The Three C’s of the Perigord
More on our exploration of the Dordogne…
CASTLES & CHATEAUS:
As I mentioned previously, there are countless castles and chateaus in this part of France — reputedly 1001. Though that sounds like a convenient number, I imagine it’s not far from the truth. We decided we needed to check out at least one of these grandiose residences that was near our gîte. The Chateau de Losse is a medieval fortress that sits on the Vézère River, the same one we made our canoe trip on earlier in the week. Originally built as a stronghold by the Losse family from Flanders in the 11th century, it was updated to the Renaissance style in the 16th century by Jean II de Losse, a well-connected soldier who served all the sons of Catherine de Medici. His improvements to the family home can be seen in the architectural additions as well as adaptations for the use of firearms such as muskets and cannons to defend it from invaders. As you might expect, you enter the castle over a bridge and through a gatehouse across a moat which is now filled with grass instead of water making it possible to view the castle’s exterior details from various angles. Once inside, you’re standing on a sprawling riverside terrace overlooking the Vézère Valley. Ascending a grand stone staircase, you are given a tour of a few of the main rooms which have been completely decorated with period furnishings, tapestries, and paintings to show how they may have looked over 400 years ago. Our guide did an excellent job of bringing the more interesting details to light even though her explanations were in French. One item was particularly clever — a large imposing powder and armor chest with a very ingenious locking system built into the underside of the lid. There is a very large iron key chained to the wall behind it, but the length of the chain does not allow it to reach the lock. That’s because there is actually an invisible, secret button on the lid that reveals the real lock to where the key can easily reach. Once open, there is an ornate, decorative cover that fits over the complicated locking system under the lid making it impossible for any observer to discern how it is designed. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have a clever safe like this at home? Surrounding the castle are a variety of immaculately groomed gardens which include grapevines, lavender, wisteria, and many other types of plants and flowers in purposefully orchestrated arrangements as well as several fountains. Additionally there are a couple of outbuildings that you can visit. My favorite was the the bath room (literally — no toilet) with its “modern” bathtub consisting of a large, round wooden tub with a small stool inside and encircled by a curtain that hung from the ceiling. Apparently, cleanliness had (finally!) become popular and you were really up with the times if you had one of these.
There are literally hundreds of caves in the Dordogne region. Known as grottes in French, they fall into two categories — those with cave paintings and those with geological formations. The most famous of these, of course, is the Lascaux cave just outside Montignac which was accidentally discovered in 1940 by 4 young boys while chasing after their dog, Robot. They planned to keep the discovery a secret but after just a couple of days, the whole town knew about it. They summoned their teacher who went down into the cave with them to investigate further. Astounded by the numerous colorful, artistic paintings of bison, horses, deer and other animals, the teacher decided the next step was to contact the local priest who had an interest in and knowledge of archaeology. The priest confirmed that the paintings were indeed ancient and brought it to the attention of the proper authorities. From that day forward, he was known as the “Pope of Prehistory”. One of the boys is still living, now 87 years old, and comes to Lascaux every year to celebrate the anniversary of the discovery.
Unfortunately, Lascaux had to be closed to the public in 1963. Thousands of people had visited the cave and the introduction of carbon dioxide caused the paintings to deteriorate. The cave continued to be visited by scientists who wanted to study it which prompted the installation of a cooling system and high-powered lights. This coupled with still too many visitors continued to cause damage to the paintings in the form of a black fungus. Now only one individual enters the cave for a few minutes each week to monitor climactic conditions and a few scientists are allowed in for a limited number of days each month.
Meanwhile, a plan was put into action to reproduce a good portion of the cave and its paintings thus providing a new opportunity for the public to experience them. Just a few meters from the real cave is an installation known as Lascaux II which opened in 1983. We’re not big fans of recreations, so we had not actually planned to visit this site. However, everything we read about it claimed that it was worth seeing so, as our time in the Dordogne was drawing to a close, we decided we should make a pilgrimage to see the ancient art of early man. We’re delighted that we did. We had a very informative guide with a humorous and engaging manner who took us through the cave explaining all the details and sharing many anecdotes. A master painter with several assistants spent six years recreating the artwork from the original cave using the same techniques, materials, & colors. It is such an exact reproduction that the margin of error is said to be only 5 millimeters. It is truly amazing to stand in the presence of such ancient work and realize how long ago man took time out from the daily necessities of life and began to create art — sophisticated 3-dimensional art that is creative and at the same time realistic. While it is impossible to determine the exact age of the paintings due to the fact that they were painted with minerals which can’t be dated, scientists can estimate the possible age of the artwork to be over 17,000 years old based on items that were found in the cave such as candles made of animal fat and other artifacts. There are many theories as to the meaning and purpose of the images. There is no way to know precisely what was intended. Like any other work of art, I think it’s really up to the viewer to interpret and appreciate it from his/her own point of view. We certainly did.
There is only one cave left where you can actually see original cave paintings. We were not able to fit it in this time, but Norman hopes to do it when we return. These caves are not designed for claustrophobes like me!
After our first canoeing experience on the Vézère, we decided we had to do it again on a scenic stretch of the Dordogne we had seen from our car earlier in the week. So we rented another canoe and set off on a 10-mile ride. One thing we find amusing about engaging in these types of activities here in France is how easy and casual it is. It’s very inexpensive compared to home at about $20 per person for 4-5 hours. They give you a life jacket, paddles, and an airtight container to keep your things dry, then lead you to a canoe. You get in and and they say, “Au revoir”. The whole process lasts 5 minutes. When we went kayaking in Ventura, it was 45 minutes before we got into the water with all the rules, precautionary advice, and instruction. Here it’s just “goodbye” and you’re gone! This time our route took us through an area filled with ancient hillside villages and imposing castles. The views were quite spectacular — really the best vantage point from which to appreciate the sights. We had a picnic with us and prepared to stop for lunch. We headed to a potential docking spot on the side of the river near La Roque Gageac we had visited previously. Unfortunately, Norman underestimated the depth of the river, so when he disembarked, he tipped the canoe and dumped us both into the water. More unfortunately, our iPhones ended up in the Dordogne with us and haven’t been the same since. Nevertheless, we found a better spot to dock the canoe, had our lunch with a beautiful view, dried out, and continued to the end of our journey. No regrets… Keeping in mind the phones are just stuff and the experience is much more valuable.
Whenever we get flustered about anything on our trip, we say to one another, “Relax. It’s a beautiful day. The sun is shining and you’re in France.” Can’t complain about that!