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February 5, 2002
Dordogne: La Grotte du Pech-Merle (Russell)

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The stunning Dordogne village of Beynac

For our last full week in France, we decided to make an excursion over several days to Dordogne, France's west-central region.  Although every other region in France would probably argue, Dordogne claims to have the best cuisine in the country, being the home of both foie gras and truffles.  However, we came here mainly to enjoy the beautiful scenery, the spectacular villages and houses, and the prehistoric caves.

Due to our six-hour drive and side trip to Oradour-sur-Glane on February 4th, we didn't arrive at our destination of Beynac until evening.  The trouble is that France's autoroute system is shaped like a large doughnut, avoiding the Massif Central mountains in the center of the country.  As a result, you can't drive directly from Crest to Beynac; instead you must either make a circle to the north or a circle to the south.  Because we had already seen part of the southern route on our recent excursion to Languedoc, we decided to take the counter-clockwise route to the north.

(Actually, the week before Gail had argued that we should have combined the two trips to save mileage and time.  Russell had said it wouldn't have made any difference.  It would have made a difference.  As the madame who lives next door said, "Il faut toujours ecouter votre femme" -- "You should always listen to your wife.")

The most noteworthy part of the drive was outside of Montlušon, where we left the autoroute and took a smaller country road to save time.  While zipping along at 140 kph on the two-lane road, we kept seeing signs declaring that 38 people had died along here in the last few years, and six had died within the last six months along a one-kilometre stretch alone.  Authorities had even put up large black silhouettes of people with their heads cracked open along the sides of the road to mark where people and families had been killed.

The autoroute system suddenly ended outside of the area we were heading to (it's not due to be completed until 2003), so the last hour and a half was all winding, country roads.  The route between Carsac and Beynac is supposed to be one of the most beautiful drives in all of France, but we couldn't tell because by then it was dark.  Instead, we discovered that in order to stay on the same road around here, you have to make constant side turns -- as opposed to following the more obviouus road directly in front of you.  As a result, we got turned around several times before arriving.

We finally pulled into Beynac at 7:30 PM, where we had a room for four at the H˘tel Pontet.  We treated ourselves to dinner out at the only restaurant that was still open, the Hostelerie Maleville, where the soup course alone would have been enough for all four of us.  By the time we finished dinner after 9:00 PM, we were pretty exhausted and turned in early.

On February 5th we had an incredibly lazy morning.  Our main goal that day was a tour at La Grotte du Pech-Merle, a prehistoric cave southeast of Dordogne about two hours away.  (La Grotte du Pech Merle is Rick Steves' third-best cave recommendation.  His second-best recommendation, the Grotte de Rouffignac, is closed until March.  His best recommendation, the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume, is closed until May.  There are definite disadvantages to traveling in the off-season.)

We were looking forward to experiencing the scenic drive between Beynac and Carsac in the daylight, but we ended up getting lost again -- twice.  After ending up in Sarlat for the second time (from two different directions, no less), Gail declared that she wasn't going to drive anymore.  She ended up regretting her words as Russell drove the rest of the way rather aggressively (Gail: "like a bat out of hell"), and we barely pulled into La Grotte du Pech-Merle at 2:00 PM when our tour was due to start.

La Grotte du Pech-Merle ("Pech-Merle" is languedoc for "hill of Merle") is one of 110 prehistoric caves in the departement of Quercy in the Lot River Valley.  In addition to spectacular stalactites and stalagmites, the cave contains numerous drawings and paintings by prehistoric hominids, some dating as far back as 25,000 years ago.  Because it was the off-season, the only tour available to us was in the company of a field-trip of French school children... and conducted in French.  Cameron tried to follow as best he could, and ended up blending into the crowd of French students.  Joss began complaining that he was bored and wanted to leave the minute we entered the caves.  Gail was frustrated by both her inability to understand everything the guide said and her inability to see everything because of all the children crowded around (fortunately, she was given a notebook that translated the most noteworthy sights into English).  Russell wandered around snapping photographs until he was reminded that snapping photographs is not allowed.

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An exhibit of Pech-Merle's cave paintings in the museum...
... and the real thing

By the time we finished our tour of the caves, it was raining pretty heavily outside.  Our planned excursion to nearby St.-Cirq lapopie, an amazing town built on a cliff, turned into a quick drive-through.  Knowing that we faced a two-hour drive back to Beynac in the dwindling daylight, we stopped for dinner at McDonald's in Cahors, where we received the slowest service we have ever had in our entire lives.  We ended up driving the route between Carsac and Beynac yet again in the dark.  But while the boys played their Game Boys in the back, Russell and Gail were treated to the sight of dozens of frogs hopping across the road in the rain (we even saw a night owl swoop down to pick one up).

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The stunning Dordogne village of St.-Cirq Lapopie

Because of the rain, we may cut our four-night trip down to three nights.  But we had such "fun" at La Grotte du Pech-Merle that we may try for another prehistoric cave tour again tomorrow.


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