Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Monday - Carnac Alignments, Locmariaquer and the Power of the Stones

We awoke to a gray, overcast morning, just like Paris but with less asphalt. Lack of sun, a well-chilled air and marginal drizzle would be our companions during our very short time in Brittany. But the breakfast laid out by our host was delicious: fresh baguette, homemade jams, Breton butter and local pastries, sweetened even more by the lively table conversation as the four of plotted our moves for the day.

(Richard’s suggestion that we tour as many of the nearby Neolithic and megalithic sites as possible before rain discovered our whereabouts proved a wise choice.)

So packed ourselves into the Ford Focus and with Pauline and her trusty road atlas and Richard at the helm the four of us set out to walk among the stones, to stroll among cemeteries older than the pyramids, to see for ourselves the power wielded by some thousands of large rocks.

Our first stop were the series of stone “alignments” just north of Carnac.

Extending over more than 4kms, the Carnac Alignments are comprised of three major groups of stones that may have once formed part of a single group: Le Menec, Kermario. The alignments also include isolated menhirs (large standing stones), as well as individual tombs such as the Tumulus of St. Michel and collective tombs (dolmens), also known as passage graves like the one at Menec:

I’ll have a bit more to say about several other burial sites later, as we visited several of the more spectacular ones on Monday as well. Suffice it to say these are probably the oldest cemeteries I will ever visit in my life (I have no idea as to what I'll be visiting afterwards),

Like the stones themselves, why and how these thousands of stones were literally lined up in rows extending for hundreds of meters and who actually performed such incredible feats long before the pyramids of Egypt were conceived remain a mystery. One thing is certain, the folks who did put them here were certainly advanced socially, their numbers substantial and organizational hierarchies significant, perhaps in the extreme. Today many of the stones are on private property and of course, over the millennia many have disappeared, to be used for building or fencing and a few have even been “Christianized” by having a cross placed on top.



Before plunging amidst the rocks we stopped in at the “Maison des Magalithes,” across from the Menec alignments. Essentially a visitor center, here you can watch an informational video, view a fantastic model of the alignments and get a better grasp of the significance of all these stones. For example, we learned that since these stones were first put up, the water from the nearby ocean has risen 29 meters or nearly 90 feet.

With a deeper appreciation for what we were about to experience, the four of us left the warmth of the visitor center and braved the cold air and sloppy ground to wade among lines of stones put up by people more than 6000 years ago. We walked up to the old ruined windmill, wisely turned into a convenient observation tower, allowing us a powerful view of the sheer breadth of what we had been walking through.
Menec alignment, just one portion of the alignments in Carnac
After strolling back to the car we headed off down the road paralleling the alignments, and pulled off and parked by the Kerlescan alignments. Crossing the road on foot the four of us hardy souls began a trek up a muck-ridden road, past an equestrian center in search of the Geant, a stone some 6 meters high. We found ithe megalithic “giant” sitting in a quiet, open space, all alone, as if waiting for someone to come and pray to bask in its sacredness, to pay it due homage, to feel its power. All we did was take pictures, which I suppose is some form of respect, the best a 21st century man can give I suppose.



A quick stroll back through the mire and muck of rural Brittany and we were strapped into the warmth of the Ford, heading off for the Tumulus of Mt. Michel, at the very edge of Carnac Ville. Constructed between 5,000 and 3,200 BC, this mound grave is roughly 160x120m and some 12m high and is believed to be the burial site of a member or members of the local ruling class. A Christian chapel (a reproduction of the 1663 chapel) sits on the crest, and provides an incredible view of Carnac and the sea beyond. Sadly the actual burial chambers inside the mound are closed to the public.





From Carnac we headed west to the D768 turning south down the neck of land that forms the Quiberon Peninsula. Since there was virtually nothing open along our route we took the first opportunity for lunch and stopped at what probably pass as a diner-cum-truck-stop-cum-family dinging eatery somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Like the location itself the food was unremarkable (although the fish was reportedly inedible). But it was a chance stop, catch our breath and gather our wits about us before forging on to the southern edge of Brittany.

Working as a team Richard and Pauline toured us through the length and breadth of the Quiberon and we could all only wonder at how different the place must look in June or July, when blue replaces gray, heat replaces the cold and large crowds replace the great emptiness that seemed to await us everywhere.

Leaving the Quiberon Peninsula we headed due north then east passing through the lovely and deserted seaside resort town of La Trinite sur Mer in search of more stones. Or rather we were in search of the power the stones once held over generations upon generations, a power only glimpsed in the hints of the rock, the occasional carving whose meaning, and it must have certainly had one, whose meaning is now lost to us.

So, our next stop was Locmariaquer, also on its own strip of land, a finger of rock and dirt pointing to the sea, the site of one of more significant megalithic finds in this part of Brittany: the broken “Great Menhir,” the Table des Marchand passage grave and the Er Grah tumulus. (We also discovered that unlike the other sites, there is a fee to enter this one. The visitor center is worth the stop, however.)

The enormous block of granite today known as the “Great Menhir,” towered nearly 19m and weighed 280 tons, and is reportedly the largest monolith from the prehistoric age in the West. Erected sometime around 4,500 BC it was destroyed either by natural or manmade causes some two or three centuries later. No one knows why, although once upon a time someone knew. Nor does anyone know how the monolith was transported or raised. What is known is that the granite is not native to the Locmariquer peninsula.


A few meters from the menhir is the Table des Marchard dolmen, or passage grave. It was built around 3,00 BC and the site is believed to have been in use until 2,000 BC. One of the things that makes this site so special are the carvings on the inside of the tomb itself.




Finally, the Er Grah tumulus, another enormous monument stretching some 140m in length, is a closed—grave burial site and was probably first started around 4,500 BC, and was gradually extended over the succeeding centuries. It fell into disuse and eventually disappeared altogether and was only rediscovered beneath a parking lot in 1991. It was restored to its original condition the following year.

After leaving the Locmariaquer megalithic site, we stopped at the Mane Lud passage grave, which turned out to be almost in someone’s backyard. Light was slipping away and the passage graves were starting to become to dark, dank and filled with water from the recent rains and snows to allow easy access. with so much to see before dark enveloped us we pressed on.


Next up was the massive passage grave Les Pierre-Plat, today located almost on the beach with an entrance facing the ocean. Covered with hug slabs of stone the passage was too water-filled to permit us to explore, although I did manage to get a few interior photos.


The slab roof of the passage grave is on the left

As the sun dropped below the horizon, the temperature went with it. Since all we had was one tiny flashlight (“torch”), our explorations were fast coming to a conclusion. We did manage a couple of more quick stops, though, one at Mane er Hroech, before darkness took over.



So it was back to Carnac, and dinner once again at the Casino – the menu was pretty much the same but a different server; still, the same quality and the same professionalism. The company was, as it was the night before, warm, the conversation lively and the evening quietly remarkable.

A wonderful way to close out an incredible day of exploring southern Brittany, of feeling the weight of all those stones on my soul, the stilled voices trying to tell us what they once knew and that the mysteries they left behind really weren’t mysteries at all, once upon a time. . .

Wish you had been there,

Steve

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