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From Cave Painters to Cassoulet: A Trip to Southwest France 100,000 Years in the Making

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"It's old, yes," conceded Bart. "But only 27,000 years old. Not as old as some." In fact, the cave etching we were facing, deep inside a hill in southwestern France on a walking tour in the Dordogne Valley, really didn't look so ancient. In a region where signs of human life stretch back 400,000 years, the bison sketched in the cave's eternal darkness was startlingly fresh.

Yet, by comparison, the temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia is brand spanking new. The Greeks didn't even start to build Ephesus until a good 26 millennia after our cave artist laid down his tools.

The chance to step through the time warp of all time warps wasn't why I decided on a Bordeaux and Dordogne tour. But it's why I'm most happy that I went. That week tested and twisted my sense of history in ways I never anticipated, and I have Bart to thank. He's been the local Classic Journeys guide in Bordeaux and the Dordogne Valley since 2000. The man seems to know everything and everybody. But his true specialty is orchestrating a deep dive into the human past.

Bart really knows how to put the "pre" into prehistory. "But to keep it from being too overwhelming," he deadpanned, "I'll only focus on the last 100,000 years." He pulled some strings to make it happen, negotiating that rare walk into a non-public cave. It was a cave-cave, the kind of granite burrow where a farmer might have stored his apple harvest in the cool air. There were no soaring caverns or floodlit stalactites, and we walked the whole way upright -- no spelunking, thank you. At the end, we doused the flashlights, and Bart lit a candle to reveal that bison. He wanted us to be able to imagine crouching there in the candle's flickering halo like the artist who may have "painted" the image by blowing on powdered pigment through a hollow bone.

Of course, most of the history is much closer to the surface. Bart introduced us to a friend who has one of the world's largest collections of Stone Age relics, the kind of tools a gardener can hoe up in her artichoke patch. We went to La Roque Saint-Christophe, the troglodytic site where cave dwellers first carved shelters in the limestone wall tens of thousands of years ago. Fast-forward to the Middle Ages, and people still occupied those niches.

And around here, you couldn't ignore the Hundred Years' War (which ended a mere 560 years ago) if you wanted to. As we took some beautiful walks in the Dordogne and Vezere River valleys, there was almost always a chateau or castle on the high horizon. Scenic to us, but purely strategic to the French and English armies who we imagined waiting for us there to come within bow-and-arrow range.

To be honest, I selected this region of France to do a walking tour in Dordogne because they hunt truffles here. (We did, too.) An average dinner is a crusty crock of cassoulet. (I snagged the duck sausage.) And how can you argue with a medieval village like nearby St. Emilion where the specialties are cream-filled meringue cookies and Bordeaux wines? (Salut!) In my book, any travel experience with all of that is an automatic success.

But if you're like me, when you're settled back in at home after a vacation, you surprise yourself with the things you remember best. I returned from this week with a real (and humbling) feel for where we fit on the human timeline. I'll always be grateful to southwest France and Bart for giving me 100,000 years of memories.