Where is Mr. Pémendrant, to guide the visitors of Bernifal?
It’s early in the season, March in fact, and nearly all of the Dordogne region is awakening into spring; very few places for sleeping and eating are open. Luckily for us, a trilogy including Font de Gaume, Les Combarelles, and Abri du Cap Blanc are all open for those of us eager to see and feel the insides of caves that are drawn, painted, and etched by Cro-Magnon artists’ hands.
These three sites, along with three others, Pech Merle, Rouffignac, and Bernifal were unknown to me until about a month ago, when I stumbled upon Stepping Stones: A Journey Through the Ice Age Caves of the Dordogne*. Evocatively written by Christine Desdemaines-Hugon, I was led deeply to connect with the people who lived in the Vézere Valley more than 14,000 years ago. Excited, knowing an upcoming trip would bring us close to the region, my anticipation grew with each day until we arrived.
Bernifal, which I eagerly hoped to visit, was closed until June. As we passed it on the road, we took the opportunity to park and walk to it, passing what looked to be an abandoned home, crossing a small creek, meandering through a glade, and then following the hilly path up to what seemed to be a hole, partially concealed by the land, and diving directly into the side of the earth. Closed off by a hobbit-like door, it was bolted, locked. Not to be disheartened, I tried the handle, to no avail. Oh well.
I was particularly interested in this site, because the journey described by Ms. Desdemaines-Hugon* led ultimately to what I imagined would be a mesmerizing find: “a small portrait, with delicate features: expressive eyes with arched brows, the nose centered on a slight fold, two dots for the nostrils, the mouth and jaw barely visible, but definitely there.” A magical moment, that we will have to return in order to see, a “mutual curiosity” eyes meeting and “linking us to the past.”
Having to satisfy myself with the story of the landscape surrounding the cave, I snapped photographs of flowers and glowing trees, highlighted by the setting sun, comparable to hues found here in the Pacific Northwest. The house, probably the former residence of the owner and caretaker of Bernifal cave, captivated me. Seemingly abandoned, the interior a dark mystery, littered with old building materials, a reflection of the Paleolithic caves, in ours – a different age.
Above is a watercolor study of that house, aiming to eventually capture my sense of being a silent, unobserved witness into days gone by, using Payne’s Gray, Yellow Ochre, Green Gold, an Raw Umber. Below are my reference photos, used in conjunction with sweet memories and the story and feelings that arose there.