I wouldn’t normally go there in the high season. Like our own nearby Najac or Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, Rocamadour (Lot) is a tourist honeypot during July and August. This is hardly surprising since it is such a spectacular site clinging to its cliffs. But I can live without the usual tourist trappings of gift shops and restaurants doing local ‘specialities’ to death.
Apparently, Rocamadour is the most visited tourist site in France, after the Eiffel Tower, Carcassonne, Mont-Saint-Michel and Versailles. This gives you an idea of the scale of the summer influx. Of course, you can’t blame people for going there or the local tourist industry for taking full advantage of it. There’s little enough industry or employment in the area. On this occasion, the SF and I were on a mission: to meet Dianne, a fellow member of Writers Abroad, and her husband Alan, who were holidaying in the region.
We have been to Rocamadour several times, both before and after moving to France. So we didn’t feel the need to go down into the town and run the gauntlet of the crowds this time. Instead, we had a lovely lunch at L’Hospitalet, the village overlooking Rocamadour and the valley of the Alzou, a tributary of the Dordogne.
The Legend of the Saint
Rocamadour has been a ‘tourist’ destination for centuries. Like many such places, it has its own resident saint – Amator or Amadour. The legend goes that he was the husband of Veronica, who wiped Jesus’ face as he struggled towards the Calvary. Somehow, Amadour ended up in this spot in the Quercy region, where he founded a chapel before he died.
It has now been suggested that, even if this person existed, he may not have ended his days in the Quercy. It’s more likely that this was a cleverly-executed Medieval propaganda campaign designed to bring pilgrims to the site. The ‘find’ of the saint’s uncorrupted body in 1166 reinforced various miracles that had already occurred. Alas, his corpse was burnt during the Hundred Years War and now only fragments of bone remain.
The 12th to 13th centuries marked the town’s apogee, when much of the building work took place. Royalty and religious and military leaders were among the visitors. But this highpoint was short lived. A combination of wars, epidemics, climate change and consequent famines considerably reduced the population and prevented people going on pilgrimages. Protestant mercenaries sacked the town during the Wars of Religion, and despite sporadic attempts to rebuild it, Rocamadour remained largely forgotten until the 19th century.
Rebirth and Renewal
Today, Rocamadour is again an important stop on the pilgrimage route of Saint-Jacques de Compostelle. The hardiest and most committed pilgrims climb on their knees 216 steps leading to the complex of seven churches. The SF and I climbed all 216 about 20 years ago in temperatures nudging 100F – but not on our knees. Originally, an additional 12 churches existed. At the top of the cliff stands a château, intended to defend the sanctuaries.
Probably the most famous sight is the Black Virgin, Notre Dame de Rocamadour, carved out of wood and dated to the 12th century. Women came to pray for her intercession, especially to grant them fertility. She is also credited with performing various other miracles.
Rocamadour is famous for its eponymous cheeses, the pungent little discs of goat’s cheese that are now protected by the AOC label. There is much more to the town than this, of course, but I intend to make a return visit out of season.
Le Gouffre de Padirac
Not far from Rocamadour, you will find a rather different tourist site – le Gouffre de Padirac. This is a gigantic chasm containing a subterranean river, which you can explore by boat. Speleologist Edouard-Alfred Martel first explored the cave in 1889 and the first tourists visited it at the end of the 19th century. We last went there a good decade ago following a particularly wet spring. They had closed the gouffre the previous week because the water made it too dangerous. And it was pretty dank and dripping. A coat won’t go amiss.
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