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A letter from abroad.

After reading the many articles of daring exploits of tough cavers enduring hardships in exotic places, I packed my wife into the car, bought a ticket to France, and headed south.  The trial began almost immediately, with the realisation that we were facing a 9 hour crossing to St Malo, but there, I should have read the small print.  No problem I thought as the Ship slid away from the quiet city of Portsmouth into the teeth of a force 9 gale.  I, breakfast and two stomachs later we bumped into France and began a fortnights game of pinball with the French drivers. After assuring my wife that we would not avoid the beaches altogether we arrived near the West coast of France, Nantes.  Very old city, I believe that at one time we [the Brits] owned it, sometime around Henry the Umpteenth.  After spending a very pleasant overnight stop and half the next day around the city we once again went toward the coast, Fouras, La Rochcelle.  The place would make your toes curl, as far as the eye can see you have one of the most attractive tourist traps I've ever seen, steeped in History, after some long siege 5000 were left out of an original 28,000 a bit on the expensive side.  Once my obligations were completed i.e. the seaside bit we left the barest of fronts [kwoo kwoo] for the pleasant climes of the Dordogne. I had no idea where to start, I had with me much info on everything, I was carrying a library to be proud of. What turned out to be the deciding factor was time, we didn’t have a lot left.  So wanting to see some painted caves instead of painted women for a change I settled on the following.

LASCAUX II, MONTIGNAC, BRIVE.

This site is 26 Km Northwest of Les Eyzies.  The centre of the caving area, for those of you who are saying “we know where it is” will have to be patient.  I was advised not to waste my time by several English cavers, but I'm glad I found out for myself.

Montignac comes over as another Cheddar Gorge, fascinating but too many tourists.  It’s here in the centre that you buy your ticket.  The times of the various language tours of the site are listed so if you are early enough you can have your pick of approximately 4 English speaking tours.  I was lucky, no queue, and the next trip was in 2 hours, time enough for dinner.

Lascaux II is constructed in an old shallow quarry 400 yards from Lascaux I, to the right of the car park as you enter.  It was created because of the effect the early developers had not seen in altering various aspects of the entrance of the cave.  The insertion of the staircase into the Hall of the Bulls meant air temperature and flow were no longer anything like the chill environment of the original site.  Likewise when the air ventilation system was installed this brought in the spores from the wood surrounding the site and accelerated vegetation growth within. This was realised early on and steps were taken but it was ultimately decided that until they completely understood how the place could be maintained as close to it's original condition the site would be closed.  So now the only people allowed into Lascaux are scientists dignitaries and politicians.

Lascaux II has been reproduced by taking stereoscopic photographs every 2 inches along the passages. From these wooden profiles were made. Once these were assembled they were checked to see if they were accurate to the shape of the original passage. Having assured themselves that these profiles were correct they were reproduced in steel.  Once these had been set into position, they were covered in steel mesh and finished by having concrete poured into the gaps.  If you like, imagine a passage through a pack of cards, the cards then being spaced apart.  As the concrete was setting "plasterers" worked the surface of the concrete to be as faithful and as accurate as possible, they boast of an accuracy of +-5mm.  The paintings were created using similar styles, materials and techniques as early man. The effect is quite a shock.  The tour begins with a 10 minute talk within the first two airlocks.  From here you step through into the Hall of the Bulls.  See it.  There is still, however a chance to gain access to Lascaux 1, that is to write to the gentleman, whose address appears at the end of this article.  Five, yes five persons are allowed each day, five days a week.  When you write you must also state any professional qualifications and your reason for wishing to see the paintings.  Being a plumber isn’t enough apparently.

Although I'd been impressed by seeing the art of man reproduced, it was still not the real thing so delving into the mobile library I came upon Grotte de Font de Gaume. After Lascaux this is the next best and still open to the public.  It is stated at the entrance that only 340 a day are allowed.  I have my doubts as to how many went in on the day I was present.  At 9am there was a queue some 100 yards long when I arrived, this slowly increased a further 30 yards.  3 hours later everyone had a ticket.  An estimate of around 400 I guess.

GROTTE DE FONT DE GAUME, LES EYZIES.

This site is located at the Eastern end of Les Eyzies on the Sarlat road, at the side of the road. This cave was well worth the visit. The paintings mostly of Bison and deer are quite vivid.  The cave does not have any chambers like Lascaux, so it is difficult to stand back to get a good look at them.  Even so examples such as the bear are quite clear from a distance of 3 feet.  This is without doubt well worth a visit.  Get there for your ticket around 8 am, I mean it, to avoid disappointment.

CARPE DIEM, MANAURIE, LES EYZIES.

The only reason I stopped for this site was that I had never heard of it.  Just West of the road at Manaurie.  It is a small and expensive family business.  The cave consists of a low passage some 300 feet of which is given over as the show cave.  The guide assured us the passage carried on for many kilometres, beyond the squeeze. It is a well decorated cave of I believe some antiquity.  Length of trip 18 minutes for 18 Francs [1.80].

Beyond these torments there’s not much to tell of really other than hardship and privation, in local hotels.  Oh one point of interest was that we ran out of cash whilst in Les Eyzies due to not informing VISA that we were going to use it for cash abroad, don't make that mistake.  You may not be as lucky as Pauline and I in persuading the local Bank Manager into lending yourselves £50 of his own money [with no security] to get you back to the coast.  Was it my pleading eyes or Paulines short skirt or mabye it was because we were in his office for 2 hours and he just wanted to stop Pauline talking?

One last thing I would like express my thanks to all those people who made this trip possible, A R Jarrett, accommodation, illumination & phrase book,  S J J P C McManus, things that you inflate, & and world atlas. Last but not least my employer, who allowed me the time off of work an allowance and who held my position open [snigger] until I returned, me.

Pat Cronin.