An opportunity to come face-to-face with some of the most beautiful and moving art created by man: “Lascaux IV”, the full-scale simulation of the famous prehistoric painted cave in the Dordogne region of France.
“Le Hotel de Cro-Magnon” The ironic name was reason enough for me to select this lodging. But it also had the advantage of location closest to the train station in the French town of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil. From the depot, I leapfrogged between the pools of shade under the old sycamore trees lining the Avenue de la Prehistorie, and by the time I shed my backpack at the antique reception desk I wore a glimmer of sweat. Veronique, the hotel owner, greeted me in beautifully accented English, then directed me to the staircase leading to my room on the second floor.
Le Hotel de Cro-Magnon dates to the mid -20th century (younger than the Cro-Magnon era 😉 ) retaining much of its vintage charm, and the wooden stairs squealed loudly as I made my way up. In the library room at the second-floor landing, glass cases displayed stone-age artifacts: spear points, knife blades, bone fragments. Faded black and white photos on the wall showed crews of young men, dressed in work clothes, taking a break from their work in the excavations.
A turn into the second-floor hallway revealed a fun surprise. A smooth expanse of limestone serves as one wall of the corridor. It is the face of the limestone cliff against which the hotel building had been constructed. The outdoors was indoors! In my room across the hall, I would be sleeping under the shelter of the palisade, as the inhabitants of this valley have done for more than 20,000 years.
I hadn’t noticed the cliff, obscured by the sycamores, during my short walk from the train station. Later, an exploratory stroll through this one-street town revealed that Les Eyzies was gathered in a lovely river valley, lush with trees and hemmed in by lofty limestone cliffs. An alleyway splits off from the main street and ascends to a
ledge in the rock face big enough to park a car. Farther along, the gap opens wider and multi-story buildings are built into the cliff, including The National Museum of Prehistory. This was my reason for coming to Les Eyzies. The region is dotted with caves where ancient man painted and etched beautiful artistic images onto the stone canvas. Visiting these caves and experiencing the ancient art first hand has been at the #1 spot on my bucket list for more than thirty years. I hoped to be one of a handful of lucky visitors to gain entrance tomorrow morning.
Le Grotte Font-de-Gaume is the only polychromatic Paleolithic decorated cave in France that is open for public visits (there are also a few monochromatic and etched caves open for tours). Entry is limited to only 52 persons per day for 45 minutes to protect the paintings from the detrimental impact of carbon dioxide from human respiration. The ticket office opens at 9:30, but the travel blogs advise arriving before 7:30 if you hope to get one of the coveted spots. Veronique recommended a 7:00 a.m. arrival, so the next morning I tiptoed down the stairs (cringing when I was betrayed by the loudly-squeaking step), out the front door of Le Hotel de Cro-Magnon, and onto the street in the pre-dawn darkness. I estimated that it would take me 30 minutes, including a coffee stop, to walk the 2 kilometers to Font-de-Gaume.
Ten minutes walk beyond the far edge of town I arrived at a modest building fronted by a patio where a small crowd chatted quietly in the morning chill. A seven-year-old girl greeted me with “Congratulations!” Today was the second morning that her family had queued at Font-de-Gaume ticket office. Yesterday they had arrived too late to get spots on the English-language tour, so they returned even earlier this morning. At 7:05 I sat down on the wooden bench, parking myself on seat number 18. This was the very practical method of allotting the limited number of tour spots. If you are sitting on a numbered seat, that is your place in line when the ticket office opens. No saving seats. No buying multiple tickets. By 7:30 all 52 of the numbered seats were occupied, and we lucky seat-holders spent the next two hours swapping travel stories, while latecomers arrived and turned away in disappointment.
With ticket in hand, I wandered into town to find something to eat before my 11:30 tour. By the time I walked back to the ticket office, the August sun was beating down and the temperature was rising. My tour group of 12 English-speakers gathered in front of the cave entrance, 500 yards up a shaded path, and waited quietly for our guide. We were surprisingly calm, considering we were about to embark on what would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most of us. I zipped up my jacket and followed our guide into the darkness.
In tight single-file we silently trod the smooth concrete path on the cave floor, illuminated by softly glowing lights. It seemed we walked a long time in twilight and silence without stopping, and I shivered a little from both the anticipation and the chilly air. And then the person in front of me stopped. “Come closer.” Our guide directed us to bunch up even tighter before he turned his lamp to the cave wall just next to us. It was hard to see at first, but his laser pointer helped us to recognize the faded painting on the cave wall. The hump. The shaggy hair. The curved tusks. A mammoth?! I was having a hard time processing this: I’m deep inside a cold dark cave in a lovely pastoral valley in France on a blistering August day in 2018, and inches in front of me is a painting, made 20,000 years ago, by some caveman, of a mammoth?! And it was a darn good likeness! No doubt about the subject. In fact, the composition included several mammoth and horses and deer, superimposed over each other.
We could not linger, so we moved quickly but carefully farther along the passage. This part of the cave was narrow, and touching the walls, even accidentally brushing against them, was a grave transgression. Again we stopped and bunched up tightly in a double row. We did not need the laser pointer to make out the five beautiful bison painted in red and black on the cave wall just a half-meter in front of our noses. Four bison in a single-file line, with the center two facing each other, were each roughly one foot tall and wide. The colors were rich and the art was subtly shaded to give each creature dimension and life. Although the art of Font de Gaume cave was first recognized in 1901, this panel wasn’t discovered until 1966, by scientists who were cleaning calcite accumulations off the cave walls. The colors here, on this ‘cleaned’ panel, were more vivid than in the other art we had seen, and that somehow made me feel more closely connected to the artist who painted this scene many thousand years ago.
In the remainder of our 45 minutes inside the cave we continued to explore the main passage and a side gallery. The census of painted and etched animals included reindeer, horse, wolf, cat, and rhinoceros. We retraced our steps and too soon found ourselves back in the sunshine of the 21st century. I had seen so much during our short journey that the details swam together in a blur in my memory. Standing inside the cave had been incredible, but I also appreciated that the cave entrance and nearby landscape were the places where the prehistoric inhabitants spent most of their time. The entire valley was a prehistoric “site”. And I planned to see more. I didn’t have a lot of time to savor my Font-de-Gaume experience – I had a ticket for the Les Combarelles Cave tour at 2 pm, and it would take me almost an hour to walk there.
I ditched this morning’s jacket back at the hotel, and packed two water bottles in my day pack in anticipation of the mid-afternoon walk to Les Combarelles Cave. I arrived, hot and sweaty, at the unremarkable gravel parking lot and humble guard house about ten minutes before the tour start time. Only five tourists were gathered in front of the large, shady cave entrance at the base of the cliff, and I completed our group of six, the maximum capacity on this tour. Our guide fetched a jacket for me to borrow, and then unlocked the gate at the cave entrance.
Les Combarelles Cave is important for its large assemblage of etched images of prehistoric fauna, but there are only a few pigmented images here. The art is estimated to be roughly 12,000 years old, and this cave was important in archaeology for its role in confirming the antiquity of the sites in this region. Horses, auroch, bear, and a lion are among the animals represented on the cave walls. But portable objects, like an engraved bone spatula and engraved tools were also found inside the cave.
This cave is a long, narrow, twisting tunnel and the air inside was damp and cold. During our journey through the cave, our guide switched the lights on and off as we passed through each chamber and everything ahead and behind was darkness. It was mind-boggling to think about the ancient artists who penetrated deep into this cave led by the flickering flames of tallow lamps. Did the artist deliberately exploit this pulsing light to animate his subjects? An engraved lion has multiple iterations of its legs carved into the cave wall. Our guide wags her flashlight beam across it quickly, and the light catches in each groove in sequence, like in a flipbook. The legs appear to be moving. The first GIF animation. How magical this must been to these ancient people. I can feel the energy in this place.
It took longer than I expected to retrace our steps back to the cave entrance, and claustrophobia began to nibble at my mind. But as we approached the literal “light at the end of the tunnel”, I started to think ahead to my next move, my ultimate goal: Lascaux.
There is no train or bus from Les Eyzies to Lascaux. A taxi would be $40 each way, so I had opened myself to the possibility of bumming a ride. After spending an hour in very close proximity with 5 English-speaking strangers, I felt that we had developed a hint of intimacy. So I addressed our small group, “I am looking for a ride to Lascaux”.
And that is how a new friendship was born. Patricia, a solo traveler from Arkansas, was my ride and companion for the next four days, and she is now my friend. We went online and booked tickets for tomorrow’s tour at Lascaux IV, and agreed on a time for her to pick me up at Le Hotel de Cro-Magnon.
The next morning, I worried that I would feel cheated at having to settle for a visit to the simulation of the 19,000-year-old artwork at Lascaux, instead of seeing the “real” cave. But, as our guide, Christian, led us through the dimly lit entrance, I gasped in amazement. Directly ahead, the painted image of a tawny horse with a shaggy black mane stretched across the cave wall. A few steps to the right, the rump of another horse bulged on the uneven surface. On the craggy ceiling above my head, the elegantly outlined bulls, with horns curving to deadly points, felt both massive and weightless at the same time. A herd of horses ran in the foreground, their coats shaded in red and black. And there, behind a bull, a red lion slinked.
We followed Christian into the winding narrow passage of the cave, through the spaces named “the Nave”, “the Chamber of Felines”, and beyond. The painted subjects included bear, rhinoceros, deer with crazily-branched antlers, and other animals of the Paleolithic world.
We spoke in hushed voices as we took turns stepping close to see the outline of a horse, etched into the friable rock wall. The multiple strokes and retracings hinted at the horse’s movement. A bull watched us warily, his eye seemingly animated by the natural hole in the rock on which it was painted.
So, what did I think of my “fake” experience? It was fantastic! Lascaux IV is situated in the same wooded countryside as the original cave, near the village of Montignac, France. Our trip back in time began when Christian guided us through the modern landscape of the visitor center and out to the tree-covered hillside above. In this setting, four teenage boys discovered the cave entrance in 1940. From our elevated vantage point, we looked out over the pastoral Vezere valley, and easily imagined the landscape of 19,000 year ago, where aurochs, deer, and bison once roamed.
We left the blazing August sunshine and descended to the lower level, gathering in the shadow of the building. Back inside, our eyes gradually adapted to the semi-darkness. We followed Christian to an unmarked door, where he stopped and turned to us. Then, in a hoarse whisper he asked “are you ready?” and slowly opened the door.
My brain easily slid into the fantasy. I was standing in a cave. The air was cool, and slightly humid. To my left, and up high, some light filtered through a rough hole, the small entrance that the French teens had squeezed through in 1940. As my eyes adapted to the dim light, the image of a horse’s head materialized on the coarse wall in front of me.
Of course I knew that I wasn’t in a real cave. I could see the smoothly paved floor beneath my feet. Hidden lights gently illuminated the walkway and highlighted the art. I could see the other tour groups thirty yards ahead and behind us. But I chose to ignore those facts and fully embrace the illusion. Touring the simulation had some advantages over visiting the original cave. I could focus on the art, and admire the workmanship and the composition. I didn’t need to think about unseen hazards or worry about accidentally brushing against the paintings. The art was lighted in a way that allowed us to see entire panels, rather than the spot of a flashlight beam. And, the art was clean, and possibly brighter than the art in the real cave which had been obscured by mineral deposits (and invasive mold since the influx of a half million tourists in the 20th century). In the reproduction cave, I felt relaxed and it was easy to focus on the art, and daydream a little bit about its makers.
I thought about the artist who created these paintings. He was observant, patient, talented. He understood the muscles, movements, and habits of the animals that inhabited his world. Did he hear the labored breath of the deer that swam across the river, with just their heads above the surface? Did he conceal himself as he watched the lion stalking its prey? Did he feel a chill of fear as the cave bear, with curving claws, came to life in his painting? Did he know the red cow who birthed her calf this summer?
Standing in the Hall of the Bulls sent a shiver through me. What was it about this art that is so moving? I’ve visited prestigious art galleries and I’ve viewed countless expertly-depicted wildlife dramas. I live in Seville, a city filled with sacred art in cathedrals and churches, and dripping with silver and gold. But, none of those experiences elicited the visceral twinge provoked by coming face-to-face with these masterful artistic compositions deep in a shadowy cave. The artist stood here, on the same hillside where I am standing now, and with careful dabs and puffs of breath, brought the cold stone surface to life. He was intelligent. He created tools and processed pigment: oil lamps, blow pipes from animal bone, minerals powdered and mixed with water. He appreciated beauty and planned his compositions. He had a purpose. My feeling of awe multiplied when I considered that these images were created by human hands 19,000 years ago!
It took us about an hour to travel 19,000 years back in time. As we rounded a turn in the passageway our tour came to an end. We found ourselves in a large auditorium, where exhibits of selected cave details gave us a second chance to admire the art and take photos. The “cave” we had just exited is part of the new Lascaux International Center for Parietal (Cave) Art, popularly known as “Lascaux IV”. It was created using the newest technologies and techniques to give the look and feel of being inside the actual cave. (There are dozens of websites that do an excellent job detailing the history, science, and art of Lascaux Cave. So follow any of the links at the end of this post to read and see more about Lascaux and Lascaux IV.)
I explored the exhibits in the auditorium and snapped a couple of selfies (no photography is allowed inside the reproduction cave). The Center has a theater and
other interactive exhibits, but our schedule demanded that we hit the road, so I will save those for my next visit.
Visiting Lascaux cave had been at the top of my bucket list for decades, largely because I wanted to experience being in the presence of this 19,000-year-old art. My visit to Lascaux IV did not disappoint. People sometimes ask me, “What was the best thing about your trip?” It’s a ridiculous question, of course, but when pressed I name my visit to Lascaux IV.
“Bucket lists” and rosters of “best things”. They should be used in moderation, lest they become the ends, instead of the means. My three days in the Dordogne region was a rich tapestry of experiences: authentic caves, warm French pastries, and a new friend; astounding art, the warmth of the sun after the chill of underground, the coolness of the shade after a long hot trek, and a squeaky stair. The whole was more than the sum of the parts.
My duty as a traveler, as instructed by poet Mary Oliver: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” I’ve paid attention. I’ve been astonished. This blog is my telling about it. Thanks for listening.