France - Dordogne - Cro Magnon Country
Jun 24, 2004
|Leaving the lovely Loire Valley behind, I travelled still further south to the Dordogne region, and still further back in time to prehistory. With the discovery of archaelogical sites containing cave art, tools, weapons and human remains dating back 100,000 years to Neanderthal man, the Dordogne is the most important prehistory area in France and Europe.
The Dordogne region is also renowned for its fine cuisine, which uses such delicacies as duck and goose liver foie gras, fresh walnuts and black truffles (the fungus kind, not chocolate!). Truffles are called "black diamond" in Dordogne, which relates to the price as a small thumbnail sized tinned truffle (they're harvested in winter, using pigs and dogs to sniff them out) cost €30! Thank God they're very powerful and a little goes a long way.
Perigueux, capital city of the Dordogne region, was founded more than 2,000 years ago. They not only have an "old town" district with cobbled alleys and houses from the Renaissance period, they also have a "really really really old town" district with remains and excavations of a village dating back to Gallo-Roman times.
Perigueux has 2 walking tours. The Medieval Renaissance tour covers the usual narrow cobbled streets and half-timbered houses. Included in this walking tour was the Saint Front Cathedral, of unique Romanesque Byzantine design and a multitude of rounded domes, an important stopping point for pilgrims on the road to Santiago-di-Compostella.
The Gallo-Roman tour includes the remains of a huge 1st century eliptical amphitheatre, tower remains of a temple built in the 2nd century, a few crumbling defense walls and arched portals from the 3rd century, and remains of a castle from the 4th century.
After a brief stay in Perigueux, I travelled a little southeast to Sarlat-la-Caneda. Also inhabited since Gallo-Roman times, Sarlat was continually ravaged during the Norman Invasions and the Hundred Years War because of its position between the kings of France and England. When peace finally reigned, a restoration program brought the town back to life. Adding in its gastronomical pleasures, Sarlat is now a very trendy tourist destination.
The tourists may be happy, but the poor little ducks and geese are shaking in their feathers as Sarlat seems to be the "foie gras" capital of France. Every second shop sells the stuff!
I had the good fortune of being in Sarlat on Saturday morning, when the whole town centre is transformed into a thriving outdoor market with vendors selling a wide range of items from clothing, shoes and handicrafts to fruits, vegetables, cheese, meats, pastries, fresh walnuts, walnut oil, sausages, tinned truffles, and foie gras of course.
The hostel in Sarlat, run by a wonderfully spinny French woman, was filled with Americans and Japanese. I got to speak English again for the first time in weeks! I quickly became friends with two young American girls, Claire and Thierra, presently in a Palaeo-Anthropological masters program in Arizona, stopping in Sarlat to visit nearby prehistory sites before heading to northern Spain to work on an archaelogical site for the summer. My "brainiac friends" as I fondly referred to them invited me to join them as they toured around the area, and I quickly agreed (even though they made me feel pathetically stupid) as they had a car which was a real luxury for touring the countryside.
The most famous caves, where evidence of prehistoric times is most concentrated, lie between Perigueux and Sarlat in the Vezere Valley. Remains of both Neanderthal man and Cro Magnon man have been found here.
The original Lascaux cave at Montignac, called the "Sistine Chapel of Prehistory", has cave paintings and engravings depicting oxen and horses created by Cro Magnon man over 17,000 years ago. The cave was discovered in 1940 by 4 boys out walking their dog. Unfortunately the original cave is no longer open to the public as carbon acids and vapors given off by tourists caused disease and deterioration of the frescoes. Lascaux II, which is open to the public, is an exact replica of the original main chamber where most of the cave paintings were found, taking 11 years to produce. It was very impressive, but less so knowing that it was not the real thing.
We also visited Font-de-Gaume Cave at Les Eyzies de Tayac, an original cave with 230 painted figures of bison, reindeer, rhinoceros, ibex and horses. This cave was discovered in 1922. It's amazing when you think that you're standing in the same spot where cavemen stood so many many years ago.
Our final visit was the "Cave of a Hundred Mammoths" at Rouffignac, another original cave. Instead of walking through the cave, this time we all hopped on a little tram which took us down to the painted chambers which were mainly of, you guessed it, mammoths! We also saw evidence of cave bear scratchings and nests (prehistoric animals, now extinct).
One can only wonder at what made Cro Magnon man wander so deep down into these subterranian passages, in the dark and cold, to produce these paintings and etchings. Perhaps my brainiac friends will eventually figure it out!
We finished off our tour by visiting a few medieval towns in the area. Strategically located during the Hundred Years War were Chateau de Beynac, perched high on a hill on the right bank of the river, and its rival perched on the left bank, Chateau de Castelnaud. You can only imagine the battles that went on across the river! The little town of Domme, also perched on a hill, had spectacular views of the Dordogne.
And that's about it for my tour through the Dordogne region. From cathedrals to chateaux to caves, I'm now moving on to something I never get tired of seeing ... red wine!!