Nourishing the soul in the ever changing light of Conques, a lure for the modern day pilgrim and a place of contemplative beauty says Lucy Pitts as she visits the medieval town in the Aveyron region…
There is always something wonderfully evocative about the medieval towns and villages you find dotted along the pilgrim trails to Santiago de Compostela and Conques, in the Aveyron region of the Midi-Pyrénées, is certainly no exception. There’s something profoundly moving about this “plus beaux village de France” and without doubt, it’s a village that nourishes the soul of the weary traveller.
It was with no small sense of irony that I arrived there after a surprisingly smooth and timely Ryanair flight from a bustling Stansted Airport, a journey, unlike that of the pilgrim, of just a few hours and of winding comfort through steep, terraced vineyards and along the deep cut and woody valley of the River Dourdou.
To the tired pilgrim, the leafy forests of chestnut, pine and oak and the heather clad rocky crags of this elemental landscape must have felt like a never ending wilderness and despite it being the middle of September, summer hadn’t yet lessened its grip on this fertile corner of France. Gradually the cool, earthy smell of the valley gave way to hilltops shimmering in the heat of the afternoon sun so that it was with a palpable sense of relief, that the first timber framed houses clinging to the sides of the rocky hills at last came into view.
This is a village with an inescapably spiritual feel, with its towering masterclass in Romanesque engineering and architecture (the Abbey of St. Foy) and the very tangible memory of weary feet, shuffling along the well-worn streets. It’s also a village with a genuine sense of hushed reverence with its medieval walls, slate roof tops, forgotten gates, time worn 11th century fountains, narrow, cobbled streets and views that leave you in stunned and silent awe and contemplation.
The Abbey of St. Foy took 100 years to build and stands tall and proud in the centre of the village, commanding attention and respect from the jumble of houses and hills that surround it. It’s home to impressive 23 metre high vaulted ceilings, some 250 Romanesque sculptures (or capitals) and a world renowned 12th century tympanum of the Last Judgement. You can whisper and edge your way around the lofty galleries high above the stalls, follow the stories of the sculptures or delve into the town’s sublime collection of silver and gold religious relics encrusted with stones and jewels. One of only 5 major collections of medieval goldsmith art in Europe, the pride of this tactile and glittering treasure chest are the remarkable Majesty of St. Foy and the Shrine of Pépin, the latter of which allegedly houses a piece of Christ’s skin…
But above all else this is a place of light, lines and reflection. The Abbey stones are a blend of sandstone, lime and slate whose changing texture and tones reflect that of the light as it drifts gently through the beautifully simple but strangely irresistible windows, designed and created by renowned French artist Pierre Soulages. The 104 windows, with different lines that draw your eye to the elegance of the architecture (sometimes softly curved, sometimes oblique, sometimes horizontal) and with a uniquely fractured glass, result in light that is soft, diffused and ever changing with almost imperceptible hues of green, blue and yellow. As my guide explained, here is a place where the light is like a river, with a gentle ebb, flow and rhythm of its own, ever changing and ever soothing.
If quiet reflection in the Abbey isn’t your thing, there’s plenty else to draw you away. Explore the vineyards below of the Marcillac region or venture into the compelling countryside on one of the many local walks including the original pilgrims trail or Chemin de Saint Jacques (Grande Randonnée 65) which takes you south west to the bastide town of Villefranche-de-Rouergue or northwards back to Le Puy en Velay. Failing that simply rest your pilgrims staff at one of the many cafés and restaurants which drip from the balconies of the narrow streets under the watchful eye of the Abbey, browse the local produce in the brightly coloured shops and soak up the subtle vibrancy of a place that welcomes so many travellers.
But if your sense of the greatness of the place isn’t yet complete, slip down to the square in front of the Abbey just before nightfall or climb up into the Abbey’s heady upper galleries. Because every night between May and September just before dusk, you can hear the sounds of the organ as its music echoes against the ancient stone and washes down the valley below. And as the notes replenish your soul ready for your onward journey and the changing evening sunlight slips sleepily through the Abbey windows, you get a real feeling of why this remote and sacred site, high up in the hills has been such a significant place of pilgrimage since as early as 866 and why it continues to be a place for the modern day pilgrim to seek both inspiration and reinvigoration.
You can find out more about Conques and the Aveyron region at www.conques.fr and at www.tourisme-aveyron.com.
See our brilliant photo gallery feature of Conques, big pictures so that you can see it better!
Lucy Pitts is a freelance writer