6 Day Perigord: Day 3: Past the Rock Shelters To The Cave

In which we step underground to see some wall paintings.

These are some reminiscences of days on the river in the Perigord region of France. I shall be mixing up stories from my first trip, eight years ago, to the trips we did last summer, about thirty trips in all. This entry is about the third day of the Perigord trip, where we go canoe past some famous landmarks and then visit an underground cave with ancient wall paintings.

The routine for the morning is much the same as yesterday. It will be much the same everyday! Today however we have to re-load the van with our luggage as we will be moving downstream to stay in Les Eyzies tonight. I explain to everyone that they have to be careful to keep the stuff they need for today separate. That includes the dry-bag to take on the canoe and any extra clothes they may need during the day. We will rendezvous with Paul and the Van at lunchtime and at the end of the days paddling. Just keep what you need to hand and not packed away.

In addition we have told the guests that we need to make as early a start on the river as we can. We have an appointment at the Font de Gaume cave this afternoon and it cannot be changed or re-arranged. The cave only accepts 160 visitors a day in small groups. I’d like to be on the water by 9.30. Everyone is OK with that.

So everything is loaded, including all our picnic gear, and we say goodbye to Roland and the Relais and drive down to Philipes place by the river in St. Leon. It’s too early for him to be there but we have previously arranged that it’s OK for us to fish out our own paddles and life-jackets and use the canoes that we left here yesterday.

Paul and I get everyone in the water and have a little bit of fun by trying to teach them how to ferry across the river by paddling upstream at an angle in such a way that the stern paddler keeps the angle (and doesn’t allow the boat to spin around) whilst the bow paddler paddles just enough so that the canoe neither drifts downstream or pushes upstream. In this way the canoe glides sideways across the river at which point you let the bow swing around to point downstream and you continue on your way on the far side of the river. This is a handy technique for crossing a river. We do it here because the left side of the river downstream from where we put in is very shallow and we need to be on the right side of the stream to get the deeper water and to avoid running aground. Everyone seems to manage the ferry fairly well and soon I’m the last on the water and I’m waving farewell to Paul and paddling off to catch everyone else up.

We are obviously the first people on the river today. This is good as it means we have every chance of seeing some wildlife. In particular we may see some mammals. Perhaps otters, or more probably nutria. They are tricky to see and you have to keep your eyes open and peer into the river banks and underneath the trees and bushes along the banks. Nutrias are seen more often; They keep swimming when spotted and seem averse to diving. Otters on the other hand will dive as soon as they know they’ve been seen. In addition nutrias have just one protuberance above the water, whilst an otter’s head can be see separately from its rear end!

After a short while the stream splits in two around an island. The river is high enough at the moment to contemplate going either side. On the left the river runs faster, but can lead you under some overhanging trees, so you’ll have to be careful to avoid them. The right side is obscured by the trees growing on the island and seems to be narrower. I like to encourage people to make their own decisions in places like this and so suggest that I’ll go left but why don’t they try the right side.

Some follow me but I’m pleased to see that  a couple are at least tying the right side. But I see that they change tack halfway down after the smaller island in front on the main island and cut through back to the left. When I’m downstream of the island I turn around in an eddy and wait for everyone to come through. I can see why they changed their mind as the right side is blocked by a fallen tree. That would have made a tricky obstacle to get past and could be dangerous. The tree has fallen since I was last here. I’ll have to try and remember in case it’s still here the next time.

The river bends around some large turns as it progresses down the valley and we have chances to look at the ferns growing in some undercuts in the cliffs. We pass the Paradise Camping ground and wave to a lone fisherman and a woman walking a dog. In a short while we come to a much larger undercut on the left where the river veers sharply right. I know that we have almost reached the famous La Roque Saint Christophe. First though we explore the undercut by going right underneath it. It’s almost a cave under there and covered in a roof of dripping vegetation. It seems to be mostly ferns, mosses and liverworts. They are incredibly green, but it’s dark under here and difficult to get a photograph, particularly as you have to keep the canoe from drifting too.

Inn-to-Inn Guided Canoe Trips: at Roque St. Christophe

The under-cliffs on the Vezere river, near Roque St. Christophe, Dordogne, France

Beyond the under-cliff is a rough place for landing and dis-embarking. Roque Saint Christophe is an interesting place and it has a museum too but as usual with places of interest along the river they have made no provision for visitors arriving by canoe. I arrive first, jump out and drag my boat over the sharp rocks to a safe place. I then help the others. It’s difficult has the rocks are sharp and slippery and it gets deep very quickly. Fortunately I help everyone out of the boats with no mishaps. Perhaps someone gets stung by the Stinging Nettles which are always prevalent here. I have forgotten to remind people. Now they know what it looks like. I assure them the tickling sensation with pass in a few moments. They are reassured that we have no Poison Ivy in Europe. I have to use a rope to tie the boats together as there is no room to pull all the boats onto the rocks. It looks a bit untidy.

Clambering up the muddy trail we suddenly find ourselves at the cafe by the parking for the museum. This cheers everyone up. I tell them where to go to get to the museum and the entrance to the ledges and we agree that an hour for the visit should suffice. Almost everyone decides to have a coffee first. As usual I wont be going with them. I’ve obviously been to each of these places many times before. Actually we don’t often get to stop over at this one as if we have a earlier booking at Font de Gaume we don’t have the time. In that case we have to make do with observing it from the canoes as we pass. Today though we do and I will have a pleasant hour minding my own business and may be taking a few photographs.

But let me describe what La Roque Saint Christophe is. It’s a cliff, and in this cliff are about seven grooves cut by the river exactly like the under cliffs we’ve seen on the river today but obviously cut thousands, if not millions, of years ago when the river was running at a different level. Or the land has moved up since the time they were cut. These grooves at one time would have had extensive ledges reaching out into the air. They’ve since fallen but a substantial ledge remains on these levels nonetheless. These undercuts have been used for human habitation for at least 25,000 years. In the cliffs is the evidence of more than 100 shelters. The cliffs were used for habitation up until the Middle Ages when I presume the security provided by defending the cliffs was useful when times got tough. I expect it was easier to live down in the valley during easy times. I’ve heard rumours that the cliffs and shelters were also used during the Second World War by resistance fighters. This I think is a bit dubious. It’s a well known site and I’m sure the valley is littered with a lot more remote and hidden caves and shelters which they could have used. It’s a nice thought though.

Of course because it’s been in continuous use for so long the evidence of Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon use has long been obliterated. That’s probably why today the cliffs and shelters have been preserved and, lets be honest, modelled, to reflect how the place would have been used four or five hundred years ago. The museum reflects that. I don’t think it’s any the worse for that and I think its well worth a look around for an hour or so. They have modelled some of the medieval machinery that may have been used but I’m surprised that they have not made more use of the post holes. Their are hundreds of square holes cut into the cliffs above the ledges which were used to support wooden beams which in turn supported leathers or other materials to provide additional shelter. I think they could make more use of these but possibly they are not allowed to do so.

Here’s another description.

Steps lead up to the original entrance of the fortress which was the only entrance into the town and therefore was an integral part of the town’s defence system. The entrance is narrow and has a look out post from which rocks etc could be thrown down at invaders. It also had a strong door and a drawbridge to further prevent attack.

The next section of the cave shows clearly how the caves were used as the basis for the buildings in the town. Holes were hacked into the rock to support beams which were then used to construct ceilings and roofs. The fronts of the houses were built in the traditional half-timbered style common in medieval times. Roofs were covered in flat stones called lauze. The cave walls have evidence of holes hacked out of the rock and used as storage areas and also stone ‘hooks’ were created which had rope threaded through them to tether animals.

The visit continues through 20 clearly marked parts of the town highlighting different areas such as the cowshed, the slaughterhouse and next to it the smoke-house (for preserving the meat), the church, the forge etc.

One section is a massive long area where the rock above overhangs a 275 meter long area and this natural shelter was the main part of the town. This is the biggest natural shelter in Europe and really is extraordinary. From here you can see below two of the other terraces which were also used for buildings. At its peak the town held hundreds of houses and about a thousand people.

Further along the Roque St Christophe various machines of construction have been built as replicas of the winches, scaffolding, cranes and capstan that would have been used in medieval times for building the town. Whilst I was visiting a guide was demonstrating, with the help of a number of willing volunteers, the use of the capstan to pull heavy loads. Apparently using this 10 people could drag loads of one to two tons!

Another key sight is the ‘great staircase’. This is hewn out of the stone and is one of the largest monolithic staircases in Europe. This staircase leads to the fifth and highest terrace and evidence of medieval war machines suggests this terrace was a key part of the town’s defences. From here rocks and stones were thrown down at enemies invading from below. Next to the staircase there is a room cut out from the rock that was used by the town’s warriors for shelter. Higher up there is another smaller hollow which was a lookout point.

An hour has past now and the guests return from ledges back to the boats. I start work untying them and getting everyone back on the water. It’s irritating how difficult this is in this spot. It would be great if they built a proper dock here. Which reminds me that that the medieval city did actually have a dock on the river and a castle overlooking it to protect it. Where is that now?
So we are off spinning on the river and almost immediately I slip my canoe into a narrow gap between the cliff and a huge fallen boulder. I discovered this little passageway several years ago but it always amuses me to go around it. There is only just enough room for a canoe and you have to do a sharp turn to the right inside. sometime I disappear from view by trying to nip in here unheeded but today I’m followed through.

It’s then time to appreciate the view of La Roque Saint Christophe from the river by paddling over to the right bank. You have to do this as they have thoughtlessly allowed the trees on the left bank to grow to maturity. At one time their was a small dock here so that canoeists could get out and look at the ledges. It’s too far to walk to the museum entrance from here though and the wooden ramp down to the water is now overgrown and unusable. They could cut the trees though to give a better view.

We have to bit a bit careful now though as the river speeds up as we get to the Moustier bridge. I advise that we should take the rightmost arch and have some fun as we rock through the waves right under the bridge and then have to turn sharp to avoid a overhanging branch. The river is skipping along on this section and we swing from one side of the river to another to follow the current and avoid the shallows. In fact I encourage everyone to move over to the right on the coming stretch and we might just be able to get a glimpse of Reignac. This is another medieval cliff dwelling in the Vezere valley. As usual their is no provision for stopping our canoes at a convenient access point and, as usual again, you can’t really see much because of the trees along the river bank. You can just get a glimpse. Which I suppose does make it more enticing. However I have never once visited this site. When you pass it on the road it looks a bit touristy and I think they’ve dressed it up to appear more than it is.

I’m probably wrong though as this is what wiki has to say.

Maison Forte de Reignac is perched above the Vezere river valley hugging the rock face. In an area well-known for prehistoric cave art, standsone of the most distinctive castles in France.
In French, this type of castle is known as a Chateau falaise, or cliff castle. The 14th-century Maison Forte de Reignac was constructed in a grotto that holds evidence of more than 20,000 years of human habitation. Additional construction occurred in the 16th century, but little has changed since then. Originally built as a secure defensible fortification from which the lord of the manor could watch over his property and protect it from raiders, the castle now sits quietly above the river valley offering grand views and a unique experience.

As one approaches the castle, it appears to be no bigger than a large house set in front of the cliff. Upon entering, it becomes apparent there is more to the castle than one would imagine. Underground vaults hold large rooms with period furniture. The great room contains a large fireplace and would be the place to entertain guests. The bedrooms of the lord and the lady are filled with furniture, tapestries, and paintings of the type that would have adorned these rooms over the centuries. The castle also has a chapel, a large armoury with typical weapons and armour on display, and it even has a small underground prison cell.

A stairway tucked deep inside the cliff provides access to more rooms perched high up on the cliff. This level offers a great view of the valley and is also home to the alchemist’s roost. Up here, the alchemist could conduct experiments away from the daily activities in the rooms below. This lofty perch also offered sentries a place to scan the countryside for danger and castle guards an excellent position from which to defend the castle.

A small museum in the castle displays prehistoric artefacts that were collected on the property over the years. A curio cabinet displays a hodgepodge of curiosities collected by explorers during the 16th and 17th centuries. Among the curiosities are a large stuffed bear and alligator, an ostrich egg, a variety of preserved fish, and many objects that these explorers would have found exotic.

Tucked into a side room on the ground floor is a fascinating but macabre exhibit that has recently been installed. This room contains instruments of torture that have been used by mankind throughout the centuries. The aim of this exhibit is to make the public aware of the horrible methods of torture that people have devised and the cruelties that people have carried out. It aims to remind us that these cruelties are still being carried out in parts of the world today.

From the river it does look impressive. I should pay a visit one day.

In a little while the Madeleine bridge is reached and just beyond it is the Tursac rest-area where we will have our lunch. The approach to the access ramp is a bit tricky as the river is flowing fast on the right and is shallow on the left which is the side we want to be, The trick is to go down the right and then swing in by doing a ferry to get to the left side. The difficulty is attempting to do this without being swept downstream. I go first in an attempt to show how it should be done and also so that I can beach my boat and then be prepared to catch anyone who is in danger of being swept past. Today everybody makes the turn with no problems and I just have to help some get out the canoes and then slide the boats so they are tidy. I don’t like to leave the ramp blocked just in case anyone else comes down the river and wants to use the same picnic spot.
This picnic spot is quite new anyway. It’s been extensively landscaped and fitted with several huge picnic tables and a toilet block is here too. It’s not a good sign though that the toilets are not looked after and in their current state are unusable. A pee in the bushes it is then.

Paul is already here and has done most of the work in setting up the picnic. All we have to do is scrub our hands with that chemical stuff and pour the wine and everyone can get started. the mood is good, the sun is shining and we are in good time to make our rendezvous in Les Eyzies. Paul has shot down to the Font de Gaume office and picked up our tickets already. We are all set. But we can relax now and tuck into the usual repartee of cheese and sausage and bread and crudites and fruit. And more wine.

So it’s back to the boats and onto the next thing. The launch is as tricky as the arrival but everyone gets away. It’s not possible to see from the river but we are on a huge meander. If we weren’t facing cliffs overgrown with a forest we could clamber over here, drag the boats a hundred yards, Fitzcarraldo style, and save ourselves a hours paddling. But who would want to do that?

After passing some more cliffs, with an undercut as usual we spin the boats around to glimpse some farm buildings built on top of the cliff. Unsurprisingly underneath it we can see some more shelters. Or are they? They seem to be man-made holes cut into the cliffs and the square-cut holes for poles are also apparent. Some of them even have old bits of wood still attached. But the caves don’t seem to have any means of access. They are just poised in the middle of the cliff. It doesn’t matter we spin the boats around and drift downstream.

Inn-to-Inn Guided Canoe Trips: the Vezere river at Madeleine

The Chapel at Madeleine on the Vezere river

After a further couple of bends we come to something more substantial. A Chapel hugging the cliff. In fact if you look closer you can also see the remains of a castle on the cliff above it and the ubiquitous cliff shelters spread along the cliff either side. This is the famous site of La Madeleine.

First the rock shelters:

At the end of 1863, Edouard Lartet, a palaeontologist, and his friend and benefactor Henry Christy discovered the shelter of La Madeleine by the side of the Vézère River. They were returning from investigating Le Moustier a few kilometres away, and noticed a large shelter on the right bank of the river. At this time there was no bridge, and they stopped a passing boat for assistance in crossing the river. A search was carried out with shovels and spades, and they began to realise the importance of the site. Each level revealed the presence of mankind: burins, flint blades, spear points. Numerous unrecognised objects turned up, made from unknown bones: harpoons, spears, needles, and numerous artefacts made from reindeer antlers. They decided to leave a serious investigation until spring.

The next spring, they continued their research. In May 1864 workers discovered five fragments of an ivory plate, which once reassembled, revealed an exceptional engraving of a mammoth. The accuracy of the engraving confirmed without doubt that the artist had observed the living creature and reproduced it in accurate detail: woolly coat, tusks, and hump were all faithfully recorded. The rear end of the animal was also clearly defined.

In 1868 Gabriel de Martillet established a new timescale for the prehistoric centuries, and La Madelaine became the type site for “Magdalenian” times.

The site was also studied by Paul Girod and Elie Massenet, as well as numerous amateur investigators. Denis Peyrony restarted the research in 1911, and refined knowledge of the site. In 1926 the skeleton of a three year old child was discovered, with exquisite shell jewellery, dating from the end of the Magdalenian period.

Secondly the castle: I can find no information about this. I’ve heard claims that the Romans built a castle here and that further constructions were made in the Middle Ages. Nothing else.

Thirdly, the Chapel: Again I can find no reliable information but I’ve been told that the chapel was built in the 11thC and that King Richard the First of England (Richard the Lionheart) came to this chapel on his way to the crusades for a blessing. This seems unlikely he lived further south in France and in fact spent a mere seven months of his ten year reign in England. He didn’t even speak English, but was fluent in Langue d’Oil and Langue d’Oc. It’s a nice thought though.

After spending some time looking at the Chapel here and taking some photographs we spin away and continue downstream. Shortly afterwards we have to go either side of an island, once again choosing the faster side or the hidden side. The island is small at the moment but on some trips the gravel bar in front of it is quite large. In the old days this is where we used to have lunch. We’d pull over and use three boats to form a picnic table. Two canoes would be placed parallel to on another another and then the third canoe would be placed on top, upside down and at right angles. With a table-cloth thrown on top it works quite well. As long as it’s level. And no-one leans on it. From time to time we had to move a move a herd of cows off the island first as in the heat of summer they come down from the field opposite to cool off. They moan too when they are moved.

It’s been a long day on the river now and the pressure is rising as we have to make our rendezvous in Les Eyzies. This last hour can be tiring, especially on a hot afternoon. The next way marker is the railway bridge. I think this line comes down from Perigeaux to Les Eyzies. You don’t see trains very often. I did catch a train from Les Eyzies to Cahors once when our van was two small for all of us (for a long ride anyway). I had to change somewhere and wait for an hour or so. I wish I could remember where that was as I spent the time wandering around a pleasant market. At one time I heard that services had been stopped on the week-end, but they have now been restored and I’ve seem some new rolling-stock on the line too.

Soon after that the river swings a long left-hand corner. I smooch over to the left bank to see if I can spot any horses in the paddock there. Sometimes they are gathered together under the trees to keep cool. The interesting thing about these horse is that some of them are spotted. It’s not often you see spotted horses and they remind me of the painted horses in the caves at Peche Merle. We’ll see those next week when we are down on the Cele River. Which reminds me why are spotted horses called painted horses? And Pinto? And another thing why don’t horses have ordinary colours? A horse can’t be brown, or white or black? A mystery.

But then as we swing around this corner we can see huge cliffs above us on the right hand side. Once again you can see many grooves cut into the cliffs and much evidence of shelter living. You can see too that not so many years ago you could visit these levels but the stairways are rusting now and blocked off with barbed-wire. I imagine the cliffs have become unsafe and so we’ll just have to content ourselves with looking at them.

Before long we are passing another couple of islands and then coming under the road bridge at the edge of town, passing the Trois Drapeaux cafe on the right and then swinging into the ramp where we are to disembark. Paul is here to help get everyone out of the boats and then to drag the boats up onto the grassy bank and leave them in a tidy pile for Philippe to collect later. We get ourselves together and load our stuff in the van before changing out of wet shoes and damp shorts into something warmer that we shall need for the cave. We’ve just got time to use the toilets and have a quick beer at the cafe.

And so it is that we roll up at Font de Gaume. Surprisingly it’s just a green shack besides the road. Inside you have a small shop selling books and other paraphernalia depicting the cave paintings. It doesn’t seem much for a world renowned site. Through the shop a concrete path leads up the side of the hill until ten minutes later you arrive at the cave gates. No cameras and no bags are allowed inside. Woe betide anyone who rubs against the walls.

Here is a description.

The paintings were discovered by Denis Peyrony, a local schoolmaster, on 12 September 1901. The cave had been known to the general public before this, but the significance of the paintings had not been recognised. Four days previously Peyrony had visited the cave at Les Combarelles, a short distance away, with the archaeologist Henri Breuil, where he saw its prehistoric engravings. The paintings in the cave at Font-de-Gaume were the first to be discovered in the Périgord province.

Prehistoric people living in the Dordogne Valley first settled in the mouth of Font-de-Gaume around 25,000 BC. The cave mouth was inhabited at least sporadically for the next several thousand years. However, after the original prehistoric inhabitants left, the cave was forgotten until the nineteenth century when local people again began to visit the cave. The paintings date from around 17000 BC, during the Magdalénien period. Many of the cave’s paintings have been discovered in recent decades. The cave’s most famous painting, a frieze of five bison was discovered accidentally in 1966 while scientists were cleaning the cave.

To date, 230 figures have been recorded in the cave, and it is thought that more are still to be revealed. Font de Gaume holds over 200 polychrome paintings and is considered the best example of polychrome painting other than Lascaux, which is now closed to the public. The paintings in Font-de-Gaume include depictions of more than 80 bison, approximately 40 horse depictions, and more than 20 mammoth depictions.

We go into the cave as small group of about a dozen, lead by a guide who is ostensibly going to speak English. He doesn’t much and in the narrow passageways it’s quite difficult to see what he is referring too. It’s dingy inside. Light plays havoc with the paintings and he only has a small red beamed pointer to indicate the paintings. The cave is restricted to a limited number of small groups per day. A total of 160 people per day is all that is allowed. I’ve heard that this will soon be reduced to 70 or so. I expect one day soon the cave will be closed to the public. Perhaps they will make a replica as at Lascaux.

Once you get used to the dim light and the way the paintings are formed, using the rock itself to form features of the animals, it becomes easier to appreciate the beauty of them. It’s difficult not to remain sceptical of some of the fancy assumptions made about the people who painted them though and why.

Moist people are just stunned to see such work from ages past.

After our short visit we arrive back at the shed and peruse the merchandise. I bought a fridge magnet once. I don’t know what that is supposed to mean.

We hop back in the van and drive to the hotel in Les Eyzies. It’s right in the middle of the small town and we can settle down for a quiet evening. Jerome and Jerome are there to meet us. One of the Jeromes is an owner and the other just works there. I always like the happy way they greet us and help us get everyone to their rooms. Instead of eating altogether tonight the holiday ‘instructions’ inform them that they are ‘on there own’. It seems a bit cruel, but I suppose the idea is to give them a break from each other and regain some space. Paul and I give them an idea of the different places to eat in town. The cheap ones, the expensive one and the nice ones. We shall eat in the Cafe de Maire across the street. It’s cheap and cheerful and the food is good. Pave de Canard usually for me. A duck steak! I’ve been to this place many times and one of the reasons is it has a huge TV where we have often watched football, or more often, the Tour de France.

Before that however we slope off to our room for a lie down. It’s my turn to do the picnic dishes. I do this in the bath! Usually we make use of the kitchen facilities of wherever we are staying to do the washing-up but the kitchen staff at this hotel are a bit posh and seem reluctant to allow us to use the kitchen. The bath it is then. Fortunately the bathroom is large enough and the dishes are soon done and laying on a towel to drain off.

After a nap we drag ourselves out to the cafe to get some dinner. Nothing on the TV tonight so we sit out on the terrace. Sometimes we are joined by other guests but usually they go to one of the swankier places for a more private dinner. It’s a relaxing evening for us.

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