When we’re on holiday one thing I really enjoy is watching a town wake up. This morning in Sarlat all the shops and cafes were busy preparing their establishments for the day. Tables and chairs were placed strategically in shady spots and decorated with wildflowers and colorful napkins displayed in crystal clear glasses. Pastel colored awnings were unrolled and pottery, soaps, and fancy jars of foie gras were placed on colorful wooden ladders decorated with geese.
On our way to Grotte du Peche Merle, we drove through the rural French countryside with small honey colored sandstone houses with pastel wooden shutters closed to keep out the summer sun. As the road wound up into the hilly farmland with huge bales of rolled hay, I began to feel drowsy and drifted off to sleep. “Whoa!” said David as the car rolled to a stop. My eyes popped open like shutters on a camera to reveal a beautiful field of sunflowers in full bloom. We took a moment to appreciate their beauty and drove on.
Grotte de Peche Merle is an authentic cave with prehistoric cave paintings. Our English speaking guide started the tour much the same way as Lascaux. “Let me say a few words. The artists who created the paintings 30,000 years ago were like us. They were settlers. They were intelligent like us and were not hairy as the movies portray them. Most importantly they did not live in caves.” What is different is the aanimals who lived here such as the saber toothed tiger and woolly mammoth.
Inside the cave was massive. In the first cavern was something quite peculiar. It was the root of a 300 year old tree protruding through the roof and extending to the floor, As we walked along through both wide and narrow passageways our guide pointed out the artwork. There were horses, bears, bison, and mammoths. In one cavern were perfectly preserved footprints from 30,000 years ago. Unfortunately we weren’t able to take photos.
On the walls of another cavern were horses and what looked like perfectly stenciled handprints. Art historians say the artist chewed charcoal and spit it out at their hand. Our guide who is an artist tried it and said it was an interesting technique but quite unpleasant.
We wondered how the cave was discovered and learned that in the 1920s, some teenagers found the small entrance hole. They stole some candles from the church and came back in the dark of night. They discovered the paintings and the cave opened to visitors in the 1930s.
This year the French government asked for studies to be done on the effects of visitors. It’s the big conservation question, our guide said. It’s an interesting dilemma. There is something special about being in the presence of 30,000′ year old cave paintings. Is it better to keep an authentic cave open so people can enjoy it, or close it like Lascaux and replicate it? As we left the cave, our guide said she sensed we had all been touched by what we had seen and we all truly were.
This week we thought we had seen the most scenic villages in the area, but there was one more: St. Cirq Lapopie. The approach to the village is stunning. Stone houses are built on different levels along a cliff all perched high above a meandering river. We parked at the highest point and walked down. People were looking in quaint locally owned shops, lining up for ice cream, or simply enjoying the view. A popular activity seemed to be dressing up for old fashioned photos and the line led right out the door.
Dinner tonight was in an outside cafe on the medieval square with a talented street performer behind us. Artists have their stands set up and we met a very nice artist named Celine who was selling the sweetest posters and cards (Facebook Mam Zelle Rouge). We have had a memorable time here in Sarlat. Tomorrow we head to Lyon.