May 27, Sarlat

Breakfast: see above; actually a step below the very small ladder that breakfast is judged on. No hint of espresso, though at least the milk was hot. Also, I’ve come to miss the large “dog food” bowls that we have at home for proper combinations of yogurt, fruit, and cereal. Impossible to do that here. And the fruit salad was, I think, just canned fruit cocktail. Also, while I’m fussing, the wi-fi is still down, and the folks at the front desk are totally blasé about it, like “I’m sure no one’s been here to fix it today.” This is reassuring?

So, today was the day of the Cave Paintings, the famous animal paintings by Cro-Magnon artists in the caves of southern France. Another dreary ride out on the bus, with nothing but the absolutely perfect French countryside to admire, the blissed-out blonde cows, the prancing goats, the occasional magpie zooming black and white between the perfectly-coiffeured green trees.

We went to two caves. The first was at Rouffignac, and we rode a little train right into the cave, and a young man was combination engineer and docent and disciplinarian—“don’t touch the side of the cave; no photos, please.” These were the deceptively-simple drawings, outlines of such absolute perfection that we were finally struck dumb in admiration—an unusual event for this articulate crowd. Our leader eloquently, without committing himself, discussed all the theories of when and how, and mostly, why, these paintings came to be. Dating can only be done from other fragments—of tools and oil lamps left in the caves.  What amazed me was that the animals were all fat and happy, literally. They were leaping about, no predators in sight, no sign of distress or hunger. I can’t help but think this means something. Also, there were just a few artists, and the work was done in a short period of time. Why did it stop? How skilled was the artist, who had to sprint into the cave, carrying his equipment, lovingly and expertly paint his oeuvre, then get out again before his little lamp burned up all its oil? I can’t begin to explain it, just my response, that I had expected to respond artistically to the works, but instead was emotionally overwhelmed. Most of the drawings were of mammoths, but I dearly loved the picture of the rhinoceros.

So then was time for a quick visit to the Musée National de Prehistorie in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. There were hordes of kids roaring about having a great time—one of the group’s teacher looked like a model for a Neanderthal, even smelled the part, I’m told. It was fun just to look around—the museum closed early that day, so I just wandered around getting photos, without studying each arrowhead and bone fragment. I was still high from the cave paintings.

Then, across the street to lunch at L’Hostellerie du Passeur. I’ve decided that the youngest, least senior member of the wait staff is routinely forced to deal with us. They’re always so extraordinarily baby-faced and cheerful, and patient with our American solecisms. There would surely be no reason for any senior staff member to want the miserable assignment of listening to bad French and tiresome dithering about wines while having to explain the most self-evident of dishes. But it was yummy. Three at my table shared a dish of duck rillettes, then on to the entrée, no starter, of a little potato tower with crenellations of green and snow peas, and a lovely piece of chicken breast in a delicious sauce. The leftover peas were passed around as a bonus course, then some fruitcake, actually a rather dry muffin with little speck of red something inside, sitting on a yummy raspberry sauce. Most points for the entrée.

Then off on the bus to cruise around the countryside, a drive-by the troglodyte village of Roque St. Christophe, and ending up in the tiny hamlet of St. Leon sur Vézère. This was just Too Cute even by our jaded standards, and I got lots of photos. The guide said many of the residents were just there in the summer, and lived most of the year in bigger cities. There was a definite aura of very old money, not just old old, about the place. The church of St. Leon was enchanting. It was 12th Century, and pretty much in its original, perfect state. It’s so rare to see a church that hasn’t been renovated in a hodge-podge of styles and eras that I really appreciated the chance to see what the original looked like. The WWI memorial in the church was another heart-breakingly long list of names, below a stonework square from, probably, a knight’s grave, showing a knight on horseback. It made a wonderful photo.

Then to the replica of the caves at Lascaux. The caves themselves, much harassed by carbon dioxide, introduced viruses, and general human abuse, were closed in the 1960s, and the replica was finally finished in the mid-80s. I can appreciate that they had to close the caves to protect them. Apparently, the replicas, while easier to restore, are subject to the same wear-and-tear problems as the originals. But there were just too many people in the group, not enough air, not enough light. And despite that, again, these drawings are utterly magical. Huge bulls dominated entire walls. Sprightly red cows gamboled about. One horse seemed to be jumping right across the cave roof. These, the more sophisticated drawings, are considerably older than at Rouffignac. But the animals here are just as rounded and happy and carefree. And here, there was one drawing of a human, a crude caricature stick figure with an enormous erection and a duck-like head, looking like an x-rated drawing from The Far Side comic strip. This does not advance figuring out the purpose of the art, but is good for a chuckle. But just find photos of the paintings to look at. My words are utterly useless—the magic and beauty is truly ineffable.

We got back in time to mutter darkly some more about the non-existant wi-fi, then wander around town in preparation for my major explore tomorrow morning. Then Teddy and Tom and I went back to Le Bistro d’Octroi for another dinner, something far grander than we had last night. Teddy and I had almost identical meals. We each had a white asparagus starter, with ground nuts, a skinny breadstick, vinaigrette, and other interesting bits. The entrée was a fish steak, with a dark, almost beef-like gravy, made important with mushrooms, two interesting little squares of puree, half a tomato, grilled, a tiny bowl of cooked lentils, and a creamy potato dish. Oh my, indeed, with a whole bottle of white wine. We had different desserts, but I got photos of all three. Mine was another of those innocuous-looking chocolate cupcakes that’s filled with molten hot fudge, with a few trimmings. We finished off with a glass of walnut wine, much better than it sounds. It pretty much finished us off, too, so Tom escorted us home. Actually, we spent most of the dinner passionately discussing the cave paintings, still unable to settle their purpose and meaning in our minds. It continues to seethe in my tired, slightly-tipsy, brain. I hope I dream about them tonight.

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