Holiday special II: 400000 years of travel

Now that we are in France (at least on the paper) and we have accomplished the first stage of our holidays it is easier to keep on searching for History. Let’s head to the South East from Puy du Fou so we can reach a region where we can travel, in some hours and not that many miles, from the dawn of Mankind to the Hundred Years War via Roma.

Arriving on Perigueux, we have reached our first destination. We are now in Dordogne-Perigord, home of the Cro-Magnon. It has been a long trip from Puy du Fou and now we have to settle for the night. Tomorrow is going to be a very busy day: we will have to cross scores of years from dawn til dusk.We will begin early in the morning here, at Perigueux, visiting Vesunna, the Roman Village. Then we will head East trough Les-Eyzies-de Tayac where the National Archeology Center is awaiting, to Lascaux, where we will have the opportunity to visit the replica cave and admire the paintings. After lunch we will turn South to have a look to the Museum of War in Middle Ages at Castelnaud. And the, full-speed, we will have to hurry to arrive on time to Castillon and watch the Battle Show. What a day! But that will be tomorrow. For now, let’s have some rest.

Well, good morning. Let’s get on the move so we can fulfill our travel planning. First of all, Perigueux. If we did not have so closed a schedule, we could spare some time walking around its medieval quarter and its charming winding little streets, leading to a massive cathedral which was thoroughly renovated in the 19th. The architect was the same one who designed the Sacre Coeur at Paris, so the cathedral has a quite strange look seemingly called “neo-byzantine”. I’d put an “ish” somewhere there. anyway is a beautiful building, solid, hanging over the few stories constructions surrounding it. Very impressive. But we have walked enough for the morning and we are in a little hurry so keep on walking and in just five minutes from the old town we arrive to the oldest town, not that old at all. What a tongue twister!.

Vessuna site is placed on what once was the Roman village of Vésone. The Museum, designed by architectural star Jean Nouvel, consist of a building which in the middle of a park also containing some archaeological remains from the Roman town. This building is made of high crystal walls thus allowing the whole concept to be integrated and the Roman villa inside being well illuminated and even easy to see from the outside. In the inside there lie the remaining of a Roma villa, very well-preserved, three models os the old town and its main monuments like the amphitheater from the late 2nd century, and exhibitions about the old town, full of the foundlings of the archaeological site, and the archaeological work in general.

The main piece, of course, is what remains of a “domus”, found in 1959, richly decorated with paintings on the walls still showing its brilliant colours. Walking on footbridges, one can tour the “domus” with its garden, kitchens, rooms and baths, all heated by hypocaust. Some objects are on display which can connect the now silent floors and walls with the life of their ancient inhabitants. In the outside we can see the massive Vesunna tower, which is believed to have been part of the temple of Vesunna. Some screens show the visitor a representation of the original paintings and how the “domus” developed from 1st to 3rd centuries.

Fortunately for us, we have come early, the site opening at 10 in the morning during the summer season, and not being very big, we are still on time with the plan. Unfortunately we will miss the night shows unless we come on Wednesday or, if we are traveling with children, the workshops. But we are trying to beat time itself in this race so…maybe tomorrow. Now we are again into the car, heading East to Prehistory.

Some half an hour from Perigueux lies Les-Eyzies-de-Tayac, where the Cro-Magnon shelter is located, along with the Font de Paume and other caves and lots of troglodyte sites. A Prehistory paradise on Earth: here, in the Vézère valley, archaeological findings are the usual sight. Good reason to place here the National Prehistory Museum.

Going back from the Romans, we can go as far as 400.000 years in this Museum. The building is hanged on a high cliff over the Vézére, perfectly fit in the troglodyte housing surroundings. In what could be considered a nice attempt (but not completely a success) to integrate classic museum exhibiting with new, more interactive activities, we can contemplate a huge collection of objects from our remote past, from Paleolithic to the end of the Ice Age and up to the Bronze Age. Screens will run films explaining the ancient techniques to spark fire, create tools and weapons. Some diorama will show long gone species. The staircase connecting stages one and two will show us a perfect stratigraphic wall through samples taken from the surrounding area as well as Georgia covering from 1,8 million years to approximately 14000 BC. We could end the visit with a picture with The Primitive Man, a Paul Dardé statue of what could be one of our ancestors, fittingly placed on the complex terrace, close to the cliffs, where you can also have a look at the village below and the junction of the Vézère and Beune rivers.

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Hopefully for our tight timetable we won’t be delayed for long, area Museums being more of a Human size, not resembling those larger than life titans we are so used to. So we can follow to Lascaux and put and end to the morning, have a light lunch and get the tickets to Lascaux II, example of the greatness and at the same time shortcomings of Mankind.

After lunch we can drive a short distance to the cave or, to speak properly, the replica. Unfortunately, the actual cave is closed to the public for security reasons. Not that it could be dangerous for people: it is people who turned out to be dangerous for the paintings.

Lascaux shares (or not, it depends on individual opinions) the title of most famous painted cave in the world with the Spanish Altamira. Discovered in 1940, visited since by thousands of tourists with flashes, coughs and smoke, the risk and the actual damage to the awesome paintings became so great and accelerated that after some strong controversy, the cave was finally closed to the public in 1963, to try to preserve what is probably the best testimony of Human creativity and even, according to some experts, the most ancient temple in the world. Hence the existence of the replica at a mere 200 meters from the original site, where painting techniques and materials were faithfully reproduced to create a likeness (even temperature is fresh. Jackets or pullovers recommended even in summer).

The replica copies perfectly the original cave, with measures taken to the inch, every relief, every little spot, every shape in the rock, every tightness of space (seriously, take a light lunch, there is a very dire passage halfway through the cave) has been taken to the replica exactly as it was in the original grotto. Opened 18 July 1983, the installation is visited by some 250000 people every year, with high peaks on summer months. Visit is guided by experts, every half an hour, and so it is strongly recommended to have a reservation in advance.

Lascaux II covers a rough 90 % of the original paintings, those most meaningful (a replica of the other paintings, not so close to the original, could be seen at Le Thot which also encloses a little “prehistorical zoo” and it is not far away. For us, it will have to wait) and more artistic. The guide’s explanations are both entertaining and full of relevant information, in a very accessible way. You’ll get to know everything that can be known ( and something which still lies in the field of theory or speculation) in less than an hour. There you will meet the jumping cow, an astonishing painting of a 1,70 meters cow full of movement and resembling the act of jumping; the Bull’s chamber, with its star, the so-called unicorn and the massive bulls which give the chamber its name. The unicorn is a composite animal, maybe a mythological one or some form of picture rendering of some oral tradition. Or it could be that the would-be horn is in fact the lines of the tail of one of the 3 meter bulls down the wall: in most cave paintings, figures tend to be somewhat crammed in the walls, even mixed or superimposed. Stags, horses, one of them tumbling, bears and also and ibex, the Magdalenian wildlife is depicted there in all its might. The guides will explain to us some theories about why are they there. But you can also make your own.

With any luck, we will emerge from the deep a little wiser, maybe in awe. But there is no time for that, because now, in the early afternoon, we must follow our route to the south, passing near Sarlat-la-Caneda and Beynac to Castelnaud. In fact, there was a raging rivalry between the families owning both castles, Beynac and Castelnaud during the early decades of 20th century which needed the papal intervention to settle. In case you are having a family feud of your own on your holidays, we are afraid that Papacy mediation is not available.

Anyways, now that we are arriving at Castelnaud, the view is certainly imposing. Perched on a high cliff over a bend of the Dordogne river, Castelnaud castle shows the most recognizable features of a Medieval fortress: ramparts, towers, stone and timber hauled together…and looking North downriver, its old rival of Beynac. But let’s have a look at the inside.

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Here at Castelnaud, everyone could find something to enjoy. Castles are always fun for kids, walking around the ramparts, playing the knight or the Princess. Here you can find, depending on the time of the year, activities like puppets or workshops. They can play video games or watch some educational cartoons…about 20000 pupils visit the castle every year, gaoled by their teachers. There are exhibitions of weaponry and some films about siege warfare and the Hundred Years War to be seen at the Museum of War in the Middle Ages for the adult audience. A show is running now in the courtyard of the chatêlet with actors, and some volunteers, performing how to handle a sword, or a little cannon called veuglaire. Some steps beyond, a clanking noise catches the ear as the blacksmith opens his workshop and shows us how to make armour, arrow and sword…and if there is the proper day, we can even attend to a demonstration of still working trebuchets, up on the bastion. A hectic evening indeed.

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Curiously enough, what stands as the prototypical impregnable castle, was taken quite many times during the Hundred Years war. Just an example: in 1405, Archambaud d’abzac was appointed Captain of the castle after it been taken on behalf of the King of England. Then he sold the castle to the French for 6000 ecus of gold just to take it back for the English in a surprise attack in 1407. The fortress was also taken either by French or English troops or by changes in allegiance in 1415, 1417, 1419, 1420, 1437, 1440 and, finally, 1442. That siege was the last major action seen by the castle as the English leave the place and, eleven years later, after the battle of Castillon, the whole country.

And that was Castelnaud. Easy to do, having time or a looser schedule, is a visit to some of the other fortified or troglodyte villages around: the old rival castle at Beynac, La-Rocque-Gageac, Domme…if the visit to Castelnaud has left spare time in route we can stop at Le-Bouisson-de-Cadouin to see the cloister there as it is in our way, straight West for a couple of hours, leaving the Dordogne region and approaching Bordeaux. There is no need to make a stop for dinner as a whole fair with shows, demonstrations of weaponry, animals, shops and of course food will we available on arriving to the Battle of Castillon.

The show itself begins at 22.30, so there is time enough to enjoy the other attractions:workshops, sword combats, animal farm, all in what it is called “La village d’Alienor”, next to the main stage in a large clearing on the wooded hills surrounding the village of Castillon-la-Bataille, where there is also a big parking lot, so all you have to do is drive, park and enjoy the night. The show is an enormous affaire, with almost a thousand people involved in a space of roughly 20 acres up on the hill, with the old castle in the back. In the stage, during a couple of hours, the story of the last moments of English presence in French soil is revealed, mostly by non-professional actors and pupils from equestrian schools: the life of the commoners and how it was disturbed by the constant passing of the armies; the celebrations, the links with the religious community; weddings, brawls, gossip, everyday life.

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And of course, war. After regaining Bordeaux for the English in 1452, John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, one of the most famous warriors of the age and his forces had to cope with a new French invasion in 1453. With the French army laying siege to the nearby town of Castillon (then “-sur-Dordogne”, subsequently “-la-Bataille”) Talbot was pressed by the town commanders and left to relieve Castillon instead of waiting for reinforcements. Dettached from the main army with the vanguard, he crushed a minor French force at a priory near Castillon. Then follow suit and try to attack the on-siege forces. Unfortunately for him, who believed that his main army was arriving and the French were retreating, he in fact confronted a huge artillery park, probably with more than 200 and perhaps as much as 300 guns, entrenched and behind high wooden walls, with the guns disposed to enfilade attackers. Thus, his troops were massacred by the French guns, in a somewhat modernised and reversed version of Crecy. And the reinforcements were also crushed as they were joining the fray, until the final route. With both Talbot and his son dead in battle, the will to resist of the army and the Bordeaux population went into decline, with the city surrendering three months later, and so putting and end to the Hundred Years War.

The show is very lively, full of pyrotechnics and a very well staged battle, with a marked contrast with the more light and humorous scenes depicting the villagers’ lives. The text, in French but easy to follow, is consistent with the Historical fact albeit taking some liberties for the sake of theatrical illusion and the need to include different actions and even places in a single, yet big, stage. The night ends with the French victory and the actors giving applause to the audience as the spectators go back to their cars to call it a night.

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And now, it is time to go back to Perigueux and have a long, nice rest after the most hectic day of your holidays. Remember to leave some days to recover prior to your journey back home. After all, you have completed a voyage of 400000 years, painting caves, building houses, then castles and having even survived a bloody battle. That is living History. Even when you are not researching for a paper.

 

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