To celebrate our wedding anniversary this summer we spent a few days in a tiny pocket of Southern France. Now back home, it is memories of three experiences that linger uppermost and all three have one thing in common; each was emotional. None of these feelings related to friends or personal issues, but, to the emotions aroused by my surrounds. I was, in fact, sightseeing. On the first occasion, I was looking at a suspension bridge; the second, a pathway; the third, wall paintings in a cave.
Many see the suspension bridge at Millau, which was opened in 2004, as one of the most outstanding buildings of our age. With the lightest of touches, this extraordinary structure spans France’s longest and deepest gorge with a two-and-a-half kilometre motorway supported high above the ground by six giant pylons.
However, the bridge is a paradox. Seen from on high, as in picture postcards, it is magical; driving on it is frightening. There is something disquieting about being on a road apparently floating on air! As powerful as these feelings are, neither match those I had when I stood on the ground below. From across a field, the pylons look magnificent. Slim and tapering, and half-way up dividing then reuniting like the eye of a needle. Each pillar is a statue and one made more elegant by an ingeniously-created dark line running on either side from top to bottom.
My sentiments changed once again when I stood at the foot of a pylon and looked up. Now it was their enormity that dominated. In cross section they are actually flattened hexagons measuring 27 metres at their widest, so the size of a double-fronted house. At the base of each pylon there is grass through which these man-made concrete columns come out of the ground like vast tree trunks and then go up and up to the ribbon of a road above. For the tallest pylon this ribbon is some 250 metres above and almost out of sight. Their very size is awesome. So large as to make me feel tiny, essentially insignificant and moved.
Now to the second site, the pathway, which, while being very different was equally moving. For two days my wife Rohan and I stayed with friends in a hillside cottage in Sauliac-sur-Célé. Just beneath their garden terrace something very odd was happening. Despite being in the smallest of villages, throughout the day determined-faced people trudged past, armed with a variety of walking sticks, dressed against the weather and often carrying backpacks piled high. I soon learned that the track in front of our cottage was a ‘Chemin de Compostelle’, so has been trodden by pilgrims for over a thousand years as they walk to and from a shrine in northern Spain. Had we been sitting in the same spot in the Middle Ages, the view would have been much the same. Different clothing but, no doubt, the same strides, the same determination. The feeling I had from looking on now, and being drawn into part of a human continuum that stretched back centuries, was powerful. It is that sentiment which persists.
Finally, to the wall paintings. Not far from Sauliac-sur-Célé, is the village of Pech Merle, where, in a deep cave system are some of the earliest pre-historic paintings. It is believed that the locals of the time were nomads who rarely stopped in any one place for longer than a few weeks. For whatever reason, when staying hereabouts the artists amongst them decided to climb down into the cave to paint. Apart from pictures of men and women, they drew bear, buffalo, bison, mammoth, horse and fish; in all, 800 pictures have been found. They also painted silhouettes of their hands, many of which were next to the more ornate of their works (see illustration).
Seeing the hands was very special. What else could those artists have painted to say to future viewers “These paintings were done by the human hand; by us”. It was a signature to be read by generations to come, whenever that might be! The artists wanted to keep in touch. And being in touch with these artists and their desire to paint is exactly what we felt when seeing their work nearly 30,000 years later. Staring at those hands made Rohan tearful and left me sharing her sentiment and standing in wonderment. It was all extraordinary and impassioned.
If I am right, we all feel part of our history when it relates to the endeavours of humankind. The three sites we saw were just that; people building, people walking, people painting. With the hand silhouettes, the painters of Pech Merle communicated most explicitly, but the sentiment I felt for the others was similar and, in their different ways, as powerful. Never again should such sightseeing emotions come as a surprise.
The illustration shows drawings from the Pech Merle caves with the silhouettes of three hands painted near two horses.
For helping me write this blog I would like to thank Guillemette, Jo and Rohan.