France Part IV

So, from now on I’ll try to focus more on highlights, but really, there is so much to highlight…

On my 8th day in France, we headed north from Montabaun for Cahors. The main sight in Cahors is the Pont Valentre, which we eagerly checked out. It is this beautiful fortified bridge from the 14th century, never battled on, restored in the 19thc, and the restorer could have sold his soul to the devil to have it completed. It is quite impressive.
After that we took a long drive to see a city built into stone, Rocamadour. It is a fairly common occurrence throughout this part of France, from my observations. A lot of houses and buildings are built under/against a rock over hang, so that the occupants only have to construct three sides, but Rocamadour is much more impressive.

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It is another city that is based around a cathedral to a miracle. In the Cathedral there is a carving of Mary and the Baby Jesus, which is black and apparently responsible for 126 miracles, and the grave of St. Amadour. This town is much more tourist focused than Lourdes (and far less handicap-accessible – there are 200+ steps to the top of the rock). Rocamadour is also the home of a sheep’s cheese which is delicious, hot (when it is like a brie) or cold (like most soft cheeses).
We ended the day in Sarlat, where we would spend our final two nights in France. The country that we drove through in this area is just gorgeous: rolling hills and pastures, cows and sheep, orchards. Walking around Sarlat we quickly realized that this is the epicenter of foie gras, every other shop is a vender of it and canned duck confit. Plus the every other farm you pass advertises foie gras. Crazy.

The following day we set out to see a lot of really old stuff. I mean, really old. We went to a series of prehistoric caves. First, was la grotte de Rouffignac. (An interesting thing to point out about these caves, is that in France most of them are owned privately, but still heavily influenced by the government. So, while the families that own them can use them to run a business, usually tours, if the government finds out that the tours are destroying the cave drawings, they have to shut it down. Also, pictures are not allowed inside and the number of people who can visit is greatly limited.) Rouffignac is a pretty big cave (not as big as the one in Sare) and is famous for its Mammoth drawings, of which it has at least half of all of the Mammoth drawings/etchings in the world. Most of the drawings here were done with Manganese (which makes it impossible to date directly). Tours through Rouffignac are done on a small, 36 person, train which was added by one of the owners. Next we visited the abri de Cro-Magnon (the rock overhang site where the term “Cro-Magnon” was derived from), which in itself was not particularly impressive. Then we went to le grotte de Combarelles, a much smaller cave full of ~500 etchings, including Mammoths, bears, lions, fertility symbols (read: vagina), and humans. Here, no more than 6 people are allowed to visit the cave at a time and no more than 66 are allowed to visit each day, so you have to schedule a tour ahead of time. This was a really powerful visit because of how intimately we got to look at the etchings. The final place that we visited was the abri de Cap Blanc, another overhang where man made some very impressive bas-relief (low-relief) carvings into the limestone of horses, bison, reindeer, and wolves. Unfortunately, the first “archaeologists” to uncover them went about it with a little too much vigor and destroyed much of them in the process.
What was really striking about these visits, the two caves in particular, was that these drawings and etchings were done in places that very few, if any people would see them in the time of their creation. They are hundreds of meters back into these caves, where the tunnel narrows to a size one could barely crawl through (the archaeologists have dug out much of the floor to allow visitors to walk through, or the train to run through). Not only are the drawings in nearly inaccessible places, they are very well done, nearly anatomically correct, in shaky firelight, if any at all. It is amazing to think about. The connection to Plato’s Symposium (on Love) that I mentioned before comes in here. Why would neanderthal spend all of this effort on drawing in the caves? Plato’s answer would be to make themselves immortal, at least, that is my guess, which it certainly has done.
After the caves, we went to something relatively new, le Chateau de Commarque, the ruins of a castle from the 12thc which are open to the public for walking around and through. It was pretty cool, definitely an interesting change of pace. After that we went back to Sarlat for our last dinner in France. I need to learn to make Cassoulet, because it is amazing (a bean soup dish with duck confit and sausage).
On a mostly unrelated note, heated bathroom floors are amazing. If not too expensive, definitely a worthwhile investment if you live in a cold place and have plenty of time to spend in the bathroom.

The next morning we got up and flew home, drawing our trip to a close, having only seen a tiny portion of the country. We’ll just have to go back. Best part of the trip back, the customs man in Philly. He took an interest in learning a little bit about us while checking our passports. While the questions he was asking were friendly, I could not help but feel we were being interrogated, though.

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