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UNESCO

France’s prehistoric Chauvet cave opens

A stunning replica of the 36,000 year-old Grotte Chauvet, home to the oldest figurative cave drawings in the world and an Unesco Heritage site, opened to the public at the weekend. Here's a look inside the country's latest tourist attraction.

France's prehistoric Chauvet cave opens
The replica of the Chauvet cave at Pont d'Arc is to open its doors. Photo: AFP

The grotto at Vallon-Pont d'Arc in the Ardeche region of southern France, is a reproduction of the closely guarded Grotte Chauvet, which was granted World Heritage status last year.

The French president had already officially inaugurated the museum earlier this month and it officially opened to the public on Saturday.

The replica cave, which took a team of scientists two and a half years to create, will enable tourists from around the world to continue to see the frescos of painted animals without damaging the original cave.

Unique in the world for being such an identical and precise reproduction, the grotto has been built in the shape of a bear's paw, and stands just one kilometre away from the original site.

Inside the new grotto, which came a cost of €55 million visitors will be able to see more than a thousand drawings, including 425 animal figures of 14 different species, which have been meticulously reproduced.

 

The smell, humidity and even stalactites of the Grotte Chauvet have also been recreated to make the new site as authentic as can be.

The visitor walks down a long ramp to get into the building housing the replica, entering a darkened, cool and humid place that mirrors conditions in the grotto.

Then just like in the real cave, people stick to a walkway that takes them past replica bones and the skull of an Alpine ibex, a species of wild goat.

The drawings reveal themselves as the visitors walk further into the fake cave, a total of 1,000 paintings including 425 animals — including bears, rhinos, big cats, owls.

These have been reproduced using charcoal, just like our Aurignacian ancestors did some 36,000 years ago.

Using ultra-modern techniques such as 3D imaging, engineers, sculptors, painters and visual artists faithfully reproduced the paintings.

A team of 10 people in Paris also worked for four years to reproduce stalactites, stalagmites and other formations present in the Grotte Chauvet itself.

Authorities hope that the giant replica will attract some 350,000 visitors a year.

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The original Chauvet grotto was preserved for more than 20,000 years thanks to the fallen rocks, which blocked its entrance.

The grotto was discovered on the 18th December 1994 by amateur potholers: Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel et Christian Hillaire.

If you are wondering how important the grotto is, then the words of Philippe Lalliot France's envoy to Unesco, should leave you in no doubt.

"I had the chance, I should say the privilege, to visit the cave… and I was literally stunned by what I saw, which revolutionizes our views of our origins," said Lalliot after the Unesco vote last year.

A French lawmaker for the Ardeche, Pascal Terrasse, also described the cave as "a first cultural act".

"This artist has now been recognized," Terrasse said. "May he forgive us for waiting 36,000 years to recognize his work."

by Chloé Farand

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ART

Audrey Azoulay, France’s ‘passionate’ arts defender to Unesco chief

When Audrey Azoulay, then number two at France's National Cinema Centre, was named culture minister last year, she barely had a public profile - she didn't even have a Twitter account.

Audrey Azoulay, France's 'passionate' arts defender to Unesco chief
Audrey Azoulay will become director-general of Unesco in November. Photo: Thomas Samson

That was quickly rectified as the career civil servant, long used to working behind the scenes in the higher spheres of French administrations, got her first exposure to the bright lights of politics.

When the 45-year-old becomes the next director-general of the troubled UN cultural body Unesco in November, her profile will become global – in a job fraught with diplomatic, bureaucratic and financial challenges.

“In a time of crisis, we need more than ever to get involved (and) work to strengthen the organisation,” Azoulay said after her election on Friday.

During her tenure of just over a year as culture minister under Socialist president Francois Hollande, Azoulay secured a budget increase for her ministry after years of deep cuts.

Her tenure was also marked by the passage of a “creation and heritage” law aimed at ensuring artistic freedom and protecting France's myriad historic sites, the culmination of years of efforts.

Defender of French films

Azoulay was born in Paris on August 4th, 1972, into a Moroccan Jewish family, originally from Essaouira, which gave pride of place to books and debate.

Her father is Andre Azoulay, a banker and adviser to the Morocco's King Mohammed VI – as he was to the king's father, Hassan II – and her mother is the writer Katia Brami.

She studied at Sciences-Po university in Paris and at the Lancaster University in Britain before graduating from France's ENA, an elite school that grooms France's future leaders.

During her studies she worked in banking, an experience she said she “hated”.

She spent time at France's Court of Audits and several years in various media departments at the Culture Ministry, before joining the CNC, guardian of the French film industry, as financial director in 2006.

By 2011 she had become deputy director at the CNC, making her a key player in the structure which regulates the industry and doles out subsidies for French productions.

“It's the film industry that formed me the most professionally,” said Azoulay, who has also been a staunch defender of the French industry's “cultural exception” against the Hollywood juggernaut.

“She is a brilliant and passionate woman, a friend of artists and creativity,” CNC president Frederique Bredin said in 2014, when she was tapped to become Hollande's culture and communications adviser, on her way to the top post at the Culture Ministry.