16 November 2007

The Caves of Balzi Rossi

Balzi Rossi beach

I blame the bridges. Some of you know I post a photograph every day on Menton Daily Photo and also Monte Carlo Daily Photo. Well, on the first day of each month, the City Daily Photo family run a Theme Day. For instance, in the past, we've had to post photos on such diverse subjects as: a tombstone, street signs, the colour blue, a typical breakfast, a public mail box, men at work - and so on.

The Theme for December is a bridge. I had a few ideas but decided to ask my knowledgeable friend on all-things-Menton, Marie-Hélène. M-H is a talented Dutch painter, who has been living in the south of France for about as long as me - at first in Menton and now in the beautiful medieval village of Roquebrune.

'There's a bridge at Balzi Rossi,' she said. 'Drive to the border, turn right towards the Restaurant Balzi Rossi and park. On the left you'll see the bridge and tucked into some of its arches is a café, now closed. M-H told me that this restaurant had a strange sort of licence where they weren't allowed to serve outside, so they used to call out people's names when the food was ready. Customers then collected the food themselves, sat outside and ate it, and so the licence was adhered to. Sounds very Italian to me.

So I settle the dogs and off I go. I find the bridge, take a few photographs and then wander on, past the Restaurant Balzi Rossi and I see, on the left, the Museo Prehistorico dei Balzi Rossi. I've lived here for 16 years and never knew it existed. I walk past the museum and on to the sea. Rugged, with the sea bashing against the rocks. So unlike the calm coastline in Menton. Every time I cross the border into Italy, it amazes me how different the feel is from one side of the border to the other. Not just rocks and sea, but the whole atmosphere is different, the people are different. A few miles and you are in a different world. I confess I often wish I'd chosen Italy over France but it's a bit late now and anyway it's only a hop, skip and jump across the border, so stop complaining Jilly. And again, what's wrong with France and especially Menton - and of course the answer is nothing. It's all wonderful.

I take a few shots of the rocks and sea and look up at the great red cliff face. Balzi Rossi means Red Rocks. I decide to pop into the museum for a few moments on my way back to the car. I enter. There's a well-padded friendly lady behind the counter. Standing near to her is a rather stern-faced gentleman. I look the length of the museum and realise I'm the only visitor. I get out my purse and ask the lady, 'How much, please.' 'Two euros,' she says. Seems cheap to me and I open my purse. She looks at me and then asks, 'How old are you?' I tell her. 'Oh, then you can go in for nothing,' she says. Well there I was in my Polo jeans, my nifty pale pink t-shirt, my trendy waistcoat from Diesel in New York and she's guessed my age. Dammit. Well of course there are advantages to being older - many - but really I'd rather it wasn't assumed. People, when they see me, are supposed to throw up their hands in surprise and say 'Oh no really, you look so much younger.' Fat chance.

So, I'm two euros richer. The lady gives me a gratuito ticket and I'm free to look around. I notice all the exhibits have explanations in Italian, which I don't speak. I ask if there is a brochure in English or French. The lady points to a revolving stand with A4 sized plasticized explanations and photos in many languages. 'You can borrow one,' she says, 'but you can't take it away with you.' I ask if I might photograph it (I need the information for Menton Daily Photo). At this point, the stern-faced man rushes up, 'No, no, no. No photographs allowed,' he says. I explain I have a blog and would like to mention the museum and so need to have the information. 'No, no photographs allowed.'

I know it's forbidden to take photographs in museums, but a photograph of a brochure - for heaven's sake. So I get out my notebook and pen, but there's nowhere to write. Obviously I can't lean on any of the display cases, some of which I've already noticed contain fossils of dead bodies. Hardly the thing to do even if they are 240,000 years old.

The friendly lady, as opposed to the unfriendly man, tells me there is a table at the far end and I can use that. I walk past wall displays and start to write.

"The Balzi Rossi caves are at the southern limit of the hilly massif of the Alps, which separate Liguria from what is now known at the Côte d'Azur. This particular topography meant that the caves were en route - as well as a convenient stopping point - for those who travelled through or lived in this region over the millennia. The famous 'triple burial' - the skeletons of a Cro-Magnon adult male, girl and young boy, were discovered in the Barma Grande cave."

I continue writing for a while - if you are interested in more information and more photographs, please visit THIS LINK and scroll down to read the various entries.

By now, I'm feeling just a little daunted. Nice Lady and Not so Nice Gentleman are looking at me, talking about me. I need to show some real interest in the displays but I know nothing about palaeontology. They continue to watch me. Do they think I want to steal a fossil? In any case, everything is behind glass. I wander about looking at the various displays; fossils of so many animals - elephant, rhinoceros, reindeer, bear, groundhogs - and flint tools, photographs - all of which are fascinating.

Eventually I'm done and I go to leave. I make a few polite comments, 'How amazing' and 'Incredible to think...' and 'Very interesting museum' - all of which I mean. It is indeed fascinating - I was struck by how small the skulls are of the 'triple burial' mentioned above. The Not S0 Friendly Gentleman seems pleased. Perhaps he isn't so unfriendly, after all, and is just so proud of his museum. Don't always assume people are as you first find them, Jilly. Mind you, he could have let me photograph the brochure.

'Now you go and visit the caves,' says Nice Lady. And I thought I was done for the day and could go home to the dogs... and lunch.

She takes me outside and indicates a car. I'd noticed a lady sitting in this car when I walked past earlier. It turns out she sits in the car all day waiting to take visitors from the museum to the caves. I assume I'm to get in and be driven to wherever the caves are, not realising I'd walked past them earlier and that they are simply just above the museum. Nice Lady puts out her hand and stops me opening the passenger side fo the car. 'You walk,' she says.

A skinny lady, messy blond hair, smoking a cigarette gets out of the car. She's wearing black boots and a black coat. Not your typical museum guide I feel. Unfortunately she doesn't speak one word of French or English and so we converse in sign language and with gestures and, with the little understanding I have of Italian, we somehow manage. Note to self: must learn Italian - it's such a beautiful language.

It occurs to me that three employees to show one visitor around is a mite excessive. Talk about overstaffed. No wonder the Italian economy works as it does.

We walk up the ramp to a bridge, which I discover is over the main railway line that connects the French and Italian Rivieras. At the entrance to the bridge is an iron gate. She takes a large key from her pocket and unlocks the gate. She gestures me to walk thru and she turns around, takes another cigarette from a packet in her pocket and walks towards a white plastic chair where she sits and lights up. She is obviously going to wait for my return. I'm on my own now.

I breathe a sigh of relief. At least I don't have to pretend I'm a visiting academic from America - not that there's any chance of that, I might add. By way of an aside, I've noticed some French people have a problem distinguishing accents and can't tell if we are American or English - or South African or Australian, come to that. I remember when I lived in the Pyrenées I was watching an American film on television. It had subtitles in French and one of the Frenchmen in the room asked me, quite seriously, 'Do you understand that language?' 'Of course I do,' I replied, 'it's in English.' 'But it's an American film,' he said, 'I didn't know you understood American.' It astounded me that he didn't realise American and English are the same language. But hey, come to think of it, perhaps he was right.

I cross the bridge and walk up some fairly steep steps and then up a sandy track. The view is fabulous, the rock face extraordinary. First I come to the Grotta del Caviglioni where elephant and rhinoceros fossils were discovered. I walk further - more steps and a longer sandy path and come to Grotta di Florestano. Florestano, Prince of Monaco, excavated this cave between 1846 and 1857 where the discovery was made of a fragment of thin bone belonging to a pre-Neanderthal woman, who walked erect. Ths is the oldest human fragment ever found in Italy.

Were I braver, I'd probably have entered one of the caves but I would have brought a torch with me and preferably a dog to protect me from the ghosts of the prehistoric creatures. I'd love to do so actually as I understand there are some cave paintings to be seen. But I'm not brave, so I walk back to the lady in black, who is still smoking her cigarettes.

The entrance to Florestano's cave

I'm done. Home to the dogs and lunch But no, my guide now takes me to a second building, also part of the museum, where she indicates there are two floors of exhibits for me to view. I can hardly refuse. She will wait for me, doubtless smoking as she does so.

Here are many photographs and graphs and explanations of the caves and the cave-dwellers. There are some figurines too - miniature sculptures of well-rounded female nudes, fashioned - depending on the region - from ivory, antler, or soft stone. The treatment seems to have followed certain rules, the most obvious being an over-emphasis on the fleshy parts of the body (buttocks, stomach and chest) and at times, an explicit portrayal of various sexual attributes. Plus ça change. The most famous is the Grimaldi Venus, fashioned in serpentine and which depicts a pregnant woman.

I sneak a few photographs when I'm on the upper level of this building and eventually I'm done. I leave. The guide locks up behind me and walks back to her car. I linger, enjoying the view and trying to get my head around prehistoric man who lived here forever ago and how I want to try and write about it on a blog that will somehow be read by you in an instant. I give up trying. Time to go home to the dogs - and a late lunch. I can get my head around that. The dogs need a run in the garden and I'm hungry.


Anonymous said...

Consider the luck pre-historic man had in this region: free real-estate (save for a few fights over land rights), beautiful vistas, no government or municipal taxes, no pollution, no tourists, no traffic (see no tourists), simply no worries other than finding food, shelter, and fire.

Waldo Oiseau said...

Ah, I know what a few of those "yes, very interesting, tell me more" trips feel like! Nice photos though!

You recently mentioned that you haven't been to New Orleans. I do encourage you to go someday if you're in the U.S.

Ann (MobayDP) said...

Very interesting report Jilly :)
I still don't get why they need three guides!lol!

Coffee Messiah said...

Typical response in most museums, sad to say. I remember a few in Berlin where, even though security wire was around and near most exhibits, someone would follow you around and kept saying not to touch anything....huh?

I enjoyed reading this and your photos, Thanks and Cheers from the us of a! CM

Hyderabad Daily Photo said...

Interesting report. Very funny how the gentleman thought "American" was a separate language. But to be fair, I have to admit that long ago I did not know that they spoke Spanish in Mexico and I had assumed Mexico had its own language (Mexican). We have multiple people for one job here as well. There are two people who come to take the reading of the electric meter and yet two other people to take the reading of the water meter. One guy peers into the meter and calls out the reading, and the other guy punches it into his machine (used to be write it in his notebook). At least it is not the guys from the electric dept or the water dept because they have outsourced their work to private contractors.

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Gerald (SK14) said...

great story - at least you got some photos of the caves - such official suspicion of photographers is very off-putting at times.

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