The cave was a tall corridor, the walls foaming with white and orange calcification. It was cool, much cooler than the hot summer day outside, and dark. Our eyes gradually accustomed themselves to the blackness, with only small gangway lights on the floor to guide our way. We edged our way in, taking care to ensure that our clothes did not brush against the damp walls, for we would damage them. Deeper in, once we had left the day behind, away from the entrance, we began to make out dark shadowy shapes on the rock walls. Nothing more than storm clouds to begin with. Then we were shown a head, a leg, a tail, and the animals began to take shape. The contours of the cave sides filled out a belly, defined a hind leg, followed a tail. We saw bison, deer, black, red ochre.
One large black deer with horns curling over its back had its head lowered. Scratched into the rock, its form was clear even if some of the colouring had faded. From its half open mouth a tongue protruded. It was licking the forehead of a red ochre deer, kneeling, whose head was lowered to the ground grazing. The scene was intimate, affectionate, gentle, loving.
Elsewhere animals were superimposed on each other, creating an unamiguous perspective. Bison stood in front of deer. Their four legs were correctly drawn to show those on the offside shorter. The chest of some animals was shaded as one shades the disappearing roundness of an apple, using black colour blown through a bone. Movement was frozen, as one animal leapt behind another.
I imagined the wonder as the flickering light of the flame of torches animated the tableaux, one picture fading as another came into view. In front of each group of animals we reconnected with the people like us who had created them, fuelled by the same desires and hopes as us, decorating their shelters, illustrating their struggles, leaving traces behind of the beauty they brought to their lives. Thousands of years collapsed until we were Cro Magnon men and women, each having our different role to play, hunting, caring, cooking, painting, teaching, inspiring. Later on the cave narrowed so that you would have had to squeeze through to see the rhinocerous and the lion trapped within. We had to turn around and retrace our steps past the Ark-like procession of black and red ochre pairs until, like moles, we blinked and left behind a fourteen thousand year old zoo of Magdalenian inspirations which would colour the graffiti we saw on walls or the image of a child scribbling, holding a thick wax crayon in his fist. I thought how the austere rocky outcrop gave no hint of the beauty of the inside, of the feelings laid out to see by the few who ventured inside.
This email address [email@example.com] should work if you want to make an on-line reservation in advance. Nothing about Les Eyzies is easy. I don’t think it is supposed to be. It would not be the same if it was laid out on a plate, ready to be consumed. It has to be discovered, and it takes some effort. The Font de Gaume ticket office is little more than a roadside railway shack. There is no cafe, and the toilets are a hard up-hill walk away.
[Lascaux was closed to the public in the early 1960s, and there is nowhere else in the world where you can see cave paintings like these for yourself. Tours to the Font de Gaume cave at Les Eyzies de Tayac (and here) are arranged in small groups of 12, and only less than 200 people a day are allowed in. Timed tickets are sold out months in advance (for the rest of the summer already), but 40 tickets are issued each day to those who come and queue when the ticket office opens at 9.30am. We arrived twenty minutes early, and 26 people were already queueing, some buying several tickets for absent friends. Luckily, a very stressful wait was rewarded with tickets for 12pm, and we drove 6km away to see the impressive high- and low-relief frieze at the rock shelter, l’abri du Cap Blanc. The area around St Eyzies is so full of pre-historic sites that it would take days to visit them all, and it is not far from Sarlat and other delices of the Perigord noir. We had lunch afterwards in the Hotel Cro Magnon, just in front of the cave where the Cro Magnon skeletons were first discovered in the late nineteenth century. You cannot but wonder whether the cave at Font de Gaume will, like Lascaux, be closed to the public forever. Go soon. It is one of the best things I have ever done. I told my parents-in-law about it and watched the memory of the joy of seeing Lascaux before it closed come over my father-in-law’s face. He saw the paintings there in 1958 – exactly fifty years ago – and the memory of it still burns bright.]
Image of cave entrance: http://www.donsmaps.com/images/fontdegaumeentrance.jpg