The OH and I clocked up 30 years together this week – it honestly doesn’t seem that long but since our eldest daughter is 29 it seems we got the maths right – so we thought we’d go away for the night to celebrate. But it’s November and the only places which are nice and warm are a long way away, and most of the places within easy reach have closed for the winter. Now I understand why summer weddings are so popular, forget the romantic day in a flower strewn meadow or whatever, you’ve got years of a decent choice of anniversary trips lying ahead of you.
Chosing somewhere to go was further complicated by the OH’s response of ‘Been there,’ to just about everywhere I suggested. He did spend a couple of days looking up châteaux hotels but they were either closed – of course – or didn’t bother to reply to our emails about room availability. Obviously they were too grand to worry about filling rooms in the off season, I think we’ll stick with the more modest places in future, they’re really pleased to have your custom. Eventually we found what looked like a fabulous little place in Souillac, near Sarlat in the Dordogne and booked it with a sigh of relief. Despite living next to the Dordogne for 19 years I’ve never done a proper road trip there, well it’s close isn’t it? There’s always going to be time to go sometime in the future… hence the reason I’ve been to more sites in Provence than Perigord.
As we half knew already the Dordogne is shut in the winter, we didn’t realise quite how much though. Once you get past Lalinde all the little towns which must bustle in the summer are empty, restaurants and hotels closed, tourist sites boarded up, they’d even closed the whole of La Roque Gajeac – literally, the road was closed in the middle of town and there was no way through. Any threat of looming grumpiness was allayed by the sheer beauty around us, gold and red autumnal trees all over the hills, pretty (deserted) medieval villages and seemingly a castle on the top of nearly every hill;
The hotel in Souillac, the Pavillion St Martin, was a complete success. It’s in the old part of town, had really comfortable beds, a staircase I’d give my eye teeth for:
the bannisters were oak, black with age, wonderfully tactile and we got strawberries for breakfast. What more could you ask for? But – if the Dordogne is a bit lifeless in winter, Souillac is completely moribund. All the restaurants were closed – the one that does stay open has it’s night off on Tuesdays, so we had our romantic 30th anniversary dinner in a pizza restaurant. Not the sort of pizza place where they have candles in Chianti bottle and tablecloths, the sort where you have youths in baseball caps and rucksacks lining up for their take-aways. The pizzas made up for it – a bit anyway – they were really good.
The hotel had a handy guide to what stays open year round and much to my relief Lascaux, or rather Lascaux II does. A friend said when I said I was planning to go there, ‘Don’t you know it’s fake?’ The original caves were closed to the public because the condensation from the breath of up to 1200 visitors a day was causing huge damage to the paintings and tourists are now allowed into a replica of two of the most famous caves. Why not go to the current exhibition in Bordeaux about Lascaux instead?’ my friend went on.
All I can say is Bah, humbug! to the scoffers who don’t want to see a facsimile. Lascaux II is by any standards stunning. There’s no other word for it unless you care to search the thesaurus. I’m sure the Bordeaux exhibition is fascinating and the pictures excellent but what makes Lascaux so breath-taking is that it’s three-dimensional. Two of the most important caves have been reproduced exactly, down to chips in the rock, they’re surprisingly small, not a little claustrophobic, and these fabulous cave paintings are around you, flowing over the rock, the outlines of the animals shaped by the contours of the stone they’re painted on. We weren’t allowed to take photographs, but that didn’t matter, nothing flat and two dimensional can reproduce the effect those rock paintings had.
It was exactly the right time of year to go, there were only nine of us in our group but that was quite enough, at one point the rock narrows so much two people would have difficulty getting through side by side, and the second cave was barely big enough for our little group.
The guide described the caves as the Sistine Chapel of the prehistoric world. I’m inclined to agree with him but Lascaux had a far greater impact on me than the Sistine Chapel did. The Sistine Chapel was wonderful, awe-inspiring, but all the pictures I’d seen before slightly blunted its effect, as I’ve said (at length) photographs of Lascaux are just a pale taster of the real thing.