Friday, 25 April 2008

a tale of two grottoes

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Well, ok, no it wasn't quite that extreme a polarity, but there was a distinct difference in the experiences we had at two different grottes: Grotte Roland and Pech Merle.

France has limestone caves formed by millennia of water erosion all over the country, some of which are very famous, and rightly so, for their prehistoric cave paintings and stunning calcite structures. Here in the Lot region, where the river carves a dramatic gorge through the soft sedimentary rock, they seem to have more than their fair share of these underground caverns.

There's one just up the road from where we are staying at Montcuq, the little Grotte Roland. Discovered in the 1920s, it's very much a family affair - we were shown around by the son of the farmer who stumbled upon the natural opening to the cave. Lacking any cave paintings, the Grotte makes a great deal of noise about the Cave Bear remains that have been found there and the scratch marks from their claws that are there for all to see. Not that they needed to in our opinion as we were far more enthralled by the wonderful stalagmites and stalactites that turned the grotte into this beautiful science fiction landscape, like Ridley Scott's imagination cast in miniature, which naturally meant my camera shutter was whirring away. It being the low season we had our extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide to ourselves on the 200m promenade sous terre, explaining about the different levels and side passages and pointing out particularly interesting calcite structures and colours (as well as yet more claw marks). We both felt rather embarrassed that we didn't have any change for a tip.

Pech Merle is very much on the tourist trail with signposts all the way from Cahors, a 20-mile drive along the river past dramatic cliffs. With a museum, souvenir shop, ticket booth and cafe, it radiated pretensions to national importance mixed with conveyer belt economics. Shunted into an entrance room with 23 other visitors immediately after another tour group had departed. We were at least offered printed english versions of the guide's talk, though I rather wish we hadn't as then I might have been able to pretend not to understand when the guide explained that taking photos was forbidden. She didn't explain why, and so if it hadn't been for the guide at Grotte Roland telling us too much light encouraged the growth of algae and lichens which damaged the cave paintings, I would have assumed it was just an attempt to preserve the monopoly of the overpriced postcards in the souvenir shop. I was miffed especially when presented with the stunning rock forms and caverns that greeted us downstairs. The cave paintings were less interesting - partly because we were at the back, partly because the french guide didn't talk very loudly, but also because when faced with the glorious and magnificent sculptures made by rock and water, you couldn't help but feel that early man's efforts at art were rather put to shame. A few handprint silhouettes did produce a tingle as the realisation dawned that somebody not unlike us had made them some 8,000 years ago and thus grasped a kind of immortality, but otherwise we were content to stand at the back and gape at the towering spikes and columns until the lights flicked out behind us and we were forced to catch up with the group ahead.

It wasn't a bad visit, but after the permissiveness and personality of the visit to Grotte Roland I know which one I'd suggest you go to. Especially if you want to take photos, which you undoubtedly will.

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