Rocamadour is a world famous pilgrimage site in the Lot departments, south west France. And it’s a site that really lives up to its reputation for being one of the wonders of France…
A mythical place
“That’s real, right?”
“It’s not a mirage?”
Imagine, having just spent four hours hiking through wilderness and encountering only five humans and three dogs en route, I emerge out of the forest like a wild beast. I make my way to the end of the trail. Cross a concrete car park and curve around the cliff top. There, I am greeted by a village that looks like a medieval painting, an apparition from a Games of Thrones film set.
This flourish of a settlement seems to spring out of the rocks and flow to the gorge’s base. I would not have been surprised should I find a dragon guarding its entrance gates.
I have arrived in Rocamadour as a final destination of a multi-day walking trip. A UNESCO Heritage Site, Rocamadour has been an important religious site along the St James’ Way pilgrimage route. It’s built around the church complex at the heart of its blueprint. And it’s stacked vertically on the rocks that drop 150 meters onto the valley floors of the Alzou.
Immediately visible from the top is the 19th Century castle that was the access control of the religious compound below. I climb the 14th Century ramparts to admire the panoramic view of the surrounding gorge and the wilderness whence I emerged. The castle itself is private and unfortunately does not allow visitors.
The pilgrims staircase
I plan to walk down the staircase from the cliff top to the valley floor. Back in the Middle Ages, tired pilgrims would have traced the trails along the river from beyond to climb the 216 stone steps of the Grand Escalier on their knees as an act of penance. They would pray to and ask for a miracle from the Notre-Dame of Rocamadour, the Black Virgin.
Among the many renowned pilgrims was Henry II, King of England. According to accounts by Robert de Torigny, a Norman monk and chronicler, the King travelled from Domfront, Normandy to offer prayers. He had recovered from a terrible illness, thanks, he believed, to divine mercy.
I follow the zigzagging ‘Way of the Cross’ path at the base of the castle that traces the cracks of the cliff face leading to the entrance to the Sanctuaries. It’s made up of several chapels and churches that seem to overlay each other. Parts of the compound are built into the cliff itself, using the rocks to support the building structures. The preserved remains of St Amadour were discovered in the rock face in 1166. He is believed to be a servant of the Holy Virgin, responsible for 126 recorded miracles that occurred here during her intercession.
A warren of churches
Entering the church ‘layer’ of Rocamadour, I am immediately drawn to Saint Sauveur Basilica. It’s the largest building in the sanctuary, snuggled up to the cliff face and constructed over many years, a blend of late Romanesque and Gothic styles.
The Notre-Dame Chapel, the heart of a pilgrimage, where the Black Virgin oversees her worshippers from a bronze alter, is just around the corner from the basilica. Just outside the chapel entrance, I notice a coffin sized cave cut into the cliff wall. This is where St Armadour’s body was found, as well as a rusty sword driven into the rocks above. Known as the Durandal sword, it was wedged there to prevent it falling into enemy hands. The story is weaved into the mystery of Rocamadour, luring pilgrims to worship at its core.
The church square leads to the Palace of the Bishops, restored in the 19th Century. It’s now a Museum of Sacred Art and exhibits regional religious art as well as special loans from churches around the world.
The medieval town
Feeling purified and blessed by holy spirits, I descend the Grand Escalier into the town centre of Rocamadour. To left and right it appears as one long corridor lined with hotels, shops, restaurants and residences. In the Middle Ages, this narrow strip of road would have been crowded with pilgrims. There would have been a support system including mills, hospitals and defence gates for this holy site. Much of the village along Rue de la Couronnerie, the main artery through town, remains unchanged in layout. There has though been restoration work to the facades that has eroded over time, and only Salmon Gate remain its original features.
I rest my feet and take dinner on the outdoor terrace of Restaurant Le Terminus Des Pélerins overlooking the Alzou valley. The food is so tempting I can’t resist the walnut cake that is the speciality of the region, and a platter of local cheese. Small rounds of young goats cheese that bear the same name as the town. While it isn’t strictly from Rocamadour itself, I can now confidently say, I’ve had Rocamadour in Rocamadour.
Many day visitors return to the cliff top to join their coaches, however I plan to stay the night, watching the shadows play around the valley by the glow of the dipping sun.
Craning my neck and looking up towards the churches and the castle above, I am suddenly filled with a sense of awe. I imagine the pilgrims, coming through the gates on either side of the village encountering the majestic power of architecture and height. You can see how they were persuaded by stories of miracles. I ponder the steep stairs upwards and consider whether I’d be dedicated enough to climb it on my knees.
No. I decide that’s not for me, I have further to travel and need my legs for my onward walk…
Amy McPherson is a London based travel writer whose work has been featured in international publications. Cats, cycling and food features heavily in her writing and her blog at: www.footprintsandmemories.com