While I was in the Ardèche last month, I set out on a mission to find the actual location of the remarkable Chauvet Cave, with its 36,000 year old paintings. I wanted to know how it felt to be in the very spot where our Ice Age ancestors created remarkable art with such inspired creativity, to feel what was special about this place.
The Ardèche department is part of the Rhone-Alpes region and lies in south east France, roughly between the cities of Lyon to the north and Avignon to the south. Its own capital is Privas, a market town set amidst dramatic scenery of hills, forests, farms, vineyards and rivers that really typify the whole, sparsely populated area.
Of course, there is evidence of modern life and an awareness that the earth’s geography is subject to being slowly shifted over millenia, but it’s still easy to feel that you are in the presence of a very ancient landscape that has long remained unchanged.
As I drove south towards the Ardèche river and gorges, I gasped at the distant views of the Cevenne mountains, the sheer sense of vastness and the beauty of the earth.
As I approached Vallon Pont d’Arc and the famous natural stone Pont d’Arc bridge, I became surrounded by numerous French and British visitors thronging to enjoy the canoeing and riverside beaches, to bask and play in the hot sunshine.
I parked close to the road and headed away from the throngs, back into cool green woods at the foot of limestone cliffs. The tall rocks form a bend around what is now dry land but in Paleolithic times would have been part of the course of the river. The cliffs are scored with numerous indentations and caves where prehistoric arrowheads and flint knives have been found.
One of these is the Chauvet Cave and, whilst I did not find a path going up towards it, I did sit at the bottom of the cliff. My mind drifted into a sense of admiration and gratitude for the courage of ancient people who were willing to face their fears, go deep into such a dark, cold cavernous space and manifest the astounding beauty of the natural world and their own imagination. Surely they weren’t obliged, this was not a practical exercise of survival but a creative expression of the human spirit.
After some quiet contemplation, I headed back to the river for a glimpse of the amazing natural phenomenon of Pont d’Arc. It’s a great draw today, and surely would have been an equally strong focus for our ancestors.
I’d seen the bridge before, but had never followed the river as it winds eastward through gorges with rock cliffs that reach 1,000 metres high – and where many standing stones, dolmens and menhirs, had been positioned in ancient times. The world of Asterix made real!
Following the river, I was astounded by glimpses into this, the largest natural canyon in Europe. It made me feel in awe of the power of the natural world, gave me a sense of myself as a mere dot in the landscape of time and space. And all this in France, such a short physical journey yet a massive leap into phenomenally expanded experience.