Yesterday we ventured into the Pyrenees once more to visit Niaux Cave. This cave is said to be the only cave that competes with Lascaux for the quality of and preservation of the works and by the scale of the compositions. The entry is a striking sculpture designed by Massimiliano Fuksas. This structure juts from the mountain side and frames the cave’s entrance.
Niaux is several kilometers long. The most remote part is cut off by underground water and is now classified as a separate cave. Visitations are by reservation. The number of people is strictly limited. We were fortunate enough to get an English language tour despite not calling until we arrived. (That was due to uncertainty about driving conditions and timing.)
Visitors must wear sturdy shoes and are advised to carry a jacket as the cave is quite cold. Our guide issued us flashlights and we descended into the dark. It is almost a kilometer to the Salon Noir which is the primary site of paintings. Along the way we saw graffiti beginning from the 16th century. Many people visited these caves and paintings in the 17th and 19th centuries, leaving their marks on the walls. An interesting story here is that these early visitors didn’t know what to make of these naive paintings because the official church teaching was that humans sprung fully developed as Adam and Eve. These paintings just didn’t fit with that notion. In the early 20th century dating techniques showed the paintings to be 12,000-14,000 years old. At the same time other archeological evidence changed the notion of human history. Thus the paintings came to be known as made by ancient peoples.
We hiked through the dark with occassional stops where the guide showed us some graffiti or ancient rock art. Much of the time we walked single file and in a few places the passage was very small. I squeezed through one opening with no room to spare. The floor of the cave looks like petrified ripples on a sand beach or large pans with raised limestone edges that seem to be left from water evaporating. There were some beautiful stalagmites and stalactites, but they are not the prime objective.
The rock art is beautiful. As in most caves of this age in France, the featured animals are bison, horses, and ibex. Niaux also has the only known rock art depiction of a weasel. Most of the works are done with black pigment, but a few have red pigment and a few are done with charcoal.
Upon coming down the mountain from the cave we saw a turn for Chateau de Montsegur and decided to take a look. This chateau sits on a 1200 meter peak. It was one of the final holdouts of the Cathars. In 1243 they were beseiged and had to surrender after 10 months atop their mountain. The French Catholic victors chose to burn 250 of the Cathars alive. It is a beautiful and wild place.
We wound through the Pyrenees on our way back to Carcasonne and then on to home. It was a grand day!