New International Cave Painting Centre at Lascaux, Dordogne
The word ‘replica’ isn’t something that
would normally fill me with excitement, all too often implying fake or second
best. But when you’re talking
prehistoric paintings, ‘replica’ suddenly becomes an acceptable word and never
more so than at Lascaux in the French department of Dordogne.
Discovered in 1940 by four teenagers, the
Lascaux caves are world famous for their polychrome animal paintings, the size
of the figures, and the sheer concentration of images. Opened to the public in 1948, the cave was closed
permanently in 1963 to stop increased humidity further damaging the
images. So the idea of a full-scale replica
is really something to get excited about.
The new attraction is built at the base of
Lascaux hill on the edge of Montignac, a small town in the valley of the Vezere,
which feeds into the Dordogne. Officially called the International Cave Painting Centre, it is
popularly known as Lascaux IV. In 1983,
a replica of two principal sections of the paintings was opened inside the hill
close to the original cave - Lascaux II – which remains open for themed visits. And in
2012, mobile replicas began an ongoing world tour as Lascaux III, which this
year will be touring Japan.
I was lucky to be part of a small group of
UK journalists invited to a private preview of Lascaux 4 in November, just days
before the official opening by outgoing French President, François
Hollande. Workmen were still adding
finishing touches inside and out, whilst the sales team were busy stocking the
shop with fridge magnets, books and cuddly sabre-toothed lions. The sense of excitement was palpable.
The visit is split into the replica cave
and the exhibition areas, and visitors will be encouraged to book online as
tours of the cave are timed and guided by knowledgeable facilitators. The rest of the displays you do at your own
pace with the help of a high-tech but simple-to-use electronic pad. Touch it against the activation points for
background information and animations which are relayed through open headsets. These enable you – but not your companions -
to hear the commentary, yet you can still talk to your friends or the many
human sources of information.
The visit starts on the roof of the long,
low building which mirrors the contours of Lascaux hill, but the whole site is
full accessible with a lift to the roof and gently sloping paths leading down
‘in the footsteps of the teenagers’ to the cave entrance. And once inside, I defy anyone to feel they
are inside a fake. I’ve visited several
caves in France with original paintings and this is as good as it gets. Every last contour and imperfection in the
rock is faithfully produced, the bulls and bison, the horses, ibex and stags so
realistic they seem to bound across the walls and ceiling.
Inside the cave, your facilitator - they
prefer that to ‘guide’ - urges you to look, to ponder, and to ask questions
about what the paintings mean and what sort of artists produced them. Many questions will never be answered but
it’s fascinating to speculate why the muzzle of a bear shows above the stomach
of a bull, its paw beneath the belly; why there’s just one depiction of a man,
but with the head of a bird; and whether the four stags with heads held high
are really swimming through a river.
At the end of the visit, the Workshop area
gives you a chance to look more closely at specific sections of the paintings,
including those inaccessible in the original cave, and therefore also in the
replica. There’s an excellent 3-D film
that puts Lascaux in the context of prehistoric art across the world; a digital
art gallery where you can have fun putting your own exhibition together; and
the chance to discover the changing views on prehistoric art through three
multi-media ‘theatre’ tableaux.
There’s also - somewhat unusually for
French heritage attractions - a small cafe serving a simple menu of locally
sourced food with views over pools and lawns (still mud during my visit!). Time required? I’d say a minimum of three hours, depending
on your level of interest. Tickets cost
€16 for Adults; €15 for Seniors - full details from www.lascaux.fr/en.
The International Cave Centre is likely to
be a highlight for the many British visitors who flock to the Dordogne
department every summer. The county
town of Perigueux - west of Montignac and Lascaux - is well worth a visit with
its unusual domed cathedral of Saint-Front and medieval streets. But this whole area is packed with goodies,
all within an hour’s drive of Montignac.
I first came here as a teenager and have
been a regular visitor ever since, drawn back by its historic towns and
villages, river scenery, and strong foodie culture. Amongst the Dordogne’s other gems are Sarlat, a showpiece market town rich
in fine buildings and oozing history from every mellow stone. Take the lift up the tower of the
deconsecrated church for panoramic rooftop views, then browse the food stalls
inside the old nave for caramelised walnuts, foie gras, and local Bergerac
wines. A few miles to the south, La
Roque-Gageac is rightly classified as one of France’s Most Beautiful Villages
with its river frontage, winding streets and tropical micro-climate plants.
To many overseas visitors, the Dordogne
department is synonymous with the Dordogne Valley, but in fact the river passes
through many departments, the neighbouring ones to the east being Correze and
Lot. On my winter visit, I stopped off
at another of those elite villages, Turenne in Correze, to wind up the quaint cobbled
streets without summer crowds. I
wandered through the market place in medieval Martel, alone except for the
all-pervading sound of band practice, and I wound down on foot past the
Stations of the Cross at the sheer pilgrims’ village of Rocamadour in Lot.
There were foodie treats on the itinerary
too. A welcome return to the Denoix
distillery in Brive-la-Gaillarde
for a tasting of walnut liqueur and a fun afternoon making chocolates at the
nearby Chocolaterie Lamy. I stopped off at La Borie d’Imbert, a goat cheese
farm at Rocamadour where visitors can meet the ever-friendly goats and buy
farm-fresh produce, and - a real winter treat - spent a morning hunting black
truffles with super-sniff Labrador Rosabelle at La Ferme de la Truffe in
Cuzance. Back at the farm restaurant, we
sampled a huge golden omelette dotted with ‘black diamonds’, accompanied by a
green salad dressed with fresh walnut oil, and followed by local cheese. Surely even Cro-Magnon man can’t have had it
Tourist information from:
For accommodation in Montignac, try www.laroseraie-hotel.com