Thursday, 30 January 2014

Of caves and Prehistoric art

2013 has been, for us, the year we discovered France. Not that we had never been there before, but we had only visited Paris until last year when we finally took our time to explore a bit of the countryside, especially in the south.

France is an amazing country and not only for its wines and good food (oh yes we love them!!) but because it is also extraordinarily rich in history and art. Other than the myriad of castles spread all over the country (check out our post about some of them) there are plenty of interesting attractions. Above all of them, the prehistoric caves we visited during our 2 weeks on the road in the southern part of the country have left special memories in our hearts.

Have you ever heard about Lascaux? If the answer is yes, well, forget about them. The original cave is not accessible and the only thing you can visit is a reconstruction (Lascaux II). It may be interesting but we preferred to go for some real ones: Font de Gaume and Les Combarelles, both in Dordogne and very close to Sarlat-le-Caneda and Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. Both these caves are beautifully decorated with drawings that date back up to 17.000 (Font de Gaume) and 13.000 (Combarelles) years ago, when the area was inhabited by the Cro-Magnon people. The caves had been well known by the locals for a few centuries (people that have often degraded the drawings by leaving on them their inscriptions and graffiti) but, surprisingly, the acknowledgement of cave paintings as art and the consequential recognition of these places as national monument is something that happened just at the beginning of last century.

The atmosphere of these caves is really special. The drawings, mainly animal figures (horses, bisons, mammoths, bears etc) and geometric forms, are of great quality especially considering their age. They were done using mainly iron oxide for the red colour & manganese for black.
It is really a shame that we can not share with you the images (not surprisingly, taking pictures is not allowed).

We had visited other caves in the past and also encountered signs of Prehistoric men passage in the Grutas de Loltun in Mexico, but nothing of a similar artistic level than those visited in France.

                                                      Grutas de Loltun (Yucatan) - negative hands.

The whole experience of being in tight, deep and dark tunnels to explore the expression of these ancient artists was so strong and touching that we decided to visit more caves.

Luckily enough, the Grotte of Pech Merle was having a special winter opening exactly when we were passing through the area. The cave is quite big and other than drawings and paintings there are also traces such as human and bear footprints. One of the most impressing murals we have seen during our trip is located here; the dotted horses. Here drawings are even older than in Font De Gaume, dating back to around 20.000 years ago. We need to thank some sliding rocks that blocked the entrance around 10.000 years ago, during Ice Age, making the cave much more difficult to access, for the excellent state of conservation.

The Grotte de Niaux was a different experience and somehow more extreme. As there is no artificial lighting inside, you need to bring torches with you on the 800mt walk (not even a third of the 3km whole length of the cave). It's big, spacious and silent. The range of animals is slightly more varied including ibex.
The young guide was extremely knowledgeable and helpful; she even managed to get us an appointment for the day after to visit the Grotte de Bedeilhac, that should have been closed, according to our guidebook. Once there, we were taken in by Rene' Gailli, 87 years old historian of Italian origins that has directed the site for the last 60 years and probably knows the cave better than his house! A special guide indeed (and an amusing character), that showed us the peculiarity of this cave, characterized by the extensive variety of artifacts; not only drawings and paintings but also engravings and bas-reliefs. The cave in itself is also spectacular from a geological point of view, with its beautiful stalactites and stalagmites, some of them creating huge columns.

The dating of all these artistic works as you may imagine was not easy. Some have been investigated with radiocarbon through the calcite deposit that has stratified during the millenniums over the drawings but a lot of them have just been dated by comparison with similar subjects in other caves as there was no organic matter to work on.

                                                 Picture from the book `The Font the Game Cave`

A lot of the caves containing Prehistoric art (not only the French ones) were closed to the public in the 70s due to the damages caused by the human presence. Those still open often have limited number of people allowed in per day. So during high season it is preferred to book in advance. On the other hand lot of them may be closed during low season so we suggest you to plan your visit in advance.

If this post sounded interesting, we'd you suggest to watch Werner Herzog's documentary `Cave of forgotten dreams`, about a cave in Provence that is not accessible to visitors, to have a clearer idea of what we are talking about.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

French fairy tales

If any serious fairy tale has a castle, then France is ditto a fairy tales place, considering the ridiculous amount of Chateaux within the country. And if a lack of knowledge had made us think that they were merely located on the Loire banks or used as accommodations by the wealthy wine producers of Bordeaux, a 2 weeks trip on the road in Southern France proved us completely wrong.

We encountered plenty of castles of various ages and architectural styles; some of them were closed as December is low season but we still managed to visit most of them and were lucky enough to have guides all by ourselves giving us private tours! 

We started form the Perigord Vert and the Chateau de Bourdeilles, which is itself a double castle, including a medieval building and a Renaissance one, both very well preserved and accessible for a €7 per head.

The medieval part is of course much more austere, while the Renaissance building has still plenty of decoration, furnishings from various ages, tapestries and frescoes.

Second stop on our `castle-raid` was Chateau de Puyguilhem. This has been built in the XVI century and it was influenced in its elegant Renaissance style by the Loire Valley chateaux.
The castle is approachable via a pedestrian avenue, surrounded by trees, that opens up the view on the distinguished architecture of the building. At the time of our visit, this was romantically complemented by the  Autumn colours creating such a perfect natural painting that it didn't need any Photoshop adjustment.

The entrance fee of €5, included an intensive guided tour of the interiors with an extremely knowledgeable guide. Among the other things, he also explained us that most of the furniture normally found in castles are often not original since the lords, at the times, were using the castles as vacation houses and would have then sent the furniture with their bondage only a few weeks before their arrival.
The huge fireplaces were definitely one of the highlights of the tour.

New region and new castles. Once entered in Lot et Garonne, we visited the Castelnau-Bretenoux, a slightly  more ancient castle with a curious and quite troubled history. Built in the XIII as a fort with long defensive walls and a characteristic red garnet colour, due to the high iron dioxide content of the stones found on site, it was then left abandoned in the XVIII century to be then partly destroyed in a malicious fire in 1851.

It was eventually saved from disrepair in the XIX century by the eclectic opera singer Jean Moulierat.
He refurbished and decorated the apartments with furnishings from his collections.The singer, used to the theaters sets, fully expressed his extravaganza in this castle also adding a full collection of religious statues in the courtyard.


The entrance fee is €7.50, and includes the usual guided tour.

Still in Lot et Garonne, the Chateau de Montal is quite peculiar for being the only example of Renaissance style in this region and because its construction was commissioned by a woman, Jeanne de Balzac, after the death of her husband Amaury de Montal. The structure remains incomplete, with its 2 wings instead of the 4 with internal courtyard originally planned. Other than this, the building has a common story with the other castles of the area; left abandoned for a long time it was subject to thefts and vandalism especially on the exterior but then later bought and refurbished by a wealthy collector, Maurice Fenaille, in the XIX century.

 The interiors are extremely well kept, even because the castle has actually been used by Fenaille's descendants until very recently as a summer residence. Have a look at the stunning fireplaces and the elegantly stucco decorated staircase.

Montal was the last decorated castle of our trip.

A completely different experience was awaiting us at the Chateau de Penne. This is on an outcrop over the tiny medieval homonymous village. It is nothing more than a ruin and at the time of our visit it was under refurbishment so there isn't really that much to see other than the breathtaking view of the valley below. But it was the perfect spot for a little picnic.

The following 3 stops (Montsegur, Peyrepertuse and Queribus) can be easily grouped into the definition of ancient Cathar strongholds and have a very strong fortress like architectural style.
Montsegur is reachable through a steep path that climbs on a side of the outcrop.

No doubts, that the panorama and the kiss of that warm sun was worth the short hike!

Peyrepertuse and Queribus are very close and similar to each other and they are considered 2 of the 5 sons of Carcassonne (that we had visited during a separate trip earlier this year). The views from the top of the castles are astonishing; both beautifully perched on rocks overlooking the Maury AOC vineyards just at the feet of the Pyrenees.

But if castles are not your cup of tea, no worries at all! South of France has much more to offer.
Bear with us and we'll take you there to discover it!