Monthly Archives: July 2015

The Perfect Cave

The paleolithic part of the Piette journey was intriguing to me as I knew the least about it. I had never visited a cave before, nor seen real flints. I imagined the caves as shallow inlets or giant caverns with expressive pigmented animals dancing at the back. I could not wait to board the tram through the Rouffignac cave to see if it met my expectations. The tram [rolled] through tunnels that had been expanded for easy access, a meter or so below the original cave floor. Although it was difficult to understand the guide’s French over the garbling microphone, I learned that this cave had more drawings of mammoths than any other cave, as well as over two-thirds of all mammoths depicted in known cave art. I strained to pick up the lines and etchings on the walls that represented the wooly animals. Suddenly, I realized there were words covering the walls and ceiling! However, as the guide explained, these markings were not traces of a paleolithic language: this was graffiti left by explorers in the 1600s. We reached the end of the tunnel; I was disappointed that the cave had not opened up into a giant gallery as I had read about in other caves. However, upon looking up, I spied the incredible network of mammoth and horse drawings that covered the ceiling. Though the drawings had amazed me, I still was not completely satisfied with my experience, as the cave itself felt artificial because of how much they changed it to make it accessible by tram. I could not wait to explore the next one on our itinerary!


In the Mas D’Azil cave, I was immediately more impressed. The ceiling stretched over the highway and river, creating a cool tunnel. The entrance to the cave was at the middle of the overpass. When we stepped inside, my first impression was how much the cave stretched in three-dimensional space, with small corridors to walk through and open chambers. I was eager to explore this much more ‘cave-like’ cave. We followed the snaking path around and through the rock formations, through caverns and tight passes. However, I was disappointed with the presentation, as the ‘curators’ had installed out-of-place exhibits throughout the cave. In the main gallery, there was a light and music show, designed to enhance our appreciation of the cave, which just took me out of the experience. In the next room, there were ‘modern art’ chandeliers that did not belong in a prehistoric site, even though the crystals were shaped like bones and flints. I was happy to discover the presence of live bats in the modern art room, though all we could hear of them were their squeaks. We looped above and back as I thought about how this cave compared to the last: the rock formations were far more spectacular in this one, but we did not see its cave art. I hoped that the last cave on our trip would finally reach my expectations.


The last cave we visited was Niaux. The road to the cave was breathtaking, with views of ever-higher mountains and the valleys in between. At the entrance, we picked up lanterns to light our way and then stepped through a vault-like door to the cave. From the beginning, it was more spectacular than I could have expected. Though the lanterns made it impossible to see the entire extent of the cave, the flickering of the many lights created an effect like what I imagine the cave painters must have seen. There were stalactites and stalagmites, though apparently people had taken many as souvenirs before it was banned. The cave stretched on and on, with tunnels and open chambers and pools of water. In this cave I could imagine being a paleolithic person, venturing into the deep darkness. We reached a rock with dots and markings, some of which I speculated to be handprints of a sort, fingertips drawn inwards. Was it a direction marker? Some sort of calendar? Later, we approached the Black Gallery, where most of the paintings of the cave were. We climbed a great hill before the ceiling opened above us. I could sense why the ancient humans had decided to paint at this location—it seemed like a destination in the cave, not just tunnels leading ever on. The guide explained each set of paintings; half finished pictures, giant reindeer, and beautifully drawn bison were dramatically illuminated before us. After viewing the art, the guide instructed us to turn off our lanterns. Each click invited the darkness closer, until we could see nothing. The guide suggested that someone sing a song to demonstrate the acoustics of the cave. After everyone volunteered their neighbor but none rose to the challenge, I offered to sing a line of my favorite song. It resonated beautifully, and I wished I could sing there all day in the darkness. One of the group suggested a moment of complete silence. It was so peaceful to stand there with only our ears in focus, listening to a far off drip in the cave and feeling the sense of space.




Perhaps my favorite town of any we visited was Bayeux. It was a charming place with medieval houses, a water mill, and a small park just out of the town’s center. I enjoyed our hour to walk around, though I did not get to see the market which others visited. My favorite part of the town was the cathedral. It was in the gothic style, with different patterned tracery across every window, elaborate stonework and soaring ceilings. It rivaled even the ones we saw in Paris.


In the afternoon we saw the Bayeux tapestry itself, depicting the Battle of Hastings from a Norman perspective. I was eager to see the tapestry, mainly because of my interest in the year 1066: the first recorded appearance of the Halley’s comet, the Battle of Hastings, and the start of a transition of the English language all occurred within that time. It was extraordinary to consider that the tapestry was older than our language as we know it: the Norman invasion introduced French to the Germanic language of the Anglo-Saxons, marking the transition from Old English into Middle English. With my fascination in etymology, I was more than eager to see the story behind this linguistic revolution.

Although I knew that the tapestry was incredibly long before arriving in the gallery, I could not believe how many details and micro-stories fit together to weave the tale. Sewn figures voyaged, ruled, and conquered, each scene surrounded by multicolored depictions of the landmarks, animal counterparts, and geography that featured in the chapter. Although the tapestry’s artwork displayed the classic symbolic style of the Middle-ages, I was surprised at how accurately the horses were portrayed, as well as the choice of colors used in the tapestry. When I reached the end of the cloth, I felt that I had voyaged across the sea of threads from France to England and back in the company of William the Conquerer.


Wednesday, June 24: Surveying and Tool Making

Today we started off the day riding the bus to a woodsy area in Fabas and hiking up a path, examining badger and deer tracks along the way. We stopped and Sébastien said to find flint along the paths. Someone spotted a large chunk of flint and soon he began to construct the piece into a tool, the way that a Magdalenian person would. It looked simple enough so after a couple students in our group gave a shot at creating the tool, I took my turn. But trust me, it is NOT as simple as it seems. I repeat. Not simple. First I had to find the proper position for my hand on the rock so that when I was breaking off bits of flint, I didn’t break off bits of my finger along with it. Next, I would find that it was even more difficult to hit the flint with enough momentum that it would actually break. And finally when you thought you were ready, hitting the rock in the correct spot became even more challenging the harder you swung. So now I have had a glimpse of what stone tool making is like. So Magdalenians, I applaud you.

Next we went to a field with crops growing in it. Because the ground had been turned over by a plow, it was the perfect opportunity to see what lay beneath the surface of the soil. We surveyed the field, finding bags and bags of possible artifacts (and some useless sandstone to Sébastien’s displeasure). After packing up and going back to the Gite and eating lunch, we lay all of the artifacts across a table and cleaned them off to examine them. It was incredible that just from looking at the rock you can tell whether or not it was a tool, or a core, where the flint was struck, and what time period it came from. I really enjoyed this day of surveying, and I feel like after this day I have a better understanding of archaeology and the Paleolithic era.


When friends and family ask me now about the Piette trip and why I enjoyed it so much, I usually give them a pretty standard answer about scenic the country was and how great the food was and how different the culture was, but in reality, what made the trip so memorable was far beyond the standard reasons people love to visit France (however valid they may be). What really made the trip so fantastic for me wasn’t the usual joy of travelling, but rather the privilege of being able to share it with a close, dynamic group of fellow Andover students. While we may not have all been exceptionally good friends- or even aquaintances-  at the beginning of the trip, I feel I can now say that we’ve all found a new family on campus: the Piette fam. Each day, the group embarked ready and eager to learn new things and encounter new experiences. In discussions of history, art, culture and archaeology, the group was always able to provide new points and perspectives that greatly improved my appreciation of the materials and topics. From the Upper Gîte to the Queer Table, each of the relationships I formed during the trip greatly enriched my time abroad. I’m so glad to have shared my experience in France with the rest of the Piette group, and I hope our shared experience will enable us to bring a new perspective back to campus.

piette fam

Thanks Piette fam- couldn’t have done it without you. Photo credits to Sophie Miller.

Multitudes of Water Lilies

On our last afternoon in Paris, we had the choice of visiting Le Musée d’Orsay or L’Orangerie. Although there was more to see in the Orsay, I couldn’t resist returning to see Les Nymphéas, especially as we would be visiting Monet’s gardens in Giverny the next day. When I had come to this museum with my parents a few years before, I had been struck by the scale and how dynamic the paintings were. I had also realized how calming the vast blue images were. This time, I was not as surprised when I entered the gallery, but I immediately felt relaxed. I imagined the serene settings that had inspired the paintings, eager to see them in person.


When we arrived in Giverny, my first reaction as we entered the gardens was disappointment at the number of tourists milling around. Instead of being the calming, inspiring garden retreat I expected, it felt like a public attraction such as the Eiffel Tower: something to see just because of how famous it was, not for the value of the place itself. It did not satisfy my expectations, for at first, the atmosphere was not nearly as serene as the paintings themselves, nor could I truly get a sense of what Monet saw. However, before long, I could not help but enjoy the spectacular flowers and trees. The gardens exuded a sense of green, and I marveled at how Monet captured so many other colors in his paintings to counter the overwhelming lushness. I wished that I could have seen the gardens in different lights and times of day to truly see the inspiration of the paintings.


After wandering through the network of ponds, we entered the flower garden, closer to the house. I saw many flower varieties I had never even imagined before entwined amongst roses, poppies, and daisies. The flowers were so densely grown that it was impossible to tell one plant from the next. The colors were unbelievable, varied and bright. Remembering that Monet had created the gardens as if they were an ongoing work of art, I could see how the flowers themselves formed a natural masterpiece. Although initially disappointing, my visit to Giverny was as picturesque as the Nymphéas paintings.

Animal Lover: Part 2

Just as Normandy is known for its cows, the Perigôrd is famous for its ducks and geese. Though I don’t share the same love for ducks and geese as I do for cows, I’m just as enthusiastic about eating them, and our stay in Sarlat provided quite the opportunity. Whether in the form of fois gras, mousse, pate, confit, magret or liver, each restaurant and shop we visited offered some delicious dish at the expense of our feathered friends.

Since almost all of the duck and/or goose dishes we had in Sarlat were absolutely fantastic, it’s easier for me to walk through a typical Perigord menu than to choose a best dish. For the entrées (appetizers), most Perigôrd restaurants give you a choice between toast with fois gras, sometimes accompanied by a light side salad, and an omelet with cèpes, a type of savory mushroom indigenous to the region. Now, the fois gras entrée comes in many other forms as well; while each restaurant presents its own slight variation- a bloc with walnut toast, a sliver on baguette, a slightly diluted goose liver pâté- almost all present some combination of fois gras, bread, and salad. Next, for the plats (main dishes), the typical Sarlat restaurant would offer a choice between a large bloc of fois gras with goat cheese salad, some fairly standard fish dish, and one of several permutations of duck. The two most common were confit, a type of preserved duck breast, and magret, a roasted duck breast sliced into medallions. Both were often served with roasted potatoes with herbs and either an orange or truffle sauce. Other servings of duck were also common- a pan-fried duck liver with peach sauce was one of the best dishes I had in Sarlat. Lastly, for the dessert, you would often find a choice between walnut cake (seeing as walnuts are another regional specialty), ice cream, and profiteroles.