Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Friday, April 24, 2015 - Cave (Font de Gaume) and Castle (ruins of Chateau de Commarque)

Font de Gaume is a pre-historic cave about 15 miles from here.  It takes only a very limited number of people per day in order to preserve the cave's artwork. There are approximately 80 people allowed in each day and making reservations is impossible - they are booked through October. However, they only reserve about 30 places per day and the other tickets are first-come, first-served. Paul and Jeri told us that if we were to go early (as in 7:30 am) and wait in line for the ticket sales to open at 9:30, we could probably get tickets. So that's what we did today.
Talking with a French vacationer while waiting.
2 hours is a long time to wait for the ticket
office to open at Font de Gaume

Waiting in line was a bit chilly - gray and dampish, requiring our jackets. We were the first to arrive but only a few minutes later, a French woman from Nantes arrived. She was very friendly and spoke excellent English. As we talked, other people arrived and soon there was a small group of people waiting. By the time the Font de Gaume workers began to arrive, the little waiting area was full of people and we wondered if they would all get tickets. There was no line, no order to the group, but a couple minutes before 9:30 we formed a line and everyone found their chronological place in line, but one lady who was spoken to and sent to the end of the line. Amazingly polite, no jockeying for place.

We got tickets for an English tour at 11:15 and now had to fill our time until our tour time. We went into the town, Les Eyzies de Tayac looking for breakfast. We had brought our croissants with us and eaten them while waiting, but a cup of coffee would sure taste good. Oh, and a bathroom would likewise be welcome.
Les Eyzies de Tayac - history museum is under the cliff face.
Café de la Mairie where we had coffee and 2nd breakfast of croissants.

We found a café and ordered "café americain" - black coffee the way Americans drink it - and another croissant. A two croissant day, Clark was in heaven. Next we found the tourist office (across the street) and checked out things to see and do in the area. This area is dotted with caves and troglodyte dwellings from thousands of years ago. There's also a National Museum of Prehistory here which we'll save for a really rainy day. Today will be sunny and warm once the clouds lift.

We arrive at 11 for our tour and to my horror, but not to my surprise, we have to walk 600 meters (.4 mile) up a steep hill to get to the cave opening. But at the top, we find the nicest English guide who is incredibly knowledgeable about all this prehistory stuff. Our tour provides a wealth of understanding for this period in pre-history and the art we're seeing.
Entrance to the cave at Font de Gaume. No photos allowed in the cave.

The cave itself, the part that we are allowed to see,  is only about 150 meters long (.1 mile) and in their efforts to allow ordinary people to see it, is very dimly lit. Of course, photos are not allowed. You get a feeling for what it must have been like to go into the cave with only a small oil lamp. And, our guide tells us, these caves were dwellings for bears and lions, so going into them would take bravery.  The cave is high and narrow, very impressive. There are paintings all along the walls, even those we can't see in the narrow walk in, so we must be very careful not to bump into the walls in this narrow (as in walking sideways) path into the deeper cave.  Even here, with these efforts to balance visitation with preservation, the paintings are slowly being eroded by our human visitations. As well, there is modern (hundred year old) graffiti over some of the paintings too as this cave, though undiscovered for its cave paintings until 1901, has always had an open entrance and therefore easy access for people.
Bison at Font de Gaume (picture of a picture)

In the main part of the cave, we see incredibly beautiful and emotive paintings of buffalo and deer showing a great respect for the animals. The walls are covered in them, some paintings more sophisticated than others suggesting perhaps multiple painters over multiple millennia. Details like eyes are engraved into the stone. Some paintings use multiple colors (called polychrome) and multiple painting techniques.
Deer at Font de Gaume (picture of picture)

We found Font de Gaume and Pech-Merle to be similar in the art with a higher level of sophistication in drawing and shading of the animals and greater emotive value in the designs of some of the friezes.

Well worth a visit if you can arrange it. Font de Gaume is likely to be closed to the public in the not too distant future due to the deterioration of the drawings from human exposure.

Out of the cave around noon, we discover that the day is sunny and warm, so Janis suggests we visit the nearby ruins of Château de Commarque. Our first ruined castle!  And they have a picnic area.

We park and head down a lovely wooded path that points us toward the castle. The never-ending path (really only about 500 meters, - .3 miles) leads downhill the entire way. It's a beautiful walk.
Lynn, Judy, Clark and Janis walking the path to Commarque from the parking lot

The picnic area is shady with yet another great view. We are surrounded by troglodyte caves, a private château and the ruins of Commarque.
Lunch at Commarque

We are provided an English guide book to help us understand the site. We first visit troglodyte dwellings that have been furnished so we can see how people might have lived.
Troglodyte kitchen

Troglodyte kitchen - used till end of middle ages, these caves had several rooms beside the kitchen - a sleeping room, a pantry, and stalls for the family's animals

Now we begin exploring the medieval site in earnest. This site began as an outpost to protect the Benedictine Abbey in Sarlat. It became a co-seignurie with as many as 6 families living in the fortified castle grounds. The major families were the original Commarques and the Beynacs. Rivalry and disputes over rights, taxes, religion and politics plagued the multiple-family stronghold. By the 16th century the stronghold was abandoned entirely.
Keep belonged to the most powerful of the families to live here.  One manor house can be seen in front. The gate and lower level of the chapel are on the far right.

In 1962, a Commarque descendant purchased the property and began clearing away the Sleeping Beauty-like covering of moss and trees from the property. Continuing archeology, restoration and reconstruction have made the site safe enough for tourists, although parts continue to be worksites.

Judy in front of the seigneurie

This site is unusual (at least to us) because beside the main castle building, there are several manor houses of various sizes attesting to the co-habitation of the site by several families.
view toward the keep

Ruins of  Commarque

Ruins of Commarque

So all in all, another lovely day of exploring this region - pre-history to middle ages. For those of you following the wine bottle fireplace, here's the latest:
Current state of the wine "mantel"

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