Rocamadour in the Lot Region of France – a small village with a big history says Bob Lyons as he visits the famously rocky town…
Rocamadour is a very small village in the Lot department in south western France. It rests in the gorge of the Alzou River, a tributary of the Dordogne River. Rocamadour has a population of just 600 but receives more than 1.5 million visitors a year. There are three distinct assets that make it such an inspiring place to visit. First, the spectacle of the town nestling against the side of a huge limestone cliff is one of enormous fascination and beauty. Second, Rocamadour supports surviving pre-medieval architecture. Some examples have their origins going back almost 1000 years and can easily be explored. Finally, the village is closely associated with the primordial origins of French Christianity and this attracts many pilgrims, even in the twenty first century.
Rocamadour is approached by fairly narrow and tightly bent mountain roads. The first sighting of the village is quite extraordinary. The timeless and ancient buildings seem almost pasted on to the steep face of the rocky cliff. Visitors will wonder how on earth everything was not eroded away by the ravages of time centuries ago. The village somehow creates a sense of mysterious permanence. It would be quite impossible to take out a mortgage on any of the street properties from a modern bank these days. Many of the buildings, however, have been there for hundreds of years.
Arriving in the only prominent street, Rue de la Couronnerie, reinforces the idea of endurance. There are shops, restaurants, houses and hotels that seem to almost grow out of the limestone rock face. They seem completely protected and sheltered by the very existence of primeval natural structures.
Rocamadour seems to have always been a natural shelter. According to legend, an early Christian hermit called Zaccheus of Jericho made it his home as early as the year 70AD. Some believe that he was the husband of St. Veronica who had wiped the face of Christ on the journey to Calvary and that Zaccheus conversed with Jesus. It is said that the village was named after him as a lover of rock, (roc amator).
For Christian believers, a very sacred place in Rocamadour is called the Parvis of the Shrines. Tourists must wear sensible dress here for their visit. One of the ancient buildings in this square is called the Lady Chapel. In it is housed the statue of ‘The Black Virgin’. This is a roughly carved figure made from wood but presents very distinct and fresh facial features. The name comes from the black colour of the wood revealed beneath the badly worn paintwork. The sculpture is thought to date to at least the 12th century despite the expressive and recent appearance of the visage. A book written in 1172 details 126 miracles associated with the carving, a number of them involved the preservation of lives of imperilled French sailors at sea. A large carved sailing ship kept in the roof of the Lady Chapel commemorates this. A small iron bell, still in the chapel vault, is said to have rung of its own accord after these apparently miraculous events.
Amongst the parvis structures rests the empty tomb of a Saint who has been called Rocamadour. In 1166, the finely preserved body of the Saint was discovered in a tomb under the threshold of the Lady Chapel. Some believe that St. Rocamadour and Zaccheus may have been the same person. The curiously conserved body of St. Rocamadour was destroyed during the Hundred Years War by the English but visitors can still see the empty tomb.
From the end of the main street, there are 216 steps rising up to the Shrine of Our Lady in the Chapel. To this day, pilgrims travel on their knees as they advance along these stairs, stopping at each step to recite prayers with their rosarie beads. Rocamadour is regarded by many as a place of healing rather like Lourdes.
Two outside walls, close to the Chapel, support some of France’s earliest known external paintings. The most interesting is one of two skeletons armed with javelins. They represent a moral tale from the 15thcentury concerning the Three Living and the Three Dead. Time and the weather are slowly eroding away the paint but they remain plainly visible.
The houses in the main street have been built over earlier medieval constructions but a number of original features remain. The hospital gate dates to an emporium that provided treatment and comfort to pilgrims who had made long journeys. Further into Rocamadour visitors pass through two entrance gates. The first is the Porte du Figuier where the main street begins. La Porte Salmon lies at the other end of Rue de la Couronnerie. Beyond that, the pilgrim steps up to the Palais Abbatatial and the Shrines begin. A few of the much earlier pilgrims were censored criminals from the courts. They were chained at their necks and their feet. Their progress was hard going ascending the steps, but on arrival at the Shrine, they were blessed by a priest and released.
The palace houses many Christian features including priceless stained glass windows, works of medieval art and carvings. It is occupied by nuns belonging to a very strict order who live among, but separate from, the cosmopolitan collection of tourists that fill the village all year round.
Pass through the Saviour Basilica attached to the Palace and leave via a tunnel to pass through a further arch, the St. Martel Gate. This leads to a track which goes up to the ‘Chateau Remparts’. Observation from these ramparts provides a most splendid sight of the Alzou River and a panoramic view of the village.
There are a number of high quality hotels and restaurants, popular with French as well as foreign tourists, in this fascinating and ancient village.
Visit the website: www.vallee-dordogne-rocamadour.com
Bob Lyons is a freelance travel writer and Francophile.