Day 14: Exploring Sarlat-la-Canéda & the Dordogne Valley
Start the day with a morning drive into the stunning Valley of the Dordogne to visit Lascaux II where the world-famous prehistoric cave paintings have been faithfully reproduced. Later, make your way to the beautiful town of Sarlat-la-Canéda, its medieval core blessed with fine historic golden limestone houses. Later, sample some of the local Dordogne specialties. Hotel: La Truffe Noire, Brive-La-Gaillarde. Buffet Breakfast.
Some time after leaving our hotel, we had an aborted comfort stop seemingly in the middle of nowhere, which included the bus parking essentially in the middle of the street, and then backing up somewhere, with Joyce commenting that they bus drivers seem to do stuff like that just cuz they’re bored. After taking pictures with Joyce for a couple minutes, I saw a market across the street and I resolved to go in and check for more of that ham wrapped boursin, but found none. Apparently Mark called us all back to the bus at the same instant I disappeared into the store, but I was only in there a couple minutes.
Next we arrived at Lascaux Cave, or at least that what I thought. So, I didn’t even know that we were doing anything like this on the trip. I didn’t read the itinerary before going, so it’s not like I’d been expecting to see the real thing for months and was only now disappointed. It was really only this day that I was excited to see fourteen century old rock art, and immediately disappointed to learn that we were only going to be seeing a meticulous recreation called Lascaux II.
I absolutely understand that they just can’t have tourists in the original. Apparently for quite some time a million people a year went through there and the moisture and bacterial they all brought with them began to degrade the site after centuries of being totally sealed up, which were irreversible moulding and calcification. Now only trained academics for scientific analysis are allowed in the original in special suits and breathers. I get all that, and I don’t begrudge in any way the necessity of this restriction.
This does not however, in any way mitigate the fundamental disappointment of seeing only a reproduction, meticulous as it may be. They apparently carefully recreated the shape of the cave exactly with cross sectional ribbing and using the exact same techniques to paint it by hand with original paints they would have used. It was still all so much simulacrum. We could build this just as perfectly recreated in Kelowna, or Disney World Orlando. No matter how close it was to the real site (apparently only a hundred meters) it was still just a reproduction which could have been constructed anywhere in the world.
(insert clip of data and picard) I’m sure I’m being too harsh, it’s just… well like when I was able to climb up onto the Roman ruin and feel it, to put my hand on the material which was worked and transported by men like me but so many centuries removed, there was magic, there was a connection there, I was feeling and touching the past instead of just seeing it. No matter how good Lascaux II cave is a reproduction, it’s not something I can engage with any better than I could a picture, or a scale model. Part of the magic of coming all this way out here is the physical reality of things, touching the Eiffel Tower, smelling the Seine, that sort of thing. A recreation is… well, just that.
Anyway, with that being said. The area was otherworldly, primordial even, the kind of place a Middle Ages movie would film a dream hunting sequence. It was green woods but foggy, not thick fog such that you couldn’t see right in front of you, but that eerie fog which prevents you from seeing very far, and keeps you on the edge between needing to be primordially afraid and not. Mark bought us tickets, and we were informed by signs that we were not allowed to take pictures. Of the freaking reproduction. Whatever man…
Our guide showed up, a younger tall woman whom Joyce later asked if she was an academic and had ever seen the original. She lamented that no, she was just an enthusiastic amateur as a registered tour guide, and had never seen the original though it was a lifelong dream of hers. I thought that sucked. I think that for people like her, super enthusiasts who are boosters and celebrators for and of the real thing… special exceptions should be able to be made.
Anyways, after waiting in line a little bit for the preceding group, we descended down a stairway, and through an airlock. The first room was artifacts in glass cages and maps of the original site. She, in a delightfully thick French accent, told us the story of how the cave had been found. Some teenaged boy in the forties fell into it chasing after his dog, then showed his two buddies and they explored it some before coming out and swearing a pact of secrecy which didn’t last twenty four hours. They called in the local priest who we learned later just happened to be an expert in caving, and it was he who realized what a special thing they had just found, and the cave became a thing.
In the next chamber she described how they actually did the painting. It was done by torch light for one which was remarkable. The whole thing being lit up by artificial light it was difficult to keep in mind that the original artists never would have been able to see the whole thing at a time, just whatever individual torches could reveal. She described how they would have made the individual colours, but of course I don’t remember these individual details. She described the application techniques, which ranged from finger and palm painting, to using rudimentary brushes, to putting their hands to the wall and spitting paint at it.
She also pointed out how many symbols there were which are believed to be proto written language. Soon after getting home, I happened to listen to a CBC Ideas podcast with a woman who is one of the few experts in the world on caves like this, with a particular focus on the language symbols. She curates a database of thousands from all over the world, and this particular cave (well, the original anyways) was mentioned in passing. That kind of serendipitous thing after you’ve come home is always cool.
We were then led into the actual ‘cave’. And yeah, it was cool. She pointed out with a flashlight to point things tout the skill of the artists, and the way (insert commercial pictures) one animal could form the part of a much larger animal. She also pointed out their use of perspective and certain animals superimposed ontop of others. Perspective wasn’t used again until the renaissance she pointed out. In the main chamber the animals all seemed to be herding around in a clockwise direction, and the bulges of the rock served as the bodies of the animals and that kind of thing. It was easy to imagine that the way they were painted, in flickering torch light, how they could appear to be moving the way they were superimposed on top of each other. An interesting note that the guide told us, is that they only drew animals they didn’t eat. Deer for example, their primary meat source, was conspicuously absent in the tableau.
I really tried to push aside my disappointment and have a magic moment, and a few times I was able to briefly. For a moment I was able to forget the simulacrum, the artificial lighting, and the tourists with me and transport back fourteen centuries to be with the original artists. In those brief moments, it was real and it was spectacular. In them, I was the artist so long ago, working alone on my tribe’s great project by torchlight.
We were then all stuffed into the far end of the cave and shown some other stuff, and then we were led out. I had been trying to take secret pictures with a spy camera app on my phone the same way I got the Sistine Chapel, and although I got a couple interesting pictures, didn’t have much luck.
This was apparently one of the things that really attracted Joyce to this trip, and she seemed to really enjoy it. I’m really happy for her that she didn’t share my disappointment and got a lot out of it. Maybe it was something to do with her knowing all along that it was a recreation, maybe there’s something different between us which makes that have less importance for her. In any case, I’m really glad she wasn’t disappointed and got full effect from the outing.
We exited through the gift shop as usual, and Joyce got a very nice book about it with history and great pictures (the real reason we’re not allowed to take pictures), and I got a nice souvenir coin. At some point I was horrified to realize that I didn’t have my wallet on me which included my credit cards and my passport, something which is always on my person when travelling. I turned out to have left it in yesterday’s pants at the hotel and I retrieved it when we got back, but I was dependent on Joyce for buying things the rest of the day.
Then it was back on the bus. I believe that the day we left Avignon we had another proper Insight bus. It was not the same Insight bus, but it was indeed an Insight bus and we were relieved of all of the problems with the broke dick bus we’d been stuck with before.
We were told that in apology for all of the bus issues, instead of being free for lunch at our next stop in Sarlat-la-Canéda after sampling some local specialites, we would be provided more of a lunch thing. So, this was… a place. Uhhh… can you tell I was getting a little bored at this point? It was a French town, and some guy met us where the bus dropped us off (I think there was another merry-go-round in the square where we were let off?) and led us with Mark through the old heritage society preserved Medieval downtown. Not much was told to us about the place, and most of what was said I didn’t pay much attention to since I was listening to a podcast in one ear, far different from previous trips when I would meticulously record with my phone everything said on these walking tours.
Joyce took a lot of pictures as we went through the place, including big oddly out of place looking black doors on this one particular building. I largely left the picture taking to her. There was a small statue of three geese together, this is a real hot spot for foie gras.
Eventually we wound up at some sort of restaurant and were led upstairs. Soon after I noticed a dead pigeon outside the window on top of the overhang above the entrance. A joke was made regarding how tonight or the previous or next night somebody besides Mark would or had had the pigeon at dinner. That is a thing you can have for dinner here. Why not?
We were given plenty of wine, which I was able to drink. Then, on pieces of bread we were given successively a sort of goose meat pâté, then foie gras itself also on bread, and then shavings of truffle on bread with a bit of truffle oil. The goose meat pâté I was able to eat just fine, though it wasn’t something I ever would make a point of eating on purpose. In fact I’d say the same thing about the truffle. It was edible, but not something I’d eat on purpose, certainly not at astronomical prices. The foie gras however… well, it didn’t taste like liver which I was concerned about since I don’t like liver, but it was a little nutty and a little melt in your mouth-y. I really don’t know how to describe the taste, but I didn’t finish it. I had two modest bites and felt like I had adequately tried it, and that was enough.
We were then given some sort of goat cheese I think on the same pieces of bread, and… well it tasted better than the dare based cheese at the winery earlier in the trip, but not so much better that I was able to eat it. I had a bite and that was enough.
I had Ruth, the woman who taught Justin Trudeau but wouldn’t vote for him on my left, the single younger American woman across from her, the couple from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania across from me, and on my right the couple who had been in that small restaurant with us when I had the steak frites. Ruth was talking with that side of me how travel was getting hard for her with all the walking she was having to do with her issues, and when Susan suggested how wonderful Las Vegas is, Joyce rolled her eyes and I did a little too. I’ve never been, but having done real travelling and not being a gambler it certainly doesn’t really appeal. On my right though, I was asked more about my books. I’m always reluctant to get into a conversation, but once I get going and sense I have a receptive audience I’m happy to talk about it.
I argued several of the premises about my book, the problem with the idea of superior global intelligence, a world with very few jobs, artificial intelligence, space flight… that kind of thing. At some point I became comfortable bringing up my military ambitions for the first time on the trip, which is funny because before the trip I was pleased to be able to say something more when asked what I do than I’m a line cook and failed writer. For some reason I was more comfortable sticking to that most of the time. But when I did talk about it they seemed interested, especially the woman on my right who apparently worked at the Australian equivalent of a royal military college as some sort of a civilian administrator and recounted how they had had some Canadian officer exchange student. We tried to remember the name of the Canadian royal military college and after I looked it up we remembered that it at Kingston. But I also looked up to be able to tell them where I would be going instead as a direct entry officer if I made it in, Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu in Québec (which I really need to learn how to properly say by the way). So I enjoyed that conversation, and being able to open up a bit more about my books and what greater ambitions I have.
Oh, and then we had dessert, which was, um… it looks like a bran muffin but it was something much better, with (lightly sweetened) whip cream and a sort of custard sauce. We were asked to help out Mark and bring umbrellas back to the bus even though we didn’t need them anymore, so I grabbed two of the last few. It took us a while to get out of the restaurant because there was only one bathroom, and Joyce had to wait for Carolinda. The door didn’t latch so Joyce held the door closed for her, and afterwards I had to hold the door closed for Joyce, but eventually we were able to leave.
I have an uncanny sense of direction so in situations like this Joyce just lets me lead us back to the bus, but we did see some interesting things along the way. I found a ‘Sarlat’ sticker with the three geese on it. We went into a candy shop just long enough to be descended on by the sales woman and offered free samples of whatever. It seemed a little sad. We were obviously well past the full tourist season, and it had been a rough tourist season as we understand it. A shop which advertised ‘Le Vrai Hot-Dog New-Yorkais’ amused me.
After this we took part in an optional excursion to a place called Collognes La Rouge, known for its red brick. From what I understand this area was largely cleared out in the mass exodus to the cities from the farms, but more recently there have been subsidies to get people to move back out here, as well as it becoming a favourite place for wealthy people around Europe to buy up some land and build a getaway for themselves amongst all of the abandoned old buildings in fields.
The country side was hella picturesque, lush green rolling hills kilometer after kilometer. If nothing else, France does rolling countryside with fields interspersed with patches of forest incredibly well. We walked down this little town, ornate and picturesque as anything else we’d seen. I love little details like the defibrillator in a classy wooden cabinet. Why? Because cause we are French. If we have to have this here, let’s at least do it right. There was a lot of plants growing over stone building and again, I just love that look.
After I’d gotten some ice cream (in a waffle cone this time, and just two scoops of mint chocolate), and getting bored again, I discovered my new favourite way of screwing with Joyce, casually inserting myself into her pictures. The first was the best, she’d trying to take a picture of a building, and my face creeps into frame with a casual ‘hey there, what’s up’ expression. When this got old I went back to taking pictures of her taking pictures.
We saw a little church and then were directed to a little café where Mark was buying us all cake and coffee. The walnut cake or tarte aux noix is apparently a local specialty and hot damn was it ever so incredibly good, especially topped with a scoop of gingerbread ice cream as it was. It was so good Joyce and I have resolved to learn how to make it for a dinner I’m going to put making some of the things we had in France. It was so popular everyone wanted it and they ran out, so we all got as couples one tarte aux noix and some fruit flan which was also really good, but no comparison to the tarte aux noix. We also both had cappuccinos, which had whip cream on them which is apparently a local flair.
The café had an outside seating area which had a small log roof covered in grape vines to provide a natural canopy. This is another thing that I just think is the coolest thing. I love plant life peacefully working with and decorating human built structure, it’s so harmonic.
Then we returned home. After being amused again by our ‘no molestar’ door hangar, we had to go out to lunch, and we picked the easy option just down the street. We wound up sitting beside Bob and Ruth again, and as we entered some couple from our group but which in particular I don’t remember warned us to be sure we ordered our burger well done if we had one, claiming that theirs was significantly undercooked. Well I did really happen to want a burger so I got one and the server asked how I’d like it done and I said well done. It came medium regardless. That was fine, I ate it without complaint because we are in France, and in France this is apparently how a well done burger is cooked. It was really good too, it was a bacon cheeseburger, and the fries were really good as was the dipping sauce I was given though dammit I just can’t remember what the flavour was. I believe it was tangy, but… perhaps in a peppers kind of way?
At my suggestion Joyce had the four cheese stuffed gorgonzola pasta. I really wanted to try it, and it was very good as I suspected, but I didn’t want just that for myself as I was committed to the burger. It was a smallish portion which Joyce was quite happy with and enjoyed it very much. We had beers with dinner, 50cl 1664 I believe. We talked with Bob and Ruth a bit, but kept to ourselves a lot. We did talk about what we do with all of our pictures, and Ruth suggested a picture book printing website and warned us off another. I of course remember what neither of them were now.
After that we briefly went to the Carre-Four I’d seen the bags of wine just to poke around an alien grocery store, and then went back to the hotel and soon went to bed early to try to catch up on some sleep. Actually… I believe it was this second night in Brive that I had to battle that shower now that I think about it. Anyways, then bed.