Sunday, September 18, 2011
Doing Dordogne - Day Seven
Monday, September 12th
A fine mist was floating down from low-lying gray clouds this morning, and fog obscured the far side of the river and the hilltop behind the hotel. We ate a light breakfast in the hotel dining room: cafe au lait, granola, and a small glass of orange juice.
Looking across the road, we could see small trailers arriving and canopies being set up along both sides of the parking lot next to the river...a much smaller version of the St. Cyprian Sunday market day. Bill, Miriam, Jane and I spent a little while ambling up one side for a hundred yards and back down the other.
We bought three small 3" wheels of Rocamadour cheese for 60 cents each, one of goat-cheese and two of cow cheese, all of them very soft, almost gooey.
Stashing the cheese, a couple of long, skinny loaves of crusty bread, and a couple of bottles of wine in the car, we drove east along the riverside highway toward the town of Sarlat.
Sarlat is one of the towns of the Perigourd region known for pate-foi-gras, goose-liver-paste, considered a delicious delicacy. Miriam had read that somewhere near the middle of town was a statue of a goose, and she wanted her picture taken beside it, so we turned off the main road toward the old town center.
Passing along the cobbled street we saw many old houses and stores crowding up against narrow sidewalks. Before long I saw ahead a sign blocking all traffic, and an arrow to the left announcing a divertisement...in other words a detour. The left turn was the only option, and it led right past another permanent sign indicating that this road did not allow vehicular traffic. I had no choice. As I drove cautiously along very narrow streets and made several tight turns on the indicated detour I had to be very careful of herds of pedestrians, ambling along. Like flocks of sheep, they parted only slowly and reluctantly as the car crept past.
We came to an open square in the oldest part of town, where tourists and locals alike were shopping, walking, or sitting under large umbrellas in sidewalk cafes sipping coffee, heads turning to see the unexpected car passing through their exclusive domain. Still following the detour arrows, we completed our auto tour of the old town and found our way back to the main road, but never did spot the stone goose we had set out to find.
With Bill consulting his maps and navigating again, we drove south from Sarlat to the town of Domme. Here the town location was plainly chosen with defense in mind. It is high on a very steep sided bluff. A circuitous road climbs the slope at an angle, turning sharply at the top to pass through a massive stone gate in the walls of the bastide, or fortress.
Many of the streets were so narrow that the car would just barely fit between the walls of the stone houses on either side. The center of the town is flat, however, and we found a temporary parking place so that we could look around a bit. Just a block away one side of an airy, tree lined plaza ends at a stone balustrade with a 200 foot drop below. There was a spectacular view out across the valley of the Dordogne. I paused for a few minutes to listen to a Belgian musician playing a hammered dulcimer.
Back down the road from Domme, we traveled a short distance to the edge of the Dordogne River at Vitrac. Opening all of the car doors to enjoy the cool, gentle breeze we nibbled a leisurely lunch of crunchy french bread, Rocamadour cheese, crispy apples, and plastic cups of vin rose.
There is a put-in spot here, and you can rent a canoe or kayak to paddle or float for 15 km down the river to Beynac. I'd like to do that!
We continued our drive at 1:00 pm toward the grotto at Rouffignac to see some cave paintings. As we approached the town of Les Eyzies on the banks of the Moustier River we began to see tall sandstone cliffs, undercut by the river to make strange overhangs and narrow ledges. In many spots there were houses built beneath the overhanging rock and excavated back into the soft stone.
We saw many openings high up on the cliffs that had obviously been cut out from the stone, and probably occupied long ago. At several places it was clear that people long ago had sheltered in these sheer cliffs and caves by pulling up their possessions, food, and even livestock, and then pulling up the ladders to take refuge from marauders traveling up the river.
It was just an hour's drive to the cave at Rouffignac. We bought tickets for admission, and after a short wait joined others on a short walk into the wide, low mouth of the cavern.
There we climbed up and settled onto narrow padded benches facing forward on two small open railroad cars.
Our tour guide hopped on the front, and with a twist of the control lever started the electric engine train moving on the track along an ancient water-carved tunnel that descended gently into the darkness. A single bright bulb on the front lighted the tracks ahead and cast an indirect glow on the limestone walls around us, illuminating layers of strange, small bulbous formations that were suggestive of malformed growths of some exotic fungus.
On and on we traveled, deeper and deeper, while the tour guide kept up a continuous patter of facts about the cave, the formations, the early inhabitants....all in French, of course, which meant that I understood perhaps every twentieth or thirtieth word... not enough to construct any consistent meaning.
Far into the cave he pointed out places where cave bears had dug and scuffed out curved depressions as places to snooze away the cold winters. Nearby were lots and lots of parallel vertical marks on the walls where bears had stretched and scratched with their big claws.
Somewhat over 3 km from the entrance we came to the first prehistoric cave drawings. Here cro-magnon men from 15,000 years ago had scratched beautifully executed outlines of wooly mammoths into the stone walls of the cave.
Farther along we came to animal drawings on the wall, done not in charcoal, but with pieces of manganese dioxide, used like black chalk. There were horses, several rhinoceros outlined, and a whole parade of mammoths.
Continuing even farther we came to a wider place with a low flat ceiling that was covered with the dark outlines of mammoths, bison, horses, and ibex. One horse was amazingly lifelike, drawn full scale. Most of the beautiful profiles were two to three feet from head to tail.
We stayed for awhile, marveling at the detail and accuracy of the beautiful drawings, and wondering about what might have motivated people 15,000 years ago to venture so far into darkness and danger, their way lit only by the dim glow of primitive oil lamps to draw these mysterious outlines.
By the time the electric train had made the long ascending trip back to the mouth of the cave a full hour had past, and the cool air outside the cave felt warm by comparison.
We passed by a goose-farm on the way back, and stopped by the side of the road to watch as several hundred gray geese waddled over to the fence toward us. I guess they were expecting us to give each one of them their several-times-a-day force-feedings. I was happy to disappoint them!
As we waited to get together with Bill and Miriam, Tish, Robert, and Nancy for dinner we saw two colorful hot air balloons, drifting a few hundred feet above the river, glowing brightly in the late afternoon sunlight.