signing the surface: aux caves Niaux, par Mirepoix et Foix, de Carcassonne – & a note on oppressive architecture

A day begun with impossible things overcome and ending with further impossible things to do before breakfast, like find accommodation in Barcelona.

Eurocar repeat in various places ONE MUST CONTACT 4 WORKING DAYS BEFORE DROPPING CAR OFF. We forgot.

Rang before my brain was working in English, let alone Francais, and haltingly explained the delivery, the retardation, no, what is it? the failure to check in earlier. For some reason, regardless of the fact that the second woman on the line spoke to me in French, I was passed on. Second woman had more of a jocular style. So there was an improvement. She seemed to want to pass quickly over the fault and get off the line. Difficult to find, I asked, the drop-off point in Perpignan? No! There’s a big sign. And that works? D’accord. D’accord.

First hurdle. Second hurdle: The missing camera. No case. It must have been with the braille book in the chateau with the librairie. The municipal offices had the number. It took another phonecall. I was asked, Was it an oh-lin-poo, or something like that. Yes! I said, That’s it.

No problem. Tell the cashier at the entrance.

She turned out to be the same as had allowed me through with my bomb. We turned up approximately two hours after my call to the shop, having visited the Office du Tourisme, to reserve places at Niaux. The cashier said, Oh, that’s funny, they’ve just called!

Timing here is a bit of an issue. We asked why everything was shut in the town – wanting to buy a map – at the Office of Tourism. Were told, Some shops do open at ten.

It was eleven-thirty.

In the street we tried to find a Tabac. Three before the pattern became clear: Each tobacconist had a croney-guy, with whom he swaps dirty jokes and generally tries to intimidate all comers; maps for regions outside his specific one are disdained, not stocked; if you ask for them, you’re greeted with: I don’t have THAT! (I have every sort of pornography. But not that!)

It was back in La Cite, having retrieved the photo apparatus, Olympus, in a French accent, and, conveniently, ours, that I found a map for the High Ariege. Back into the car. A booking for 15:15 at Niaux, outside Tarascon-sur-Ariege.

Out into the country-side, soon climbing, the temperature dropping, dropping. 8 degrees Celsius, outside for the rest of the day.

Mirepoix we stopped for lunch, les sandwichs. The town is famous for its medieval covered market. Within, there was a market being packed up by the normal ciggy-sucking hard merchant types, into once-white vans. Every cafe around the perimeter, however, full of ferals, hippy types, funky oldies. A whole new social scene out here. The trans-alpine?

Excellent sandwiches. A Pyrennese, a Brazilian, an Ariegois. The first gamey cured ham and emmental cheese; the second something like butter chicken; the last dried duck with walnuts. All with fresh green leaves. We ought to have stayed in the warm with the casual dressers, but returned to the road, and ate on it. More crumbs in the car.

We got to Tarascon-sur-Ariege one-and-a-half hours early. Parked. Looked for coffee. The snow covered peaks around, and the autumning trees, red, orange, gold. Meanwhile the sky making spotlights on the landscape. Freezing, mind you.

Ducked into a riverside – high on the Ariege – hotel-resto. The twelve-year-old waiterer-d’ wouldn’t let us sit with the view, because it was reserved for resto guests. Why?

It is.

Out, into the church. A very odd Pieta. Back into the car, and up the narrowing, narrowing road to the mouth of the Niaux caves.

A view stunning. An architect-designed reception, by Fuksas, Italian, enhancing with its forced perspective, in oxidised metal plate, the scale of the cave-opening. And some time to wait in the cold, even colder up here.

We’d been warned the tour of the caves was in French. However, it appeared half the tour were English. Possibly because the English were so loud. Loudly English. Dressed as if scaling mountains, not taking a stroll under them, with French children on school holiday. Their designated translator, the English, had haliotosis, giving another reason to stay away from them.

With torches in hand, a group of twenty-four – numbers are strictly controlled, hence the booking, because gaseous people are bad for cave art – we went through the ‘artificial’ entrance. Into a cathedral-scale cave system. What do they call them? Gallery after gallery opening up under the light. Marble and quartz. And the calcified formation of pillar and stalactites, stalacmites. And, consistent with our finding that the French have no public liability, little in the way of barriers, rails, cut trails. One realised why in NZ doing the same thing is so oppressive: it’s the oppression imposed by the authority, not that imposed by the architecture.

We climbed the ‘dune,’ a massive beast, curving up and up. And the narrow passes demanded that we crouch, with no more warning than a ‘Mind your head!’

The first markings were ‘geometric signs’ signifying something but what we don’t know. (It sounded better in French, this insistence on uncertainty and ambivalence.) They are signs that above all have a sense, but ones of which we don’t the meaning.

Further, one-and-half kilometres under the mountain, and in particular places – with superimpositions, and drawings-over, as if there weren’t anywhere else to draw! – bison, goats, the local varieties, horned, deer, and horses. No people were depicted here. And the animals most represented were those least hunted. Bison in the 40 percent. Horses next.

And small markings, arrows. Although bows and arrows were not used. No pattern asserted for the low frequency of occurrences, with the non-representational elements. With those that are representational, images carried from place to place with the movements of the nomadic Magdalenic tribes.

In the acoustic space of the Salon Noir, a sense that there were these visual cues to states of mind, like images carried on the underside of a stone eyelid, as well as acoustic cues. The extraordinary resonance of this space.

I wished we could have been asked to find the resonating frequency of this space with our voices, not to have the English shout out Hello! into the forty metre high cavity of the roof. I didn’t have the presence of mind to suggest it. Could have, I suppose.

Architecturally, what was interesting was that the irregularity in the floor of the cave, and the lack of lateral references not part of the cave, gave rise to a disorientation: gravity could easily have been withheld, in the normal sense of up and down. The floor could easily be the roof or walls.

A remark made about the illumination: that made by the light of a live flame, the drawings were also meant in some cases to be animated by a live flame, living in the flicker. And the interesting fact of the drawings’ inaccessibility, their relative secrecy.

In the deep part of the cave, there are geometric signs only able to be seen by someone scrabbling along on their back looking up at the roof pressing down on them.

More thought necessary. As the thing was another encounter with a great mystery.

Of a different order than that surrounding the lack of available accommodation in Barcelona, the high cost of that which is available. Our nightly McDonalds visit again ending in frustration. Nowhere to stay!

What does it mean? What sign are we being sent? A sign of which the meaning is not known, but which above all possesses a sense: a symbolic obstacle?