In the valleys and hills of Ardèche, about an hours drive from Avignon, lies a cave. The entrance to the cave has been blocked by many years of erosion and rockslides, and the road roped off, but once it was full of life. Cave bears, cave lions and other animals that we don’t know the names of rested and bred there, and in time people moved in, leaving behind foot and hand prints, and images of the animals around them that seemed to climb off the walls. The bears left traces behind too, deep gouges from their claws as they stretched after a long hibernation, paw prints and bones. The cave was untouched for thousands of years, silently holding its secrets, until careful candles in the dark brought the images of long dead and extinct creatures back to life.
It wasn’t this cave that we saw.
Driving up from Avignon, fresh bread and cheese in our bags, we saw farms, mountains, villages and lavender fields. Though I stuck my head out of the window as we passed, I only caught the barest whiff. Reaching Ardèche we followed the GPS directions to a rope off road, around the corner from the majestic Pont d’Arc. Some stressing and confusion later, we zigzagged our way up sparse hills to a large car park and tourist area. Tickets in hand we wandered around the site, then waited with our assigned group, taking the English translation headsets and after being told that photography was not allowed, we walked into cool, humid darkness.
What they have done is create a complete replica of the Chauvet cave system, right down to the human and animal footprints still preserved in the soft sand. If this sounds at all tacky (and the thought did cross my mind) go and prepare to have your breath taken away. We were lead through by a guide, talking in French, and shown handprints, claw marks high up on the walls, soft craters that held sleeping bears, a lion skull on a rock pedestal and seemingly endless paintings. They have been recreated by artists and are as stunning now as they would have been 35-20 000 years ago when first painted. Woolly rhinos butt horns, cave bears tower, horses prance and gallop and cave lions prowl. An owl even sits upright, staring at us across the millennia. We twisted our way around the cave, along the raised platforms, losing our bearings amidst the shadows and rippling cave structures. It did feel a little dissonant sometimes, when I was staring at a row of horses tossing their heads, to imagine the people painting these thousands of years ago and then remember that it was only completed in 2015. It was a matter of intentionally forgetting when it was made, and instead seeing it as a recreation, and enjoying the experience of being as close to art from pre-history as I’m ever going to get.
Out in the blinding sunlight and spring heat we went to the museum, which had a video showing the history of the cave, and then a room full of interactive displays (I utterly failed at cave painting) and recreations of a mammoth with realistic dreadlocks, lions, deer and humans. The detail on the small family of pre-historic people was amazing, and I could imagine how they must have lived, constantly on the move across the tundra and grasslands, returning to sacred places to carry out rituals that we’ll never know about.
Our next stop was to have been a lavender farm, where I could skip around and breath deeply, then stock up on soap for the rest of the holiday. It was not to be. As we passed through a quiet village one of the tyres on our hire car went flat. Long story short, we were able to get back to Avignon on side streets and slowly on freeways, which I suppose meant we got a more scenic trip.
The next day we said goodbye to Avignon, swapped our car and headed along the coast. We passed through immense toll gates, saw stunning hills and cliffs in the distance and listened to many podcasts. Finally we reached Nice. Continuing the trend in Paris, there was a train strike, plus the Euro Cup was coming up soon, so parking was a bit scarce in town, including where we were staying. We then had some difficulty returning the car (in the sense that understatements mean the opposite), so by the time we were out and strolling the streets, I was feeling a little bruised and not entirely impressed with the city.
Reaching the waterside and taking in the view lifted our spirits though, and so it was with relief and relaxation that we shared a bottle of wine on the balcony that night, and cheered for our final night in France. The glasses were the only ones we could find.
Writing this I can’t help thinking of the sight along that palm lined and broad boulevard not many weeks later. It’s hard to imagine the lively, cheerful and bustling city that we saw so torn by hatred.