Who would have thought that prehistoric France would win my heart.
I mean, I've always loved the age of dinosaurs, but early man never grabbed my attention: they dragged their knuckles on the ground, grunted at women, and drew on cave walls.
Okay, that's not exactly true, and some men still grunt at women, but it wasn't until I saw the artwork of 17,000 years ago that I really gave our ancestors my attention.
On day five of our France road trip, a Wednesday, we packed up our camp in Amboise and headed further south, to the Dordogne Region. It's due east of Bordeaux (no, we didn't visit this famous wine region) toward the centre of France. The hills roll, the roads wind, and the forests are densely packed. This region saw the lines between the English and the French move back and forth over the Hundred Years War.
And today, in this very region, you still find a very strong English presence, in the form of tourists.
As we approached this region, Lori once again called ahead to a campsite to reserve a spot. Unfortunately, our first choice, in Beynac-et-Cazenac, was booked for Wednesday night, but we were able to reserve a space at the campground for Thursday and Friday—which we promptly did.
For Wednesday night, we aimed for another promising site in the town of Montignac, along the Vézère River. While Beynac was more central for the three days we planned to be in the region, Montignac was closer to one of the top sites we planned to see. And as we learned when we arrived at the tourist office, tickets to this site sold out quickly, and they went on sale at 9:00 the next morning.
Camping in Montignac, as it worked out, was the better spot for our first night.
We found a place at a privately owned campground, Camping Moulin Du Bleufond, right in the heart of the town, a few minutes' walk from the tourist office and along La Vézère. The campground offers free WiFi, which was good, though I could only connect when I was close to the main office. Fortunately, their private pool was close to the main office, so I managed to check in and touch base while the kids basked in the cool water.
The campground also offered entertainment later in the evening, with a DJ/singer—a couple played what seemed like an elaborate karaoke machine with a keyboard. They played popular 70s and 80s songs while the man played the keyboard and he and his lady partner sang to the crowd, who danced under an open tent.
Lori and I danced a little, while the kids watched with dismay. But when The Macarena started, that was my cue to leave.
Before the festivities started, we packed a picnic dinner and headed to the banks of the Vézère. A simple meal of salami, cheese, tomato, and roquette, on a fresh baguette that we picked up en route, earlier in the afternoon. The lights of the town, with the light of the dying sun, and the soft gurgle of the river, made for an excellent summer dinner. Despite the river rats darting between the rocks.
Early in the morning, while Lori and our eldest walked into town to wait in line for tickets to our first prehistoric site, the Lascaux Caves (the line formed as early as an hour before sales started), our youngest and I packed up our camp site and checked out (and at 28 € for one night, it was the most-expensive campground of our trip). We parked near the banks where we dined the previous night and searched for the rest of our family. A quick coffee and pain au chocolat, and we were on our way.
Of course, these are not the original Lascaux Caves, which were discovered accidentally in 1940 by some teenage boys who were looking for a lost dog. When they found that the dog had fallen into a crevasse and was stuck, they returned with some rope and flashlights to retrieve the trapped animal. It was then that they saw the Paleolithic drawings on the walls. Fascinated by their finding, they decided to keep it a secret.
The secret lasted only a couple of days, when they started sharing the news with friends. A school teacher overheard them and had them show him the site. The rest is history.
Over time, the original caves, which were dated to more than 17,000 years old and had been untouched until the 1940 discovery, had to be closed because of changes to the environment, caused by heat and exposure to thousands of visitors. The original caves were sealed to the public and a replica of a part of the caves was meticulously constructed. Our guide said the variance in the Lascaux II Caves is 0.5 mm. That's precise.
Because photography was prohibited, it's a sight that you have to see for yourself to believe. Even if cameras were allowed, I doubt that they could capture the essence of the artwork. The detail of the horses, deer, bulls: the perspective, the shading, the use of the surface of the wall to work with the detail of the animals. These artists were of an intelligence that I would have never imagined from that far back in history. I was in awe.
Over the days, we visited other prehistoric sites, such as La Roque Saint-Christophe, a village that was set high in the limestone cliffs along the Vézère. It was occupied from the prehistoric Troglodytic era through to the Medieval Ages. What was so fascinating about these cliff-side villages was that throughout the Dordogne, we saw evidence of similar sites.
For the second and third night of our stay in this region, we moved to Beynac, where we camped at Le Capeyrou, a comfortable campground along the Dordogne River. Beynac was the site of some heavy fighting during the Hundred Years War, and the castle that sits high above the river was occupied by both the French and the English.
For us, it was just above our camp site. From where we pitched our tent, this was our view:
They also had a lovely view from their pool.
One of the highlights of the Dordogne, if not of the whole trip, was the afternoon where we paddled the river from Cénac-et-Saint-Julien, some 10 kilometres upstream, past La Roque-Gageac, and back to our campground. A bus picked us up at our campground and drove us to Cénac, where each of our girls took a kayak, Lori and I took a canoe, and we followed the current back. We dropped our boats off to a waiting truck and we walked back to our tent.
The views along the Dordogne were breathtaking, and tomorrow, for Wordless Wednesday, I'll share photos from that journey.
While I had a great time exploring this fascinating region, visiting prehistoric sites and museums, driving the winding roads through beautiful towns, eating fabulous meals and drinking unforgettable wines, on our last night, as we sat in a restaurant below the castle, I had to gently break some news to my family: something that I felt I should be upfront about, should not hold back.
This final night in Beynac was to be my final--ever--night of camping. While we had stayed in some beautiful locations, I never enjoyed a single, solid night of restful sleep. I would be uncomfortable, would wake at the slightest sounds, and my body would be sore, my muscles stiff.
I had said these words before but had been talked into camping again. But no more. I was finished with camping. And I wanted them to respect my decision.
The next day, when we took down our tent for the last time, I knew I would never sleep in it again. From that time onward, it was a proper bed for me.
Our next destination: Carcassonne, in south-western France, and then on to Provence.