The Vézère From Montignac to St. Leon
Opposite us as we picnicked on the river-bank under the willows, the Vézère River curved glossy and dark under a cliff, carrying three canoes and a kayak. The paddlers passed smoothly over the water, under the bridge and out of sight. Reports had been right — the canoeing would be good here in the Dordogne, an area in Aquitaine where the rivers have invited exploration and settlement since the days of the Neanderthals.
We were lunching in St. Leon-sur-Vézère, a small village clustered around a 10th Century Romance Church and a 16th Century Château — and the base we had chosen for the first few days of our trip. The village overlooks the Vézère in a landscape that harbours hundreds of caves and overhanging rock shelters. Within them are the prehistoric creations for which the Dordogne is known: paintings and engravings of bison, reindeer and other animals made by people who lived 10,000 to 45,000 years ago.
Later that evening, we looked down from our Relais high above the valley to the maize fields and grazing cattle on the rich flood plain across the river. Beyond, rose hills covered with green oak, sweet chestnut and pine; prime habitat for wild boar, fallow deer, mushrooms and truffles.
After the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age, this valley was a cold, dry steppe where reindeer, bison and horses grazed. Among the predators hunting them were humans. Like others before us, we had come to the Dordogne hoping to grasp the moment when human self-awareness expressed itself in a tangible way: the cave paintings for which this valley is justly famous. We would use the river to explore the valley; all the better to discover the region’s character now and in the past.
After our first night at the Relais de la Côte de Jor, a shuttle took us to an embarkation point several miles upstream on the Vézère to Montignac, and we prepared to set out. Our little flotilla was accompanied by a guide who not only refreshed our memories about paddling technique but also provided useful information on the natural history of the valley and the history of the chateaux and villages we would pass. Not only that he was also laden with all the victuals for our picnic lunch.
Before starting however it was suggested we should take the time to have a short stroll around the village of Montignac, past narrow medieval lanes and foie gras shops, and which lies beneath the nearby hill of Lascaux, which has been called the Sistine Chapel of the Upper Palaeolithic because of its famous cave paintings, 15,000 to 17,000 years old. It is more than a mile above the river, and visitors are restricted to a reproduction of the cave’s most striking chambers. It is however a meticulous reconstruction, carved using laser measurements of the original cave, and hand-painted over a period of six years.
With the addition of fresh baguettes and water we began our paddle. We will visit the cave at Lascaux towards the end of our tour when perhaps we will better understand the context of its significance. This valley has more than 200 places were prehistoric artefacts have been found and we will explore some of the smaller ones before visiting the splendour of Lascaux.
The river carried us under overhanging grottoes gouged out of limestone by the current; the 16th-century Château de Losse sits on top of one of them. Gardens of ferns and mosses dangled from their ceilings, and martins darted in and out. On the river, Common Buzzards (a hawk rather than a vulture) swooped overhead, and anglers fished for trout and pike.
The overhanging grottoes were our first sign of the caves and natural rock shelters that fostered and preserved this region’s outpouring of prehistoric art, which has long fascinated archaeologists. A recent theory, promoted by Jean Clottes, a pioneer of French prehistoric studies, and David Lewis-Williams, a South African expert in the region’s rock art, is that its creation was the province of shamans who often painted in ecstatic trance states and for whom the caves and shelters were portals to the underworld. Others believe that the theory explains only one of many reasons that, over a period of more than 30,000 years, people decorated the caves.
These days the Château de Losse is open to the public although sadly they have made no effort to provide easy access from the river. An arched gateway does come down to the river but the bank is high there and it would be difficult to disembark or leave your canoe anywhere safe. A previous visit, from the road, has proved worthwhile though, and you can explore the Renaissance House and the formal gardens and battlements. From the river the Château looks ornamental and designed for accommodation but from the other side you become immediately aware that it was built for protection. It has a moat, now dry, fortified towers with gun emplacements and a large gatehouse which would have provided a formidable barrier to incursion.
At the Château de Losse we had also paddled past, and through the remains of a lock gate. It seems that in the not too distant past the river had been an important transport link when the roads had been rough and ready and perhaps impassable in the winter. Here we could see clearly where a lock gate had stood and where the wooden sluice and paddle gates had slotted into it. The dam itself of course has long since been dismantled. The stones of what remains can be seen to have been worked in some style as they are beautifully curved to fend the force of the water. The great canal building age in Europe was in the 17th Century so we can only suppose that these are of a similar age. We pass three of these structures on this stretch of the Vézère.
We dream of what goods they were bringing up and down the river, and if they had to pay tolls to pass. We wonder too about the style of the boats being used and guess they must have been of very shallow draught: and were they poled up and downstream or perhaps hauled by men or horse. We can see no evidence now of a tow-path and the banks are often wooded, where they are not cliffs.
In a short while we had canoed down to the village of Thonac and passed under a small bridge before we could glimpse the open belfry of the village church away to our right. This is a common design feature of many churches in the region. We didn’t stop however as we had lunch to attend to and a cave to visit later in the afternoon.
Before long we turned a bend in the river and approached the stunning Château de Belcayre perched on jagged rock promontories over the river. Although a Château, or fort or castle has been on this site since the 11th Century the current incarnation was heavily modernised in the 17th Century to reflect the extravagant designs of the times. It is now a pretty and decorative Château overhanging the river. Unfortunately no damsel in distress was hailing us from a tower window as we passed beneath gliding over the snaking green river-weed beneath us, whose flowers, daisy-like, form a rippling carpet. Our guide said it was called Water-Crowsfoot and that it flowers in early summer and then is washed away every autumn. It is not an invader from elsewhere. It provides a splendid habitat for damselflies as we watched the dazzling blue-bodied Western Demoiselle males court the green bodied and bronze-winged females.
When we had paddled our way to the stretch of the Vézère below Castel-Merle, we pulled out our canoes at the boat landing in Sergeac and our guide pointed us in the direction of the small hamlet whilst he set about preparing lunch with our driver, who had miraculously appeared. We spent ten minutes or so stretching our legs in the small lanes surrounding the massive church. As in all the villages hereabouts the local sandstone has been used to build everything. This gets a patina of weathered grey so you can tell the houses which have been recently purchased and cleaned up as the stone has a bright yellow appearance. In the village we came across the small museum of pre-history, and strangely birds-nests, which is now sadly closed. But more of this later when we visit Castel-Merle. For now we return to the river bank and our lovely picnic in the sun.
After our lunch, feeling sated and slightly dizzy from a glass of wine or two, we returned to our canoes for the final stretch down to St.-Léon-sur-Vézère. We passed the remnants of one more ruined lock gate and came into the village under the watchful gaze of the Château de Clérans, past the picnic spot under the willows where we lunched yesterday, past the Romance style village church and under the bridge which we were told had been built by Gustave Eiffel: it is certainly made with riveted girders and was perhaps a modest practise run for his more famous and larger structures. Just under the bridge and on the left bank we finished our paddling for the day. The river is running a little quickly here so we were thankful to get some help in disembarking safely and getting the boats ashore.
After a short break we started from the Eiffel bridge at St.-Léon-sur-Vézère and followed a centuries-old trail under the overhanging cliffs and through oak forests along the river for almost a mile to Castel-Merle. Here the wild surroundings made it possible to imagine the landscape as a pre-agricultural refuge for early humans, if not as the dry grassland that once existed here.
Students were working under a shed roof, excavating a thin layer of a floor 33,000 years old in a rock shelter called Abri Castanet. Abri means shelter in French, and this vallon, about 100 yards across and 300 yards long, has at the bases of its cliffs a dozen such shelters, containing some of the oldest known carvings and paintings, as well as cruder artefacts going much further back. Marcel Castanet, the first excavator at this spot, is the source of the name for Abri Castanet. His descendants still own the land — and Castel-Merle — and his son, René, used to run a small museum of prehistory in Sergeac, although many of his better finds can be found at the Pre-History Museum in Les Eyzies. René’s granddaughter, Isabelle Castanet-Daumas, an archaeologist, now owns the vallon and offers tours of its rock shelters.
In a hut beside the Abri Castanet, Dr. Randall White, a professor of anthropology at New York University, was excavating refuse from a 33,000-year-old bead workshop. He picked through bead-making residue with a pair of tweezers, separating tiny shards of hematite, used for polishing, from equally minuscule scraps of the charred reindeer antler and bone. The beads themselves were made of mammoth ivory and soapstone, materials prized apparently for their smoothness. Behind him, students uncovered a section of the ancient floor with brushes. “We’re picking through the garbage of everyday life 33,000 years ago,” he said, holding up the tiny ulna of a prehistoric bird or rodent.
The nomadic hunters called the Cro-Magnon, who were, like us, Homo sapiens, existed here from about 40,000 to 10,000 years ago, and wintered in the vallon sporadically over that time. The canyon sheltered them from cold winds, and the natural rock overhangs allowed them to hold heat inside by hanging hides over the openings of their shelters. It is thought that different groups met in those cold months and shared materials, techniques and genes before separating to go to their summer hunting grounds in the spring.
Their own ancestors had come to the Dordogne from Africa, taking thousands of years to get there only to find another human species already in residence — the Neanderthal.
Professor White believes that the shock of that contact was an impetus for the Cro-Magnon use of body ornamentation. “Ornamentation helped them organise into large groups and identify each other across wide distances,” he said. Their distinctive styles of beadwork and clothing made them identifiable as Cro-Magnon and differentiated them from the Neanderthals. In this view, ornamentation was not only the beginning of metaphor — the taking of an image or material out of one context and placing it in another — but also of the concept of social status. Abri Castanet is one of the richest sources of concrete evidence for ornamentation, though earlier so-called “find spots” exist in France and South Africa.