Travels in Bordeaux and the Dordogne a.k.a. Perigord


A digression from environmental topics – photos of my travels in southwest France in summer 2018. Believe it or not we saw all this in five days not counting the travel day on each end. My favorite part and one of my favorite things ever, anywhere, is the house (actually, castle) of the greatest tapestry weaver of the 20th century, so to skip to that click here .

Table of Contents

Bordeaux

Atlantic seashore:
Arcachon – zany Victorian resort villas
Oyster farm villages
Cap-Ferret
Dune of Pilat – tallest sand dune in Europe

Dordogne and nearby:

St-Emilion
Beynac Castle – dungeon, battlements, ramparts, boiling oil, the whole megillah
Domme and Sarlat
Marqueyssac Gardens – famous ‘pile of blocks’ topiary
Padirac Chasm – 300 foot deep hole in the ground and cave
Rocamadour – medieval churches built into cliff side
Castelnaud castle – like Beynac but different
Lascaux – the famous stone-age cave paintings
Jean Lurçat, just about my favorite artist

Bordeaux

The first row is the Miroir d’Eau (water mirror), a plaza with water less han 1/4″ deep that turns into a cloud every fifteen minutes. On that day the wind prevented much of cloud from forming so I found better pictures online (second row). Miroir d’eau is the term for the reflecting pools in front of Baroque palaces. Click here for video.

Bordeaux has whole neighborhoods filled with these little late 19th-early 20th century row houses called échoppes. I wouldn’t exactly call them beautiful or charming but they are interesting. Also these neighborhoods have hardly any trees due to the hot dry climate, Bordeaux being closer to Spain than to Paris. The streets are narrow and the sidewalks are only wide enough for one person. Normally échoppe means a small shop, stall, or chisel.


Arcachon

 

Arcachon, on the Atlantic seashore, was built as a health resort in the 19th century and has many flamboyant villas from that time in styles ranging from medieval castle to Swiss chalet to the style known in the U.S. as gingerbread.


Oyster farm villages

 

Arcachon Bay is filled with little oyster-farming villages such as Le Canon and Port de Larros.


Cap-Ferret, the Hamptons of France

 

An unassuming beach village between Arcachon Bay and the Atlantic shore which has become something of the Hamptons of France. Unimpressive 1970s bungalows sell for millions. Not to be confused with the similar-sounding and more famous – and still more expensive – Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera (on the Mediterranean), which has the second most expensive real estate in the world, after Monaco and before London and Hong Kong. We had lunch and went to the beach.


Europe’s highest dune, the Dune of Pilat

Click here for video.


St. Emilion

The main town in the Bordeaux wine country. Several medieval buildings are built directly into the rock, such as the “monolith church” and various chapels and catacombs.


Beynac Castle

Now we are in the Dordogne region. Dordogne is pretty much just another name for Perigord,which is more or less the main region in France for a variety of things: medieval castles, caves with Stone Age paintings, regular caves without paintings, truffles, duck and geese including foie gras, and walnuts. In the pictures of the village on the hill going up to the castle, a car or small truck can fit on every twisting little cobblestone path and there are little garages tucked into the medieval foundations at improbable angles.


Domme and Sarlat

Two more towns in the Dordogne.

I thought this market in an old church that had been decommissioned since 1794 and since then was used for things like storing timber and coal was extraordinary and unique but then a friend informed me there’s one like it in the small town in Kentucky where she lives. Still, the huge black metal doors are very dramatic and have a quotation from the great post-modern philosopher Jean Baudrillard: “Architecture is combination of nostalgia and extreme anticipation”.

The stone building is a “lantern of the dead” from the twelfth century, of which there are about 100 in France, and no one knows what their purpose was and there are no explanations in written records from the time. They’re not located near cemeteries. One source I read made it sound like they have no door or stairs or other way to get into the room at the top with the windows but this one does.


Marqueyssac Gardens


Padirac Chasm

Click here for video.

This is a 300 foot deep vertical cave, basically a giant natural hole in the ground. At the bottom it leads to a chain of caves with an underground stream, a “Lake of Rain” with a perpetual gentle rain shower, a 300 foot high dome and other formations.

Everything in the cave is so strange and devoid of reference points to the surface world that even the photographs on the official website are hard to make sense of. There’s no sense of scale so you can’t tell how big things are or get any spatial orientation. They’ve done a great job of posting selections from the archives online: posters, diagrams, flyers and historic photos including views of the restaurant in the cave (Le Restaurant Troglodytique, closed some years ago) (archives part 1, archives part 2).

 


Rocamadour

Rocamadour is a complex of churches built on the side of a bluff as a pilgrimage site. It’s so steep and narrow you can’t really capture what it looks like in photos unless you were to take pictures from across the valley.

Castelnaud Castle

The region’s UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status is at risk

 

Click here for video.

These are just two of the Stop the Valley Massacre banners we saw on the way to Castelnaud Castle, which are protesting the construction of bridges and highways to allow as many of the largest tour buses as possible to drive directly up to a couple of villages such as Beynac-et-Cazenac, population 500. Right now the landscape looks largely as it has for centuries. From many vantage points, the new bridges and wide roads would be just about the only obviously modern structures visible, and the Dordogne Valley likely would lose its designation as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Construction began in 2018 despite vehement opposition apart from a corrupt village mayor with an uncle in the higher ranks of the planning authorities and a handful of hotel owners. On December 28 2018, France’s highest court issued an injunction that halted construction; stated its finding that the arguments for permanently halting construction were sound; and referred the case to a regional court. In these situations in France,  lower courts are not obligated to concur with the high court but normally they do. An online petition opposing the project is here.

My educated guess is that many of the same Yellow Vest protestors smashing windows out of rage at Macron for cost-cutting support the village mayor who somehow got $40 million (baseline starting cost, final cost open-ended) for the debacle.

Turns out there’s almost no way to take a decent picture of a castle. Outside, you can’t stand back far enough because they are perched on steep rocks, which is the whole point of a castle, to prevent invasions by having as little level ground as possible (hence the two aerial photos from online) and inside the rooms are either too big or too small to capture. At any rate they are mostly empty because obviously the thrones and banquet tables and mead tankards were gone centuries ago. Castelnaud was built on and off from the 13th to 17th centuries.

Stone-age cave paintings at Lascaux

Lascaux is the world’s most well-known and I believe largest stone age cave-paintings site. It was discovered in 1940 when a dog chased a rabbit into a little hole in a forest. The dog’s owner got curious when he tossed rocks in to drive the rabbit out and could tell by the sound there was a large space.

In 1963 the cave was permanently closed to the general public because humidity and carbon dioxide from their breath was causing irreversible damage to the paintings. A full-size but incomplete replica opened nearby in 1983 and a second, complete replica opened in 2017. However mold damage has continued due to allowing too many professional visitors and an inadequate climate control system.

The really great supermodern visitors center (video here) has an airplane-hangar-sized hall with replicas of a dozen portions of the walls along with highly advanced computer interactive displays to show things invisible to the naked eye. Trust me, I always hate it when museums have computer screens and this is a brilliant exception that proves the rule. For example at one station when you point the little hand-held computer/video camera they give you at the ground, stone and clay artifacts appear in the places where they were found, and you can pick them up on the screen and turn them around in three dimensions.

This is a model of the whole cave, as if you made a cast of it by filling it with plaster. When you point your handheld screen at it, a 3d image of the inside walls pops up. You can move and turn the handheld in every direction all around the model and walk around it and the image follows your “location” within the cave. Both of these are in the video.

Lascaux 24s

Lascaux 27s


The tapestries of Jean Lurçat

Saved the best for last. We made a pilgrimage to a remote village deep in the Occitanie region in southwest France, where Jean Lurçat (1892-1966), one of my top favorite artists, lived in an austere hilltop castle (video is here). His medium was tapestry, which has now largely been abandoned, forgotten, and superseded by the looser category of fiber arts.

Tapestry (definition of tapestry here) was never very common because it is the most cumbersome, impractical and labor-intensive art form: it almost always involved enormous sizes – eight by ten feet is the low end, 20 by 30 is not uncommon – requiring looms so large that artists seldom if ever wove their own. The tapestries were made in central workshops by trained weavers, with anywhere from one to a dozen working full-time for a year or more to complete one tapestry. The main workshops in France were Aubusson, Gobelins and Savonnerie. Compounding the impracticality are the facts that each tapestry has to remain on the loom until it is finished and there isn’t any way to see the tapestry until it’s complete: each yard or so is wound onto a giant spool as it is finished and not until the whole thing is done can it be unwound and viewed.

Thus tapestries were seldom owned by private individuals. Originally they were used in castles, palaces and churches as combined insulation and decoration. After the invention of central heating they spread to high-level government offices, embassies, theater and hotel lobbies and cruise ships. Sometimes they hung in schools, hospitals and the more public sorts of government offices, I think more in Communist countries but I’m not sure. Small home looms owned by individuals have of course always existed but that seems to be have been a minor branch of the tapestry world and primarily a domestic craft made and displayed in people’s houses rather than in public, until fiber arts became established as a medium in the 1960s.

Close-up views showing the weaving

Other things Lurçat designed besides tapestries

The house, Château de Saint-Laurent-les-Tours

Inside

Another reason you don’t hear much about tapestries is that 95% of them, pretty much all the tapestries made from 1550 to 1940, are boring.

Good vs. boring tapestries

Before that, the medieval/Renaissance style, as in the famous Unicorn Tapestries, had a simplicity that still today comes across as appealing, engaging, inspired and compelling. Then for the next 400 years, no one attempted anything other than mimicking florid, elaborate Old Master paintings as closely as possible. They manage to be extravagant and lifeless at the same time and definitely are not inspired or compelling. Even during the revolutionary cubist period in the 1910s-20s, tapestries were pleasant but boring copies of cubist paintings. Then in the 1930s and 40s, Lurçat became the first person in centuries to exploit the possibilities of tapestry for making artistic statements that really use the yarn and tapestry medium to their best advantage. Several others followed in his footsteps during a brief golden age of modern tapestry that lasted from the 40s to the 60s. Since then, the possibilities of using yarn and textiles for art have branched off in countless experimental directions, while this kind of traditionally-woven tapestry has sunk into clumsy and artistically shallow abstract designs that mainly just serve as ugly modern art for corporate boardrooms.



Wait remind me, what is a tapestry again? True tapestries are woven on looms that have plain white strings running in one direction, and perpendicular to those (i.e. going across), weavers weave wool yarns in a simple over-under-over-under fashion, which conceals the white string. For the most part this was the only weaving method used, nor were additional embellishments made to tapestries, for centuries up until the 1960s when free, diverse experimentation took hold. The famous Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Norman Conquest is not a tapestry at all. It is embroidery with a needle and thread on white cloth. The ‘tapestries’ from India that are popular among college students as bedspreads and wall hangings, or at least were from the 1960s to 90s, are also not true tapestries. They are just cloth with printed designs and sometimes embroidery like the Bayeux Tapestry but done with machines. Fabrics – normally just for curtains and upholstery, seldom for clothing – that have designs such as flowers woven in with colored threads (as opposed to being printed) are usually using the same basic weaving technique as tapestry, only mechanized.


 

 

 

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