Friday, May 30, 2014

Moving South

Wendy and David of our b&b Le Jardin give us a warm French send off with kisses.  On our way out, we stop in Gourdon at the Grotte de Cougnac, a natural cave with art that is 20,000 years old. The group just entering is a group with the American Natural History Museum, and mostly from the Bay Area! I ask if we can join their group for the tour since it is in English.  We enter into an immense chamber with stalactites like we have never seen before. Millions of delicate threads cover and hang from the ceiling. Stalagmites rise from the ground and upper surfaces, some joining with threads like cobwebs.  The next chamber has bare walls and the guide points out the red and charcoal drawings of mammoths, horses and prehistoric extinct megalocerous reindeer.  The original red and black animal drawings are believed to have been made 23,000-25,000years ago when the cave was inhabited by Cro Magnon men.  Neanderthal man bones from 50,000 years ago were also discovered in the cave. There are 2 very rare "wounded man" motifs that have lines drawn pointing outward, 
 interpreted as spears sticking out from the body.    There are only 3 known examples of cave drawings of humans and 2 are in this cave. The next set are finger markings in black charcoal, carbon dated at 14,000 years ago.  They found one "lamb fat" lamp in the cave. This cave was naturally sealed by a mudslide. Local residents found the empty entrance in 1900 and used it as a storage cellar but the actual karst and cave art sections were not discovered until 1952.  Limited numbers of visitors are taken through each day and we feel very fortunate to have seen such a piece of ancient history. The group we were with, is on a prehistory cave tour, visiting caves from Madrid to Les Eszies and had a noted professor with them. The thought that we are tracing the movements of man from so long ago is remarkable. 

The rest of our day is spent driving south toward Arles.  We were surprised at the cost of tolls here. Our trip down cost $75US in tolls alone! The countryside changes from farm fields to a drier climate much like California, low mountains with valleys dotted by vineyards. Along the very windy route we stopped once for a view of a 13th century medieval fortress at Carcassone, which is comprised of 2adjoining cities, one old and one new.  The old is encircled by high castle walls and the rooftops are of red clay. 

Huge wind turbines sit in lines above old castle walls in the countryside, making for a very curious contrast between old and new.  I am amused that throughout France, herds of cows lay in the grass and are not standing as in the US; they are as laid back as the people. Arrival in Arles leads to narrow alleys barely wide enough for cars to pass.  The city seems rougher than the charming villages we were in.  We eat a simple meal in the town center with a waiter who tries to say "arigato" and "ni hao" to us. Just as we finish, it starts to drizzle.


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