DnD Tourism: The Caves of Dordogne
I don’t like talking about fantasy Europe here – I figure you guys have explored that problem space pretty thoroughly. On the other hand, since fantasy is nearly always cod-European, nowhere else looks quite as stereotypically fantastical? And since I’ve been exploring some pretty fantastic places here in France, it seems selfish not to share.*
So I’ll be writing an occasional series of recommendations of places to visit, should you get half a chance, and thoughts about how they might fit in your game, hopefully not quite in the usual obvious ways. And I’m starting with real DnD country: the Dordogne and Lot valleys:
– riddled with caves, encrusted with hilltop castles, and spiced with local legends. And the fact that it’s one of the world’s great wine regions doesn’t hurt neither. [Edited to add: thanks, Trey, for reminding me of Ze-Bulette’s explorations of the Dordogne for DMing gold.]
If you go, you’ll need a car. A small rental car with full coverage insurance, because parking is a problem in the towns. Why? because they tend to look like this:
…and you’ll probably want to go canoeing down the (quite fast-flowing) river, which is an unbeatable way to scope out small towns to visit later. And then there are the caves and caveman homes with paintings dating back 20,000 years and Josephine Baker‘s little castle and hedge mazes… so I recommend at least a week, which might even let you detour to the medievalist’s proto-Disneyland, Carcassonne:
…on which I will write another post. But first, caves. The Dordogne’s lousy with them, since the whole region is limestoney ex-sea-bottom crisscrossed with fault lines. A bunch have underground rivers – the most famous access point to one right now is the Gouffre de Padirac:
which extends from the bottom of a sink hole that locals used to consider the mouth of hell. No really: temperature differences between above and below mean that there’s frequently smoky mist pouring out of it:
…does that metal staircase throw you off your fantasy groove?
When I saw the weird collection of moss-covered, WW2-reminiscent buildings in the bottom of this shaft, Lost came forcefully to mind. And it seems like the place’s promoters are alive to its pulp mystery vibe:
When I visited I got the surprise treat of a sculpture show in the caves, which accounts for the ghostly white figure in that sinkhole photo above, and the charming fact that, as I walked the wildly veering galleries I would occasionally stumble across exploring parties of miniatures:
It’s hard to show in photos what’s special about being down there, or how it made me reconsider caves in general, so I’m forced to fall back on words. Which I guess is always true in roleplaying anyway…
So you’re in a narrow fissure between two walls that go up and up a couple of hundred feet or so above you, and they zigzag randomly in all directions – there could be a ledge right above your head with someone on it and you’d never know. You’re walking – or paddling – in a great big tear in the land; an erosion gully and an unreliable subterranean river and great clusters of stalactites and stalagmites fit to cheer the heart of anyone who struggled through the DSG. And there’s no way you’re going to be sneaking up on anyone who lives there: visual cover abounds but noise carries far and navigation is tricky – as an unfamiliar invader you’re going to be the one who’s surprised. And then the river disappears into a natural pipe leaving you to scramble over rocks, only to reappear off and on thereafter, in limpid pools or rushing torrents, depending on whether its being dammed by stalagmite travertines** or dropped through deep, narrow channels. And sometimes it gets in your way – either slickening your path with just enough slippery marble-water to make you go on hands-and-feet or waterfalling right down the cleft you’ll have to get up, in order to get into the Gallery of Oracular Heads.
OK, fine: as a tourist site they have it set up better than that – but you can see exactly what it would’ve been like before they put the walkways in. And it’s hard to keep a sense of the scale of what you’re looking at in the fractal world of stalactites and stalagmites, which makes it easy to imagine this splatter formation as the world’s coolest cliffside city –
or some unholy collection of vengeful shellfish. And just in case you do go for squamous entities in your underworld fantasies, there’s a surprising amount of places they could hide right out in the open:
That last one’s the grotto of Proumeyssac, which is a single enormous flask-shaped hole, like a cathedral or a genie’s bottle, with just enough little secret squeezeways around the edges to conceal a battalion of archers. Again, there’s no way you’re surprising the inhabitants as you enter this shooting gallery, so you might as well do it in style – dropping in by rope-lowered gondola. Although try to avoid dropping right into the watery pools at the bottom, if you’re not familiar with their properties.
The things that struck me most about these caves were:
– their unknowability (60′ falloff for torchlight? Hah – these were artificially lit and I nearly brained myself several times because black bits of rock abruptly loomed out of the black background),
– the fact that I had no idea what was coming (you round a corner and see… a limitless lake, the ceiling soaring away for miles, and an island covered in multi-storied balconies of silently flitting figures – it’s Lovecraftian but quite believable when you’re down there)
– and the potential for the environment itself to be treasure. In Proumeyssac there are tables full of ceramic tchochkes that the owners are covering in mineral-loaded stalactite water for the simple reason that it makes them a bit sparkly and unusual – what if that water had other properties, and a few years of being dripped on could imbue items with some special power? That’s more of an Ars Magica type thought that typical DnD, but if you’re thinking lightning raids and looting, there’s a much smaller cave at Laugerie Basse that might serve. It’s almost completely filled by skins of stalactites and stalagmites so it looks like a dry(ish) underground coral reef – the ideal place to find miniature landscape backgrounds for your Flash Gordon movie:
or to get mugged by norkers as you’re wriggling along on your belly after than enticingly gleaming bit of crystal that’s just at the edge of your lamplight. And this tiny calcite wax museum has had bits of alabaster that look like the Winged Victory of Samothrace or the True Cross or the Sword of St. Michael looted from it and sold to collectors for years. Barsoom has its cliffs made out of gold and gemstones – a less overheated fantasy economy might have a place for philosophers’ rocks from the Caves of Revelation or “natural” formations that show the gods’ hands at work in shaping the world or that suggest the presence of a kami or some stony memory of antediluvian events and powers. Or imagine the potential for rock-formations-as-treasure once you add magic to the land – stalactite elementals take millions of years to form, so they concentrate time in their infinitesimal nacreous layers to a purity never found up on the constantly-churning surface. Those serried galleries of the miniature cliffside city contain all the ghosts of every water drop that splashed to its doom from the cathedral ceiling far above – water that drops from the mouth of the aeons-old sleeping dragon (curled around the cave, its egg) having first filtered for centuries through the carious layers of that dragon’s rotten, mouth-clasped pearl of wisdom.
So the next cave system I put in a game will have moments of majesty (and opportunities for missile fire), tiny little squeeze-spaces, and both troglodytes and sneaky, surprising stone creatures. Because I just can’t resist the idea that you might secretly be in the middle of a Fantastic Voyage and not even know it.
* Over the past 2 years (!) of living in France I’ve amassed quite a few DnD Tourism posts, which I never seem to get around to writing up. I’m not sure why this is – I’ve been resisting writing this post because my head is full of Barsoom (since I just re-read the first 3 books)… I believe in general it’s harder to interpret – and write about – the real world than fiction. So this might just be a first pass on presenting the caves and castles of the Dordogne for roleplaying ends.
** dammit, that’s the shot I was looking for when the Carcosa Wacky Racers went down the cliff of travertines. In China, apparently – sorry, my shot of them in France didn’t come out so well.