On the evening before we left our rental near Mirepoix, as Gaston and I had supper on the terrace in front of the cottage, I watched the clouds drift from west to east across the southern horizon, picking up the blues and violets from the forest-shrouded hills. We hadn’t seen the Pyrenees since the evening we arrived: first the tramontane-driven rain socked in the valleys, and once that passed and the sun shone, humidity veiled the mountains. Occasionally you could make out dim outlines.
We got nice ganders at the midi-Pyrénées the morning we were in Tarascon-sur-Ariège. We were visiting the Grotte de Niaux, the only cave in France with Magdelena-era cave paintings (12,000 to 14,000 years) that the public is still permitted to see in the original. There are about 10 caves with artifacts or traces in the Tarascon area. The entrance to the Grotte de Niaux is at ~1000 feet above the valley, with views to the west. Sheer white limestone cliffs studded with conifers and hardwoods. And the air there: crisp and clear at mid-morning.
The cave paintings included some impressive, expressive bison, but were not nearly the colourful works of art that images from Lascaux in the Dordogne have created expectations of. The guide mystified us more than enlightened us: she had a canned talk and any questions from the group that delved deeper and required that she explain her statements—well, forget it: you were just going to be even more confused. The bison were nice though. And that the guide had the waxen, transparently pallid appearance of one who rarely sees daylight also led to some entertaining but quiet speculation. We decided, given our disappointing experiences in getting more information from her on other questions about cave dwellers, that we wouldn’t bring the subject up.
Perhaps she had been coated with her own layer of limestone slip. Mineral-based physical sunblocks are the new thing, after all. And certainly the water here in le sud de France contains sufficient lime to scale anybody nicely after a few weeks. The water at St-Gély was the hardest we’ve encountered: I couldn’t even get a lather up with that. It was less hard at Mirepoix. In Nézignan-l’Evèque, soap lathered, but more sediment was left behind. Paris leaves its own special imprint after a couple of showers. I suppose if we lived in southern Alberta, we wouldn’t even notice, but – oh – for the dulcet washes of west coast water.