Sunday, August 14, 2011

Dordogne Diary, Day 5

Yesterday wore me out. That was too much solo travel. On the other hand, I was damned if I was going to let today slip by. Blogger, however, helped, by balking at photo uploads and stalling out from time to time. It took almost three hours to put up yesterday's post!

After that was finished, it was necessary to worship the French god Lunch, and sandwiches were prepared, some with an amazing pepper-coated salame from Rouffignac. But after that...ummm, what?

"St. Léon sur Vézère is a nice village," Brian offered, and I figured that, instead of madly rushing from pre-determined point to pre-determined point, I'd head off there, take a look, and then improvise from there on. So that's just what I did: I punched the village into Paddy, plugged him in, and blasted off. On the way there, there was a sign pointing to Le Côte de Something, and I decided to investigate. Over Paddy's stern cries of "Turn around as soon as possible!" I drove down a wooded road, and found a place to park in a gravel lay-by. I parked and walked over to what looked like a sign. There, ahead, was a vista all over the Vézère valley.




If you know what you're looking for, according to the key on the sign, you'll see some prehistoric caves, and a bunch of troglodyte dwellings. This was the second bunch of these I'd run into, so I was getting curious. Maybe there'd be an answer once I got to the village.

So I got back in, Paddy got happy and I went into the village. Which was en fête.

This seemed to be happening a lot this weekend. Monday is the Feast of the Assumption, which may have something to do with the fact that, as we saw, Belvès was getting all dressed up, as were a few of the other villages I passed through on Friday. But then, nothing was happening. Today, St. Léon was...bowling. Well, not bowling per se, but playing boules. This game, sometimes called petanque, is all over southern Europe. Italian immigrants brought it to New York as bocce, and I wouldn't be surprised to encounter it in Spain or Greece. A small white ball is placed on the green, and larger metal balls are thrown in its direction. The closer you come to it, the greater your chances of winning, unless one of the other players knocks your ball away. It's custom-made for the French: deceit, argument, very little exertion, and lots of time to sip something while the throwing, deceiving, and arguing is going on. I wanted to see the church, which was a stop on the route to Compostella, only to find the entire area around it being used as boules greens.

It's a lovely church outside, but after carefully moving around the perimeter of the games, there was not much to see inside, except, I now remembered, a black Madonna, which Brian had mentioned. This is a mystery to me, although there's one in Montpellier (right on St. Guilhelm, actually, which gets dipped in the Lez when there are droughts), and one in Prague, and others scattered all over Europe. I'm sure there's a scholarly literature out there somewhere.

There was a sign to the troglodites, so I got back in the car, noting that not everyone was en fete. This was good: in my part of France, "village en fête" is apt to mean a running of the bulls is in progress, which makes driving through town a bit more interesting than I like.

The troglodyte site turned out to be a burn: some farmer with some land on which he'd erected some plaster dinosaurs, a parkour course, and, oh, yeah, you could visit, or look at, the caves. There was enough information that I deduced that the people who'd lived there hid out from the wars which raged over the region in medieval times in these caves, waiting out the conflagration and returning to their homes when things cooled down. I didn't, however, spend €12.50 to see these things, even though the plaster dinos were part of the ticket. Sorry, Marie.

Back in the car, I wandered aimlessly north, when a sign for a Cro-Magnon site caught my eye. This turned out to be Le Thot, a site affiliated with Lascaux, the most famous cave-painting site in the world. It looked legit enough to pay for, so I went in and was handed a text explaining the place. It took a bit of work, but I finally figured it out: there is an actual Le Thot cave, but you can't see it. Instead, a museum with scrupulously accurate reproductions of some paintings from Lascaux that aren't on display at Lascaux 2, the reproduction site which has been the only way of seeing the paintings since the original cave was closed down due to fungus and damage from visitors' breath began to endanger the originals. Le Thot, though, is laid out in reverse order. Towards the end of the short visit are three videos projected on screens the shape of the cave wall on which the paintings in the video appear. A narrator guides you through speculation of how and a bit of why some of these paintings were made, which makes it much, much easier to look at them. The narration is also in French (hello, administration! It doesn't cost much more to add on other languages and give foreigners a little radio thingy to wear), and the one I sat through was so thorough that I had to go back and look at the piece again. Another shows a rare human figure, apparently screaming as he dies and is being taken to the sky. It would no doubt irritate the hordes of kids to have to sit through these films, but if you speak French and visit this place, I strongly recommend just striding through to the end and watching the films first. Le Thot costs €7, and a combo ticket with Lascaux 2 is all of €12.50. I should probably have sprung for it.

Le Thot also has a somewhat interesting addition in the form of a collection of animals depicted on the cave walls, although I should warn you that 4pm is feeding time. I especially wanted to get pix of the rare horse breeds for b, but all I saw was their hind ends as they chowed down. I had to do with a small herd of reconstructed aurochs, which, actually, was pretty cool, since they were reverse engineered after extinction (the last female was shot in the 1600s) by German scientists in the 1930s.

The baby, up front, is inexplicably named Ghengis.

From here on, the day wasn't quite so interesting. My idea was to head up to Montignac, where Lascaux 2 is, but not go to the cave. Instead, I wanted to drive through some of the north of the country I've been living in this past week, and there was, actually, a bunch of nice stuff, although I didn't stop and photograph it. There was a chateau not far from Le Thot with a fortified gateway, leading to a courtyard, with the actual house quite a ways in. There's probably a story there, although the French rarely put up roadside signs to tell you these stories. Later, as I pulled into Azerat, there was a place that was almost a copy of the White House, except that it was made out of grey stone and loomed off the side of a hill. A very curious building. By now, I woke up Paddy, and, like any good drunk who wakes up in a strange place, he knew the way home, and in far less time than I'd anticipated, I was rocketing down the driveway.

I was glad not to have gone too far afield. Brian was intending to barbeque some chipolata sausages we'd bought at the market in Rouffignac, and roast some potatoes in duck fat. Me, I was going to dive into that huge box of produce from the night before and make a ratatouille. The recipe I'd been using called for three separate frying pans for the onions and peppers, eggplant, and zucchini and tomatoes, but since Melinda is Australian, her household guru is a woman named Stephanie Alexander, whom I'd never heard of. Given that there were three skillets in the house, but none of them had covers, which is essential for the traditional making of rat, I was happy to discover a one-pot variety in The Cook's Companion: The Complete Book of Ingredients and Recipes for the Australian Kitchen, which was lying around. It was ready in about an hour, had the added oddity of some coriander seeds crushed and added to it, which really brightened up the taste unexpectedly, and I added a couple of twigs of thyme and a fresh bay leaf from the basket of goodies. With a nice rich Cahors, this was as close to a perfect meal as I'd had up here.

Sadly, tomorrow would be Sunday, and time to start thinking about leaving.

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