Getting pre-historic at Font de Gaume

One of the many advantages of my small group tours is the fact that we fly under the radar when it comes to certain sites that prohibit tour groups. The Font de Gaume cave, home to some of the most stunning pre-historic paintings in the world, is one such place.

Deep in the southwestern part of France, about 75 miles east of the city of Bordeaux, lies the Vézères River Valley. This small river winds from the Massif Central in central France, eventually joining the Dordogne River near the village of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. The region around Les Eyzies is riddled with natural limestone caverns that provided shelter to early humans about 35,000 years ago. The first Cro-Magnon skeletal remains (named after a cave in the area) were found here.

Lascaux cave, which has the most famous paintings in the region, is just a few miles away. Unfortunately tourist visits to Lascaux were causing irreparable damage to the paintings, so the site was closed to the public in 1963. Lascaux II, a perfect copy of the cave, was opened nearby. Visiting it is interesting, but you always know in the back of your mind that what you're looking at are modern copies, not the real thing.

Font de Gaume is the real thing. They manage to stay open because the cave has good natural ventilation to get rid of all the carbon dioxide and other pollutants visitors introduce into the cave, and because they limit the number of visitors to just 180 per day. Naturally with that kind of restriction, regular tour groups are not allowed. Four or five bus loads, and you'd be at the limit. Big tour groups visit Lascaux II. With less than eight tour members in tow, I visit Font de Gaume.

A guide leads us into the cavern to discover just a few of the more than 200 images that line the walls. Bison are the most common theme, though the most famous painting is a scene with two reindeer. Facing each other, the one standing is clearly licking the head of the kneeling reindeer (the image shown here is a stylized copy, that does not do justice to the real thing). Around 14,000 years old, it's the world's first story, a love story. Male and female? Mother and child? We can't say for sure.

What impresses me most about the paintings at Font de Gaume is the skill of the artists. The paintings are polychrome, made with a mixture of iron oxide (red) and manganese oxide (black), which were blended in various proportions depending on the effect the artist wanted to produce. The artists used the natural contours of the cave walls to achieve a three-dimensional effect and give volume to the bodies. We could not do better today.

These pre-historic artists did not just wander into a cave one day and decide to paint. This was a skill that had to be learned, and by necessity, taught. Painting deep in the cavern, using only fire light, they achieved incredible realism. It demonstrates a sophistication that belies the image of "cave men" as unintelligent, thick-browed apes dragging their women around by the hair.

If you're visiting the area, reservations for Font de Gaume are highly recommended, and should be made at least a month in advance. For more details about visiting Font de Gaume, or for help with planning a self-guided trip to France, please contact us.

On the Road: Bremen, Germany

You may have a dim childhood memory of hearing a fairy tale about some animals who set out to become musicians. This was one of the folk tales collected and published by the Brothers Grimm, and is known as the Bremen Town Musicians (Bremer Stadtmusikanten). In the story a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster, all past their prime and on the verge of being killed by their owners, set out together to earn their fortunes as musicians in the city of Bremen.

At the end of their first day on the road they see the lights of a nearby cottage; inside, a band of robbers is enjoying a mound of ill gotten food. The donkey, being the smartest of them, comes up with a plan: the four of them stand at the cottage window, the rooster on top of the cat, who stands on the dog, who stands on the back of the donkey. All at once they begin making their “music” ­— braying, barking, meowing and crowing. The sudden racket frightens off the robbers, and the Musicians invade the house to eat their fill.

Later that night, the robbers return and send one of the bunch in to investigate. In the pitch dark he sees the eyes of the cat. Thinking they are glowing embers, he reaches over to light a match on them. In a split second the cat spits at him and claws him across the face; as the robber runs for the door the dog bites him on the leg. Outside, the donkey lands a solid kick, while the rooster crows at the top of his lungs.

Running screaming back to his companions, he tells them he was attacked by a witch who scratched him with her long nails, a man with a knife who stabbed him in the leg, a huge beast who hit him with a club, and worst of all, the devil himself screaming to bring the man up to the rooftop. The robbers abandon the cottage to the animals, who have live there happily for the rest of their days.

Despite the title of the fairy tale, the musicians never actually make it to Bremen, but I did, my first visit in many years. This time I was guiding a family who's father had emigrated from Bremen in the 1920's, and we had a chance to see the house that he grew up in, as well as wander through the old town that he would have known well. Bremen was heavily bombed in World War II, but the Gothic Rathaus (Town Hall) shown on the left survived almost undamaged, while other sections of the old town have been rebuilt to appear as they were before the war.

We also made a trip to Bremerhaven, just about 50 miles down river from Bremen. Bremen has always been an important shipping port, although it doesn't actually lie on the coast. Ships of the Middle Ages could easily travel up the Weser River to the city to load and unload cargo, but in the early 19th century, as ships got bigger and the river began to silt up, Bremen made a decision to build a new port at the mouth of the river on the North Sea. Bremerhaven (Bremen Harbor) is now one of the busiest ports in Europe. We took a drive through the port area, past thousands of new cars sitting on the docks with no destination in mind -- a sign of the slow economy.

Most impressive to me in Bremerhaven was a new museum, the German Emigration Center. In all, nearly 7 million Germans emigrated during the 19th and 20th centuries (mostly to the USA, but others to Canada or South America). Upon entry, you are given a "passport" with the name and birth date of a real person who emigrated from Germany. As you move through the museum, key points with a card symbol give you more information about your person -- their early history, education and status in Germany, reasons for emigration, and what became of them in the US after they arrived.

Exhibits include a re-creation of the docks where emigrants would have said their last goodbyes to family they would likely never see again. After boarding the ship, you are led through cabins from three different eras: a sailing ship, a steam ship and a large ocean liner. The cabin of the ocean liner was actually from the same ship that my tour group's father had left Germany on. After arrival in the new world, you are given a taste of what it would have been like to come through Ellis Island. And at the end, you have a complete picture of the life of the person who's passport you are carrying (mine was Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Studios). I wonder if that makes me family? All in all Bremen and Bremerhaven are well worth a look if you're heading for northern Europe.

On the Road: Amsterdam

Spend a little time living in Amsterdam and you'll understand why Van Gogh fled for the south of France, searching for sunshine and clear light. The sky here is more often gray than blue. When the sun does shine, though, the entire city comes out to make the most of it. They sit on the steps in front of their houses, reading the paper and enjoying a drink in the late afternoon sun. Others stroll along the canals, smiling and nodding at passersby. Outdoor tables at the cafes are packed, faces turned like sunflowers in the direction of the golden light.

We were lucky to have two spectacular days in Amsterdam, warmer than expected for this time of year. In addition to the usual sights: a canal boat cruise, the Anne Frank House, the Van Gogh Museum and the Red Light District, I also took my group to visit the Van Loon Museum. Until recently a private residence, and now run as a museum, the Van Loon offers the best way to experience the inside of a classic Dutch canal house (short of breaking and entering).

The Van Loon family helped found the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century, a venture that would make them fabulously wealthy and allow their descendants to build a huge house on the fashionable Keizersgracht canal. The interior of the house is furnished much as it would have been in the late 18th century, and includes many paintings and some furnishings dating to the family’s 17th century origins. In addition to the house, there’s also a large garden and a carriage house, extravagances very few Amsterdam families could afford. You can find out more about the Van Loon Museum at

On the road: Bad Essen

Bad Essen in Germany is probably not a town you have heard of, and one not likely to show up in most English language guide books. It's not even mentioned in most German guidebooks. About the only reference is usually to the nearby Varus Battle, a 1st century clash between a Roman Legion and united Germanic tribes. The few surviving Romans were sent running with their tails between their legs, and the Romans never again tried to conquer this area.

I visited Bad Essen recently with a group that was visiting extended family in Germany. I often guide private groups to the land their family had emigrated from. Frequently they just want to see the village or the area that their great-grandparents (or great-great-great . . . ) had come from from, but every few years I have a group that still has contact with relatives in the old country. Usually these are people whose parents or grandparents left early in the 20th century, and they still have uncles, aunts or cousins living in the home village.

For me this is a chance to peek inside a local's home, learn a little more about their culture and lifestyle, stretch my language abilities (since few of these groups speak the mother language, and the European relatives speak only a little English), and also a chance to see a part of the country I've never been to before.

Bad Essen turned out to be a pleasant, and very pretty little spa town that just hasn't had much luck marketing itself to the outside world. The local family arranged an English-speaking guide to take us on a walk through the village history, which stretches back over 1000 years. In addition to the town church and lots of beautifully preserved half-timbered houses we also visited a pharmacy museum, housed in a pharmacy that dates to the 18th century, as well as a working water-powered grist mill. You can find out more about Bad Essen at (German only).

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