Day 50 - Mon May 23 to Beynac (Dordogne)
(Chris) Finally a sleep-in day, then we drove out toward Beynac, almost due South. The first stretch of road was fast, and the 2nd not so fast. About 2/3 of the way to Beynac, we stopped off at Oradour sur Glaine, which is a memorial for the ~600 victims of a brutal Nazi massacre. Just after D-Day on June 10, as the Allies were approaching, Nazi SS troops rounded up the entire population of this French village and executed them. Men, women, children, seniors, babies... they were all killed. The women and children were stuffed into the town church and then they rigged the roof with explosives to crush them. The excuse for this massacre was that one of the SS officers had been kidnapped by the local French resistance, but that doesn't play very well. France decided to leave this site intact (save the bodies) as part of a lasting memorial of the massacre. It was very moving and disturbing. We kept asking ourselves who could bring themselves to do this, even if on orders from above? War is hell.
After leaving Oradour, a yellow engine light came on the dash of our Pugeot 206. I called Hertz, and they asked me to drop by a garage to have it checked out. Can you believe the nerve? We negotiated, and he called some people, and I guess it turns out the 206 has unreliable warning lights. Anyway we drove on and the light went out sans incident.
Finally we arrived at Beynac. This is a new area of France, a bit dryer, on a gorgeous river valley. When we rolled in there were hot air balloons, and castles high up on the hills. After a lovely duck dinner (I'll let Jen describe the pate), we came out to a full moon. It's really pretty here. (Jen) Well first let me say that both Chris and I are really trying to be more adventurous with the food and it seems to be working. We both had duck for dinner (second night in a row for Chris) and it was quite good. Regarding the pate appetizer, there were two small slices that accompanied our green salad. We both tried it and thought while it wasn't all out gross, it wasn't tasty either. Rather salty with a mushy sort of texture that sort of tasted like bologna. Some Frenchman (probably Christophe) is going to kill me for saying that...
Day 51 - Tue May 24 Beynac
(Jen) We woke up relatively early and started our day with a 2-hour / 10 km canoe trip down the river. The scenery was gorgeous, lush green sprinkled here and there with castles and small villages. A particular pretty village was La Roque-Gageac which had buildings built into the cliffs. The weather is a lot warmer now - probably 75 or 80. After a forgettable pizza lunch we dashed off to try and get into a Lascoux II, a Cro-Magnon Cave with cave paintings from about 17k years ago. Unfortunately, tickets for the English-speaking tour were sold out so we purchased them for tomorrow and went into Sarlat to do laundry and then back to our hotel in Beynac. Our hotel has free internet and let us connect the laptop directly to their network, so we were finally able to update the website. After a tame dinner we made it an early evening since we have a busy Cro-Magnon day tomorrow.
Day 52 - Wed May 25 Beynac, to St Cirq Lapopie
(Jen) We were out of the hotel by 8:30 to visit Grotte de Rouffignac, a ½ mile long cave with Cro-Magnon paintings from about 15k years ago. The tour is on an electric tram that holds about 30 people. The cave was used by Cave Bears for hibernating before Cro-Magnons and the guide pointed out long stretches of bear scratches on the walls. We also saw huge divots (3 ft deep and 10 ft across) in the cave floor made by hibernating bears. The guide explained that only one or two bears would use the cave at a time, and since there were so many sleeping divots (100?), the cave was probably used by bears for many generations.
Further back in the cave we came to engravings of Mammoths made by the Cro-Magnons. When the light was shown directly on the engravings you couldn't see them at all, but when the light was shown at an angle, the engravings suddenly came to life and were very impressive. Even further back in the cave there were black outline drawings on the ceiling of mammoths, rhinos, horses, bison, and reindeer. The depth between the floor and the ceiling at the time of the drawings was only about 3-4 feet and the artists had to crawl into the cave and do the drawings laying on their back.
Our second and last cave of the day was Lascoux II, a copy cat cave of Lascoux I. The first Lascoux cave was discovered in 1940 by some teenagers and their dog. It was opened to the public after WWII, but then closed permanently in the 1970's to preserve the cave. Apparently 1 million visitors a year was causing the paintings to degrade significantly due to humidity and temperature changes, as well as bacteria. They decided to build a copy of the cave out of cement underground and then hired a researcher and her team to meticulously copy the paintings from the Lascoux I into Lascoux II. This cave was quite different than our morning trip - it was quite a bit smaller, only one big room and a hallway, but also very sterile since it was manmade. The paintings looked quite authentic, but there was no dirt or dampness like a real cave would have. The paintings themselves were also very different than the Rouffignac cave, but equally impressive. The Lascoux paintings were more complex and were filled in with color, either red, black, or yellow (or a combination). Often one animal was painted within or on top of a larger animal. Researchers do not know if the paintings were all created at the same time, of if multiple generations created them (with later generations paining on top of previous). The paintings themselves mostly consisted of bulls and reindeer.
Both caves were incredibly cool - at least for me one of the neatest parts of our entire trip. It's amazing to me to see paintings by our ancestors from 15k years ago, that's a long stinking time. Unfortunately we couldn't take any pictures in the caves.
Our last sight of the day was the Pre-History Museum in Les-Eyzies-de-Tayac which just opened last summer. They had a few interesting skeletons of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon people, as well as partial skeletons of some animals like mammoth and saber tooth tigers.
In the later afternoon we drove to our next destination, St Cirq Lapoopie - a tiny little village that Reeek recommended. The village is perched on some cliffs overlooking the river which made for some great views.
We had a decent dinner and tried some "appertifs" (pre-dinner drinks) for the first time. I tried a walnut liqueur that Reeek recommended and it tasted like paint thinner. Chris tried a sweet wine concoction which we both thought was ok.
All in all a pretty busy day, but quite fun and educational.