Saturday, February 14, 2009

Niaux: Prehistoric Cave Art

One of our most memorable trips has been to Niaux, a large cave in the in the steep foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains that contains amazing prehistoric artworks. There are actually many caves containing prehistoric art in this part of France, but most are now closed to visitors. Niaux is one of the few that can still be seen.

In order to preserve the art, small groups of twenty are allowed to enter with a guide. The entrance to the cave is in a sheer cliff high above the Vicdessos River. Using only flashlights, we hiked about 900 meters back into the unlighted cavern. The most remarkable part of the tour is the Black Chamber, whose walls are covered with beautiful and highly detailed images of prehistoric animals -- bison, horses, and ibex -- painted in red and black. These drawings date from the Magdalenien Period of the Late Stone Age, meaning that they were created about 12,000 years ago. It is difficult to imagine our ancestors working their way so deep into the cave complex by simple torchlight in order to create these incredible red and black drawings.
(The pictures of art from inside the cave weren't made by us since photography is not permitted in order to preserve the delicate works.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Another day trip, another abbey. This time we drove east through the vineyards of Corbieres to the Cistercian abbey of Fontfroide. Our tour gave us a look not only at the cloister and church, but also a behind-the-scenes glimpse of life for the lay brothers, dining in the refectory, and cooking in the kitchen.


One of the most moving places we have visited is the remote rural chapel of St-Martin-des-Puits. It is located in a steep, wooded river valley, along the side of a rutted one-lane country road. The rectangular choir of this tiny building is pre-Romanesque, divided from the 11th-century nave by a horseshoe-shaped Visigothic arch supported by a pair marble columns taken from an unknown Roman site. The choir is decorated by magnificent but badly damaged 12-century frescoes.

The entire structure is rapidly deteriorating. There is no glass in the windows, so the interior (including the fragile frescos) stands exposed to the weather. The chapel is hauntingly beautiful and slowly disappearing.