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February 6, 2002
Dordogne: Lascaux (Russell)

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Trick photography on the hills of Beynac

Our morning on February 6th was even lazier than the previous day.  It had rained off and on all night, and this morning it was still alternating between sunny blue skies and windy overcast skies.  Gail had woken up with a headache, so after breakfast in our room we amused ourselves with rest, books, and the PC until late morning.  During a break of clear weather, we took some time to explore the steep and windy cobblestone paths of Beynac.  Almost all of the galleries and shops were closed, but we did manage to find some (expensive) pastry snacks at the pātisserie, much to Joss' delight (we didn't know it at the time, but this snack ended up being our lunch).

In the early afternoon, we set off for Lascaux and some of the most famous prehistoric caves in the world.  It was an hour away; and as we needed to pass through Sarlat, Gail volunteered to drive (by now, she was an expert at getting to Sarlat).  By coincidence, Lascaux had just re-opened for the season on February 4th, and there was no need for advance reservations.

While La Grotte du Pech-Merle has the area's deepest caves (two kilometres underground) containing the oldest cave paintings (25,000 years), Lascaux remains much more famous.  Discovered in 1940 by four boys and a dog, the small caves of Lascaux contain the most numerous (more than 2,000) and largest drawings and paintings of animals.  The colors are more vivid -- one of the horses used three different colors.  Even more, the 17,000 year-old animals actually seem to be moving, as their depictions have been formed around the shapes of the rocks on which they were painted.

In 1963, authorities discovered that the traffic of 1,600 visitors per day was threatening to destroy the fragile and irreplaceable cave paintings, and Lascaux was closed to the public at large.  However, in 1983, after five years of work, they opened Lascaux II 200 metres down the road.  Lascaux II completely recreates the two galleries that contain 90% of the original's paintings and drawings, the salle des taureaux and the diverticule axial.  Using ferro-cement and stereophotogammetry, the caves have been uncannily reproduced, including the imperfections in the walls, the rock falls, and the same pigments and painting techniques that were employed 17,000 years ago.

As we walked through the two galleries, we were completely astounded, as much by the re-creation as by the caves and cave drawings themselves.  Except for the smooth floor, we would never have believed that we were touring a facsimile.  Our guided tour of about two dozen people was unfortunately conducted in French (with no English cheat sheet this time), but all four of us were mesmerized by what we saw (the largest animal painting -- that of a bull -- measures five and a half metres in length).

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Photographs are strictly forbidden in Lascaux II, and we didn't even try.
This is a professional photograph from the Salle des Taureaux.

After emerging from Lascaux II in the late afternoon, we immediately set off in search of food.  We had recalled seeing a rare Chinese restaurant back in Sarlat, and we spent a considerable amount of time driving up and down the one-way streets trying to find it again.  When we finally located it, we discovered that it is closed on Wednesdays.  (As Russell ruefully moaned, "How can the only Chinese restaurant around be closed on the day that the only Chinese person around wants to eat there?")

We finally settled for going back to Beynac and our room, where we hungrily (and restlessly) waited for our old standby, the Hostellerie Maleville, to re-open for dinner at 7:30.  After basically starving all day, we treated -- and gorged -- ourselves to an order of poulet verjus for four, the house specialty.  The World Trippers polished off ten pieces of chicken and a platter full of country potatoes... and still had room for ice cream.

Due to the inclement weather (and the fact that most of the sights are closed), we have decided to stay here for three nights instead of four; and tomorrow we will make the long drive back to Crest.  But tonight, we have enjoyed a wonderful finale to our last big excursion in France.

 

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