All posts by anarialaurelin

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!

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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.

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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.

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Bayeux

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Paris: A city like any other, yet unlike all others

When we stepped out into Paris for the first time on this trip, I tried to ignore the cacophany, grime and stench that accompanies any large city. The first time I had travelled to ‘The City of Light’, I was disappointed at the very urban quality of what I expected to be a pristine city. This disappointment hindered me from truly realizing the beautiful history and culture of Paris. On this trip, I was determined to see through the urban environment to better appreciate what the city has to offer.

Each day, we experienced more than I thought possible and traversed miles of the city, wearing out our feet by the end of every adventure. Although the urban environment was still overwhelming, I gradually became a little more comfortable in Paris. On the last day, we were given ample free time to wander the city. Of my group, I was the sole person interested in seeing another museum (Le Musée de Cluny), as we had already been to the Louvre and L’Orangerie that day. The others wanted to wander along the bookseller stands lining the banks of the Seine. They suggested that if I really wanted to go to the museum, I could walk there myself, but I vehemently insisted that I could not traverse a city, let alone a foreign one, on my own. I walked with the group for a while, but it became clear that I would not have time to visit the museum if I stayed with them. I weighed the risks in my head, then told the group that I would venture to the museum, hardly believing what I was committing to. I set off anxiously, but relaxed as I walked. I was surprised how at ease I felt, remembering that I would never have been able to do the same a year ago. The museum was worth the effort, and I returned to the group proud of my accomplishment and satisfied with my day.

Not only did this experience prove to me my capability and independence, it allowed me to realize that on this trip I managed to appreciate Paris despite the urban atmosphere. I especially loved visiting the museums this time, while I always enjoy the cathedrals. The highlights were too numerous to list. Ultimately, while Paris may be as urban as any other city, it has incredible opportunities and fascinating culture, which I was lucky enough to experience on this trip.

The Musée de Cluny