Exploring a new land means getting to grips with its climate. It took me a few days to acclimatise to the July heat of Périgord. I became frustrated with how little exploring I could do, but the weather is a master you must obey. In the South of France, in July, my Parisian hyperactivity was inappropriate; I had to slow down, rest during the afternoon, and seek shade.
But some shades are better than others. The Dordogne – the modern equivalent to the historic Périgord, discover more here) – is rich in beautiful, lofty walnut trees. But their shade has bad reputation; it apparently causes headaches, nausea, and visits from the Devil. However, I have seen campsites entirely shaded by walnut trees, so I think their reputation is exaggerated somewhat. At least the Devil thing. All things considered, I have so far stayed clear of the walnut trees shade.
The oak forests that cover half of the landscape provide a much better shade for an afternoon nap. Their dark foliage, covering hill after hill, has given its name to the Périgord Noir, or Black Périgord, centred around Sarlat. In their shade, I have found boletes, after last week’s heavy rains. But underneath these oaks grow cepes, and of course, the world-famous truffles. It is the wrong season for both delicacies, so the only thing to do, is nap. If the incessant cicadas let me.
But the best shade in Périgord is to be found underground. The area is filled with dozens of beautiful caves, Lascaux only being the most famous one. There are all different kinds of caves, to suit all tastes and all levels of fitness, claustrophobia, and organisation: grottes à concrétions (caves with concretions), gouffres (chasms), and prehistoric art caves. When the most famous are booked up, the ill-organised tourists have plenty to fall back on…
The Rouffignac cave has two characteristics. One is the little electric train that takes visitors down. We went past cave bear holes (the bears were extinct long before people ventured down) and past exquisite carvings and drawings of mammoths, hundreds of them, arranged in friezes.
All the way down is the beautiful Grand Plafond (Great Ceiling). Above our heads, horses, bisons, ibexes and woolly rhinos have joined the mammoths in an extraordinary Ice Age extravaganza. For what seemed an instant, we gazed up in wonder, in awe. Too soon we had to give back these masterpieces to darkness and silence. It is on the train journey back up that I realised just how cool the cave is.
The second characteristic of the Rouffignac cave is that its entrance was inhabited in the Mesolithic, long after the Palaeolithic artists took the long dark walk down. In the Mesolithic, the vast herds of reindeer, horses and mammoths had disappeared or moved north. Forests grew where the steppes had been, and people hunted roe deer, red deer, wild boar. They ate hazelnuts and snails, and probably cepes too.
Coming out of the cave, I found the afternoon heat again. That’s when I came to personal grips with climate change. Climate has changed before, many times. Animals like mammoths and woolly rhinos went extinct. People adapted to their new conditions, migrated, or went extinct. This weather I was struggling with; well, I have seen nothing yet.