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Travel Southern France: Exploring Prehistoric Cave Paintings

Photo Credit: pase4 / Depositphotos.com

Deep inside Cro Magnon Caves in the South of France

“I’ll light this candle,” the guide explained, “so you’ll be able to see this as the artist did.”

The dim flame wavered as he crouched below a painting and held the candle close to the wall. In the flickering light, a huge, powerful beast is revealed on the rough surface. Its rounded haunch has dimension from a curve of rock, its nostrils flare and beady eyes stare, its ochre colour as vibrant as the bison itself must have been.

We’re in a narrow cave called Font-de-Gaume, near Les Eyzies in the Dordogne valley in the south west of France.

Les Eyzies in the Dordogne Valley

This is the cradle of pre-history, where 10,000 to 20,000 years ago Cro Magnon man celebrated the world around him with cave paintings. We are visiting three caves for a glimpse into the lives of our relatives from distant times as illustrated by their cave drawings.

On the climb up to the entrance of Font-de-Gaume, we’re told Cro Magnon man was not so different from us. If he was in a suit and got on a bus, you wouldn’t think twice about seeing him, the guide delightedly relays.

In the cave, one of the last in France with polychrome paintings still open to the public, we’re constantly admonished not to touch the walls or brush against the paintings. Many have deteriorated with age and some are marred by graffiti.

It’s dark and damp, but when the lights shine on a frieze, there are audible gasps of appreciation at the vitality, colours, and exactness of scale of the animals. Some outlines are engraved while others make use of the rocks’ curvatures to give dimension.Bison, reindeer, mammoths, and little black-brown horses are depicted along with a variety of undeciphered symbols. Some of the figures are quite static and others portray motion quite effectively. A favourite scene features two long-antlered reindeer-one licking the head of the other that is kneeling opposite, in a moving display of tenderness.After leaving the darkness of Font-de-Gaume, we meandered north along the Vézère River to Lascaux II, a cave near Montignac.

The images from Grotte de Lascaux are the classics of cave paintings – streams of ochre and black bison careening over a cave wall. The Lascaux paintings are the earliest known examples of representational art, a mind-boggling 17,000 years old.

Access to the originals is restricted as the cave was closed to the public in 1963 to protect paintings from deterioration caused by visitors’ body heat and breathing. Nearby, the French government built Lascaux II, a precise replication of two galleries of the original cave. The public can again browse the tableaux, moving along the walls to read the art like a comic strip detailing the story of a hunt.

In places, sections of the walls and ceiling are teeming with stampedes of animals-stags, horses, ibexes, and long-horned bulls. As stunning as the display is, it’s difficult to forget we aren’t in the original and the visit feels somewhat stilted. I want another “real” cave to visit.

We head for Grotte du Pech-Merle by the Dordogne’s little sister, the Lot River. Winding our way south is hardly a hardship, through towns perched precipitously on hilltops like golden-stoned Turenne or the pilgrim destination of Rocomadour.

With an abundance of truffles and foie gras producing geese, food in the region is elevated as only the French can, to almost impossible heights. Even small country restaurant menus have one or both of those luxurious ingredients prominently featured. Did our pre-historic relatives hunt truffles as well as bison?

The French pre-historian Abbé Breuil described Pech-Merle as “the Sistine Chapel of the Lot district, one of the most beautiful monuments in Palaeolithic pictorial art.”Only the sound of water, whose drips created the sculptural stalactites, stalagmites, and other freeform backdrops for the drawings, breaks the cave’s silence.

Friezes of horse, bison and mammoth in black charcoal outlines date from 16,000 years ago and there are red markings 20,000 years old. A wonderful painting uses a thin outcropping of rock shaped like a horse’s head to portray a spotted horse with a black mane.

Human handprints outlined in black are like signatures from another time. It’s a visual feast as we wind our way through caverns of surreal rock forms decorated with figures rich and varied.

The cave paintings provide an ephemeral connection to our prehistoric CroMagnon relatives.

The memory of that bison lit by candlelight in Font-de-Gaume almost makes me scan for thundering herds as I emerge from the cave’s darkness into the sunlight of modern France.

If you go to Cro Magnon Caves in South of France

Reservations are necessary to visit the prehistoric cave paintings.

Grotte de Font-de-Gaume, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, France Phone (+33) (0)5 53 06 86 00Lascaux II, Montignac, France Phone (+33) (0)5 53 35 50 10 www.culture.fr/culture/arcnat/lascaux/en Grotte de Pech-Merle, Cabrerets, France Phone (++33) (0)5 65 31 27 05


Karoline Cullen