SARA HAD RECENTLY perfected the art of “French laps.” This is a routine in which the athlete paddles up and down the length of the pool in an inflatable easy chair, a glass of pastis in the cupholder. With the days getting hotter, we were thirsty for more water sports. The pool, however, had turned strangely cloudy.
“Papa?” said Sara.
“Oui, ma fille?”
“Can we go canoeing instead?”
I resisted the urge to say, Are you nuts? I’m way too old for an extreme sport like canoeing! The truth is, I wasn’t too old, just slightly nervous about climbing into a plastic death trap and shoving it out to the middle of the Dordogne. I looked to Eileen for help.
“It sounds like fun, sweetie, as long as you and Sara do the paddling.”
“Papa,” said Sara, encouraged, “you’ve always wanted to see the Lascaux caves. This is the perfect time. We can visit the caves again, go canoeing at La Roque-Gageac, and have dinner at La Belle Étoile.”
If Sara could talk me into buying a house, a canoe trip was a piece of gâteau. She gave me that look that said she was ten years old again, and I surrendered.
The next morning was glorious and warm. We packed the rented Renault and headed east along the Dordogne River toward Sarlat-la-Canéda. This thriving town is Cave Central for visitors to France. It sits right in the middle of six major sites.
To the west of Sarlat is Font-de-Gaume, the last viewable cave with polychrome paintings. A little further west is the etching-filled Bara-Bahau, named for the sound that huge slabs of rock might have made when they fell from the ceiling thousands of years ago. To the northeast is Rouffignac, where visitors ride a small electric train along a half-mile corridor lined with paintings and etchings. To the north is Lascaux II, a faithful reproduction of the famous original. East of Sarlat is Padirac, technically not a cave but a gouffre, a deep abyss. Padirac doesn’t have art, but its stalactites and stalagmites give it the majestic look of a prehistoric cathedral. Further away to the southwest lies Pech Merle, with its paintings of spotted horses and its silhouettes of human hands. If you walked up and placed your hand over one of these silhouettes, you would find that even after 25,000 years your hand would perfectly match the size of a Cro-Magnon hand.
Today we were bound for Lascaux. As we drove, the landscape changed from rolling hills and vineyards to forests and rocky outcrops. Golden cliffs curved out over the road, undercut by the carving action of long-ago rivers. Near the tops of the cliffs we could see naturally occurring caves, some of which had been enlarged by human tribes.
I steered the car into the little town of Montignac, down to the Lascaux tourist office. We bought three tickets for the next English-speaking tour, and drove the few remaining miles to the cave.
Our tour group was about twenty people, mostly Dutch and British, along with we three Americans. The group stood in rapt attention as our guide set up the story.
“It was late in the summer of 1940. Marcel Ravidat, a local teenager, was walking with his dog through the woods, looking for buried treasure. Marcel turned and realized his dog was nowhere in sight. He searched frantically in every direction. Finally, he heard a muffled sound over by an old tree. There, stuck in a hole between its gnarled roots, was his frightened dog. He reached down and pulled him out.”
A small girl in a print dress muffled a gasp.
“The next day he returned to the hole with three of his friends, bringing a rope and a flashlight. They lowered the skinniest of the four into the hole. Down and down he went. As he touched bottom he switched on the light.
“There it was. The buried treasure. Not a cache of gold and silver, but a magnificent gallery of 16,000-year-old prehistoric paintings. When Picasso saw these, he just shook his head and said, ‘Nous n’avons rien inventé.’ We have invented nothing.”
Our guide went on to describe the materials the painters used to make these masterpieces. He pointed out the stumps of candles they brought for illumination, which historians later used to carbon-date the art. With a few waves of his flashlight, he showed how the animals appeared to thunder across the walls of the cave, the way they must have looked in the flickering light of the Cro-Magnons’ candles. He then led us through the remaining chambers, explaining the techniques, the tools, and possible meanings of the art.
At the end of the 50-minute tour, we were stunned into silence by the brilliance of our ancestors.
Our guide glanced left and right. “Any questions?”
A few seconds passed. Finally, the small girl in the print dress raised her hand.
The child, prodded by her parents, spoke in a trembling British accent.
“Whatever happened to the dog?”
Two bright orange canoes slipped quietly into the shallow green waters of the Dordogne River. Sara took one canoe while Eileen and I shared the other. Sunlight tap-danced on the water ahead. To the right the cliffs of La Roque-Gageac rose like a giant stone curtain. The current carried us effortlessly west toward Bordeaux. A sapphire dragonfly settled on Eileen’s hat, contrasting with the golden weave of the straw.
Sara had pulled ahead, and was now gazing up at the brooding fortress of Castelnaud, high in the hills on our left. Further up on the right another fortress came into view—Beynac, with its fairytale village tumbling down the cliffs to the river. During the Hundred Years’ War, Castelnaud was controlled by the English, while the French manned the battlements at Beynac.
What about these place names? Beynac, Lanzac, Bezenac, and Cazenac. Tursac, Plazac, Vézac, and Lupiac. Gignac, Payrignac, Verignac, and Groléjac. Why did so many towns in southwest France end in ac? We learned later that acum was a Celtic suffix that originally meant sanctuary. In the third century ac was added to the names of French landowners, whose chateaus would have been the safest places for travelers to rest.
With the light glancing low off the water, we decided two hours of paddling was probably enough for one day. We were hungry, and our sunburned limbs needed relief. We beached our canoes at Beynac, caught the shuttle back to La Roque-Gageac, and washed our feet in a cold outdoor shower. Slipping on our shoes, we walked along the river road to one of the best restaurants on the Dordogne, La Belle Étoile.
There are three great pleasures in life. Eating when you’re hungry. Falling asleep when you’re tired. And finding love when you’re lonely. We were about to partake of the first—made infinitely more pleasurable by the skill of a talented chef.
We sat on the second-floor terrace, an outdoor room bracketed by stone walls and shaded by a vine-covered trellis. In floated the distant squeals of children playing down on the riverbank, squeezing every last second of joy from the day.
The waiter handed out satin-covered menus with gold tassels.
“I keep thinking about those paintings,” I said. “All those beautiful animals, layered one over the other. Flowing across the walls, the ceilings, in constant motion. What was the point of all that?”
Sara looked up from her menu. “Maybe they used the cave for religious rituals. Or maybe they had to get psyched up for hunting. The flickering torches made the animals run, like a prehistoric movie. Maybe they sat around beating drums to make the sound of stampeding herds. The drums would echo off the walls like thundering hooves.”
“Well,” said Eileen, “imagine what it was like in the Vézère Valley 16,000 years ago.”
We leaned forward.
“You’re a small, weak, naked animal that looks like an hors d’eouvre to a lion or a wolf. You live in a cave because it’s safe, a sanctuary high on a cliff. Down below are huge herds—bison, reindeer, aurochs, woolly mammoths—flowing through the valley like a vast river. You can’t run as fast as a reindeer, and you couldn’t kill one by yourself even if you caught it. Your only real advantage is your brain. And your hands. What do you do with them?”
“You make tools,” I said.
“You make tools and weapons, and then you make a plan. You go down to the valley with your friends and surround a stray reindeer. You attack it with spears, then drag the carcass someplace where you can butcher it with stone knives. You carry the pieces back up the cliff, where you can eat the meat in safety for days, maybe weeks.”
“Avez-vous choisi?” said the waiter.
“Boy, am I hungry now,” said Sara, her eyes comic-book wide.
The waiter went around the table, taking our orders.
“Okay,” I said. “Hunting explains the weapons. But what about the art? Why raise your artistic sensibilities to the level of extreme beauty if the main goal is to knock off a few reindeer? Why not just draw some crude diagrams on the wall?
Eileen rolled her eyes. “Because they were human. Think about it. Hunting is how we live, but beauty is why we live. Would you want to go through life without art, or music, or movies, or stories?”
“Kill me now,” I said.
The waiter came with our starters. House-made fois gras with roasted figs and raisin toast for Eileen, eggs cocotte with langoustines and morel-infused cream for Sara, a charlotte of white asparagus and fresh goat cheese for me.
“This food,” said Eileen. “This is pretty fancy stuff. If the whole idea were only to keep your body alive, why bother making the taste of your food transcendent? If you could just get all your nutrients in a little gray pill, would you skip this meal and take the pill?”
“No way,” said Sara, pointing at the ramekin in front of her. “You should try this.” We each had a bite. Pure heaven.
“Tell me,” said Eileen. “How did you feel when you stood in front of those paintings—even knowing they were reproductions?”
I thought back to the morning. “I felt a sudden shock of recognition. I was standing face to face with my ancestors. Face to face and mind to mind. Time was suddenly collapsed, as if 16,000 years were crushed down to nothing. It was thrilling.”
“Exactly. You can read about prehistoric paintings, and look at pictures, but being in their presence—even their fake presence—is transformative. Your world telescopes both ways. You understand you’re part of a continuum.”
I stood up. “A toast.” We raised our glasses of blancs de blancs. “To food, beauty, and the transformative nature of France.”
The waiter swept our plates away and replaced them with the next course. Roasted cod with fresh pea and coconut-cream foam. Maigret de canard topped with a seared slab of foie gras. Pistachio-encrusted lamb chops and roasted potato cups filled with chive crème fraîche. Conversation ceased. We ate in silence, thinking about how much we accomplished and how much we learned. It almost didn’t matter that we had to leave France in three days. When our dessert of baba au rhum arrived, we were already full. But that didn’t stop us.
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