s clothing were changing the cave’s atmosphere that had remained virtually intact for over 17,000 years!  Crystals and lichen began growing on the cave walls and in 1963, in an effort to stop the increasing destruction, the caves were closed to visitors.  A careful restoration to the paintings was completed and an air-monitoring system installed.   In the early 2000’s, a new air-conditioning system was installed and soon after white mold started developing all over the cave.  Scientists believe that workers may have stirred up the dormant mold on the cave floor.  At this time, the cave is closed to almost any entry….only one or two people are allowed a few times every few weeks to check the monitoring system.

I enjoyed our tour of Lascaux 2.  They only allow groups of about 20-25 people at a time.  They sell timed tickets, so you show up for your time-specific tour and there is no long line or awful wait as at some historic sites.   Before we approached the cave, the guide walked us up the hill to see the entrance to the original/actual cave that is now closed to visitors.   The guide gave a nice history of the site (some of which I just shared with you) as well as his own interpretation of what the art represents, how archaeologists think the paintings were created, and perhaps why they were created.   As there was no written history from 17,000-20,000 years ago, there is no wrong or right answer as to why the art was created.  Experts aren’t even sure if it was done contemporaneously or if figures were added every few hundred years…every few thousand years.  The ability to date it is murky because the material they used to draw contained no carbon.

There was a small, dark  “anteroom” at the bottom of the entrance stairs where they have a few exhibits (see the replica of a chiseled deer below) and the room also allows your pupils to adjust to the darkness.  Once we entered the cave, it was really jaw dropping.  You don’t even think about the fact that it is a replica….seeing the nearly 2,000 figures on the cave walls and ceiling really brought them to life.  You can see how the artists followed the surface of the cave to create the shapes of the animals…and the sheer size of some of the artwork was amazing.   As with Stonhenge, you start to wonder how pre-historic man was able to accomplish what he did….I wondered how they were able to reach the ceilings in such a tall, massive space.

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If you look carefully, you can find a deer-like creature with antlers and horns. 

 

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A very blurry contraband photo

One thing that I don’t quite understand is that no photography was allowed inside the cave.  Maybe they disallow photography for licensing purposes because I can’t imagine that photographs could damage the 30 year old replica art.  However, to be fair, it would be very hard to take good pictures without proper lighting and a tripod…the few “illegal” photos that I took were very poor and blurry (see above).

 

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Photo from the internet

 

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Photo from the internet

Lascaux 2 has been open since 1983 and seen millions of people pass through.  One of the reasons for building Lascoux 4, besides the huge advance in technology that has changed museum design, is the fact that Lascaux 2 may be further damaging the original cave.  The influx of cars, car exhaust and the combination of the built structures and the visitors to the hillside may have contributed to the ongoing damage to the original art.  Lascaux 4 was built at the bottom of the hill, close enough to allow the visitor to feel like they are at Lascaux, but far enough away to eliminate any negative effects on the nearly 20,000 year old cave.  In hindsight, I may have enjoyed visiting Lascaux 4 a little more.   Besides their own replica of the cave, they have re-created the exact temperature, the smell, the humidity and the sounds of the original.  There is even the sound of Marcel whistling out to Robot as you enter the cave.

Our day had actually only just begun.  Since we were already in Montignac and it was only lunch time, we took advantage of the situation and visited several more towns, climbed steep hills to visit castles and even toured an amazing garden.   All of which I will cover in Dordogne: Part Deux.

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