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Mirepoix-Niaux 3 June 2016

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After shopping for picnic supplies and making dinner reservations, we hit the road into the Pyrenees, through incredibly green country on fast country roads and then the N20 mountain freeway. The countryside here is huge, the same feel as Coast Range: fast flowing rivers, buxom cliffs, green on the near slopes and snow on the far. This is the road to Andorra, where it snowed two days ago.

Our first goal was a mountain stream-side picnic, but we have pretty much given up trying to figure out the French. We drove clear to Ax-les-Thermes, with lovely green meadows beside the river all the way, yet the only rest area was beside a gravel pit. Ax itself would be lovely if you wanted to bathe or gamble, and I know there's a lovely stream-side promenade, but there wasn't a parking place to be had. 

By chance we finally found an out-of-the-way village with a neglected park, and enjoyed our delicious French cheese and baguette ariegeois before heading on to our 13:30 appointment for a tour of the Grotte de Niaux, one of the last places in Europe where regular people can see real cave paintings.

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From the village of Niaux, you can see the gaping hole in the cliffside, and it's easy to imagine the folks who wandered through this valley 14,000 years ago wondering what was in it. Our guide assures us that the "caveman" idea is a fantasy from the fiction loving 19th Century; the people of the Magdalenian period lived a nomadic life that took them from the plains to the fertile alpine valleys, where they hunted deer, ptarmigan, and goats and fished. "These were Homo sapiens just like us. They sought to live in sunlight, just like we do. Nobody knows why they crawled a kilometer inside a cave with only wicks in animal fat for light to make these pictures. And nobody knows why they pictured these animals that they may have seen on the plains below, but never hunted."

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Once we reached the cave mouth via the tortuous road (you can see it in the photo above) we parked on the spacious "porch" where there's an elaborate exhibition structure.

The cave is considered a treasure (as well it should be) and so it is carefully protected. The number of people who get to see it is limited by the temperature inside; if it gets above 12° Celsius, the tours stop. No more than 20 people visit the cave in a group, and there are never more than 8 groups a day. Light is carefully monitored: visitor carry flashlights, and must turn them off once they reach the Salon Noir where the animals and many of the symbols are found. From there, the guide manages the light, using different light combinations to illuminate different panels.

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We were in the once-a-day English tour, and our guide, whose English was polished only on the set presentation (although he gamely answered questions) shepherded us through the long entry and climb to the Salon Noir. The floor of the cave is uneven, slippery, wet in places – it's a living cave – and progress by flashlight is cautious and necessarily slow. It takes at least half an hour to get from the mouth of the cave to the Salon Noir.

No photography is allowed in the cave, and so I have done what I usually do: bought the postcards (in the inevitable gift shop) and taken photos of them (below). 

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<p>Luckily, their photographer and...

Luckily, their photographer and I were struck by the same images. I love the delicately curved horns and the eye of the bison, and the horse's smile. Some of the images are intricately detailed (like the horse's outer leg, above), suggesting a greater familiarity with the animals than in paintings in other caves like Altamira in Spain and Lascaux in the Dordogne. Many of the images are unfinished. The artists fitted their images to the bumps and cracks in the cave wall, enhancing their lifelike appearance ...especially, our guide explained, in the flickering light of the primitive lamps. Paintings are often superimposed on each other, as if the artists are trying repeatedly to coax the spirit of the animals out of the cave walls.

Alongside and often on top of the animals, there are symbols: double lines of dots, either 7 or 11, and a curious shape, a line with a loop on the right side (above, far lower right), possibly a spear-throwing stick. "We call the symbols proto-writing ...but nobody knows what they mean."

Even though the Salon Noir's panels only comprise a "canvas" of a hundred square feet or so, the immediacy and vividness of these ancient images is thrilling.

Aside from the paintings, this is a cave like any other: abused in the time before modern humans figured out that preserving ancient things was important. Like many caves, the "modern" cave painting consists of names scrawled on the walls, starting with dates in the 1600s. Is it unfair to suppose that the urge to scrawl names on cave walls is related to the urge that drove the Magdalenians to adorn the cave walls with pictures of their spirit animals? "Until the mid 1900s, nobody cared about the paintings," our guide explained with contempt. "They were excited by the dark. They broke off columns and took them; even today you can pay to visit fake caves in Toulouse and Paris decorated with real columns from here."

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There's no doubt that the almost ritualistic care being taken with the cave paintings, and the way we visitors were engaged in that effort, made the experience seem very privileged and special.


Somewhat overwhelmed, our mixed group of anglophones emerged from the pitch blackness of the cave, surrendered our flashlights, and made our way down the hill (thankful that we met no upward bound traffic, as that would not have been fun.) Far below us, the sweet little village of Niaux nestles in its alpine valley.

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Not far south of Niaux, another story played out a few centuries ago: the northern French agent of the forces of rigid religiosity, Simon de Montfort, wiped out the last of the Cathars who had taken refuge in their supposedly impregnable Montsegur. This campaign is remembered with bitterness by the Occitans – the proud folk who live here in the Land of Oc (Languedoc) because while this was promoted as a campaign to purify, it was really just another land grab by greedy northerners, whose superior warlike abilities easily overpowered a people who were devoted to music, storytelling, and courtliness. 

Even today, with a resurgence of Occitan, the clash of values, north versus south, is strikingly (and for the Northerners, embarassingly) obvious. I've got to love a people who name their language for their word for Yes.

The genocide started in Carcassonne, and I'll write more about it when we go there, but the several hundred Cathars who evaded Simon's troops and found their way to Montsegur were ultimately starved out, bound, carried down the hill, and burned at the behest of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Beziers, who said, "Burn them all. The Lord will sort out the guilty from the innocent."

Let's hear it for organized religion!


Since we had a modest lunch, we're off to dinner in what our host claims is Mirepoix's best.

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Dinner was one of those inexcusably superb French experiences we came for. The restaurant: L'autre Jardin. We order. I ask for wine; our hostess invites us to the cave to choose. We find a lovely Bio Viognier Chardonnay from the terroir to go with Rochelle's poisson du moment with seafood risotto and my Guinea hen in mushroom sauce. We share a starter: an elegant arrangement of capers (the big real ones), parmesan, and Iberian ham. Everything is superbly plated and the wine is perfectly matched to all three courses. It's a rare dinner where we down a bottle, but no problem. Panna cotta with raspberry coulis shared for dessert, two espressos and a glass of local armagnac. The whole dinner transaction goes down in comfortable (at least for us!) French. Perfect.

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<p>A memorable meal to complete an...

A memorable meal to complete an utterly memorable day.

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