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.

7 thoughts on “Being in Touch

  1. Dear Joe,

    What extraordinary adventures you are having! And you paint such vivid pictures. I had never heard of the suspension bridge at Millau- it sounds the most extraordinary engineering feat! The cave paintings were quite wonderful- how marvelous that you were able to visit them, and I loved the hand signatures. The paintings made me think of the Aboriginal paintings we saw just outside Darwin in June and of how moved we were when we saw them!

    Love

    Robin

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    1. Dear Robin, Many thanks for your kind comment. May be the hand paintings are an ingenious way of getting a viewers‘ attention. They certainly have immediate appeal. Love, Joe

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  2. The painting is awesome and quite breathtaking..!

    What a fantastic honour and experience to see this, do you know what the ‘paint’ is? If it wasn’t you sharing this experience Joe, I’m not sure if I would believe it exists.

    Thank you for making a dreary grey Sunday light up.

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    1. Dear Carolyn, You are very kind. The black colour is charcoal; they told us that the red is mud. They were, indeed breathtaking. Many other paintings were extraordinary but these two horses were the cave’s best. I assure you that they are real.
      The cave authorities limit the number of viewers each day so that the paintwork is preserved. In the caves at Lascaux nearby the paintings have been almost destroyed by visitors who are no longer allowed in! Love, Joe

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  3. Dear Joe
    (3rd attempt at sending this comments!)
    I was very moved to read your experiences in the Lot. I have been waiting almost 40 years to be able to share this very special place of ours with Rohan and you.
    Just one small correction, if I may, the ” chemin de St jacques” lead to the saint’s shrine in Compostelle in northern Spain not Portugal.
    The Pech Merle caves never fail to impress me every time I go.
    For your followers information they were discovered early 20th century by 2 adventurous teenagers keen on exploring the many caves in the area. They had to crawl through a long gully wih resin torches . One can imagine their reaction when they discovered the paintings.!
    I hope you will come back to discover all the treasures in the valley du Cele has, many more caves , lots of Menhir and dolmen just like in your dear Britanny but in very different settings,
    love
    Guillemette

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    1. Dear Guillemette, First, I am sorry it has taken so many attempts to get your comments published – thank you so much for persisting. Second, thank you for correcting my error – it has now been corrected. Third, thanks too for adding some information about the discovery of the caves – it is an extraordinary story. Fourth, you are very lucky to live in an area of France so rich in history. We might get back one day, but it is a long way! Love and thanks, Joe

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