Pilgrimage to Rocamadour

Rocamadour clinging to its cliff

Rocamadour clinging to its cliff

 

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

This photo clearly shows the three separate levels of the village

This photo clearly shows the three separate levels of the village

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.

Copyright © 2013 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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16 Responses to Pilgrimage to Rocamadour

  1. I am returning to Cahors on the 4th March – Shrove Tuesday and want to pick up where I left off my Chemin Saint Jacques, but I heard about Rocamadour when in Estaing, but i was still a naive pilgrim, are there Relais, Pilgrims Etape to stay for a night if I modified my plans slightly?

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  2. Sue Whatmough says:

    It’s years since we went to Rocamadour. There’s not denying it is extraordinary but, as with so many such sites, going in the height of the tourist season is not a lot of fun. However, we’re lucky enough to be able to go when there are fewer people about.
    You didn’t mention Le Rocher des Aigles. We saw the show the last time we went and, although I don’t like the idea of captive birds, I was impressed to see that they were able to escape if they chose to. It’s an emotive subject with lots of nuances which has made for a heated dinner conversation or two!

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    • nessafrance says:

      As I said in the post, I would not have chosen to go in the high season. And, in fact, we didn’t see much of the place this time: it was just too heaving with tourists. We didn’t go to the Rocher des Aigles. I’m not sure how long it has been there – our last visit was in 2002 – but, like you, I don’t like seeing animals and birds in captivity. In some cases, of course, it’s the only way of keeping certain species going but it always makes me feel uneasy.

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  3. amelie88 says:

    I had never heard of Rocamadour until this post so I was surprised when you said it was one of the most visited sites in France! I skimmed the comments and it seems it is one of the most visited pilgrimage sites. This would make more sense, along with places like Mt St Michel and Lourdes. The joys of semantics…

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    • nessafrance says:

      Yes, it appears I (or the sources I used) was wrong about that. Nonetheless, it does reportedly attract 1.5-2 million visitors per year, which for a place in the middle of la France profonde isn’t bad. Few of those are there on pilgrimage these days but it is one of the more important stops on one of the Saint-Jacques de Compostelle routes.

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  4. Wow, as I spend time thinking about walking the pilgrimage route of Saint-Jacques de Compostelle next year with my husband, I’m thankful for your continuing ‘tourist-helpful- travel blogs’. I’ve enjoyed reading the debate here too, although cannot comment due to ignorance! Thanks as always Vanessa for a great trip.

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    • nessafrance says:

      There are several routes, depending on where you start from, but this place is on one of the more trodden trails. Ignorance prevented me from commenting further, too!

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  5. HS Martin says:

    Indeed!

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  6. HS Martin says:

    I am a non believer but I agree, I think it’s a tragedy that more people prefer the monkeys to the black virgin, who even to this day wields a certain presence, I always feel. But I don’t think I have even yet made myself clear. The confusion arises from the French use of the word ‘site’.
    The early Lot guides were in French and referred to Rocamadour as the second ‘site’ of France. No mention of tourists, no mention of pilgrims, just ‘site’. Along come the English guides in the late 70s/80s (apart from Freda White of course who was early and who as far as I can remember doesn’t fall into the trap)and they translate ‘site’ as sight as in tourist sight/site. I was writing a book of my own at the time and was puzzled by this as I knew Rocamadour couldn’t possibly be the second tourist sight in France, even today I doubt it is in the top 25, maybe not even in the top 50. Finally I showed an original French text to a French friend and she said immediately, well, yes, because ‘site’ means pilgrimage site in French, even though there was no ‘pelerin’ in the text. It requires no qualification. I didn’t know that, but I presume she’s right because the claim now made perfect sense. When I checked the stats out at the time, Rocamadour was indeed the second pilgrimage site in France, after Mont St Michel.
    Of course Mont St Michel is maybe in the top ten of French tourist sights as well as being top pilgrimage site. And of course, too, I am sure Rocamadour enjoys the confusion and doesn’t leap to correct it. If people think it is one of the major tourist sights in France why should they mind that!
    Yes, always happy to debate! It’s a bit anal, but I found it interesting at the time.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks for the explanation. I can see how the confusion arose. I had no idea that ‘site’ in this context in French automatically meant pilgrimage site. I briefly attempted to find out which are the most visited tourist sites but the problem of definitions (is one talking just about museums and historic monuments or sites in the wider sense of towns and villages as well?) made it difficult to get anywhere, so I gave up. From what I can see, though, you are no doubt right that Rocamadour doesn’t come near the top of the list for tourist sites but is probably second to Mont-Saint-Michel as a pilgrimage site.

      However, I think we are starting to enter angels on a pinhead territory and life’s too short, as you imply at the end of your comment!

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  7. hs martin says:

    Apologies. Though actually, far from being fifth, I don’t see it even in anyone’s top ten list of French tourist sites/sights at all, though I am not sure what store to set by these lists. All I meant was that people writing about Rocamadour always feel honour bound to quote its ‘listing’- pick up any book on the area and you’ll see what I mean- and that that stems from some years ago when this misapprehension first occurred. It’s the kind of fact authors like and it gets lifted and repeated and altered and repeated again, till it becomes meaningless. I was confused by it myself until a French friend explained the way ‘site’ was being used in that context.

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    • nessafrance says:

      I completely take your point about how these misconceptions arise and are then perpetuated. Listings are probably not helpful in this regard, anyway. It also depends on how you interpret ‘tourist site’. Doesn’t the Louvre fall into that category, for example? They must have rather more visitors than Rocamadour each year. And whilst I haven’t verified any of the figures for these various attractions, many of them are bound to want to push themselves into the forefront of the league tables.

      More important is the continuing historical value of these places and the way in which visitors respond to them. As you rightly say, la fôret des singes might well attract more visitors than the town of Rocamadour itself. I find this a shame myself. But, as I said in the post, perhaps you can’t blame the locality for wanting to exploit whatever resources they might have. After all, wasn’t the putative body of Saint-Amadour a similar sort of crowd-puller at the time?

      Always pleased to debate with you…!

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  8. nessafrance says:

    Sorry to correct you, but I didn’t actually say Rocamadour was the second most visited tourist site (although I have seen that quoted elsewhere). I said that, apparently, it is the most visited tourist site after the Eiffel Tower, Versailles, Mont-Saint-Michel and Carcassonne (which would make it the fifth), in whichever order you care to take those – no doubt official figures exist for those sites. I don’t necessarily give much credence to tourist office ‘puffing’ either and you are probably right that ‘pilgrimage site’ is more accurate. In which case it probably does come after Mont-Saint-Michel.

    Thank you for the interesting information about the pilgrimages of bygone days.

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  9. hs martin says:

    I don’t think Rocamadour is the second most visited tourist site in France after the Eiffel tower. This variation, on a host of similar myths, comes from an original misunderstanding by the English of the French word ‘site’ when used in a pilgrimage sense, which has now been reiterated in various guises in various books and on the web. It is in fact, or used to be until recently- I don’t have current figures- the second most visited pilgrimage site in France after Mont St Michel. That said it does get busy – 2 million were forecast for 2010. I don’t know if that was realised. But Rocamadour is no stranger to crowds, as you suggest. In 1546 so many people visited that it resembled a modern day Haj with people suffocating in the crush of around 30,000 people who had made their way across the inhospitable causse, mostly on foot, to the September festival day. On these days the way was marked with little lamps of coloured glass and paper lanterns and chains of fire were stretched across the gorge. It must have been quite a sight to the pilgrims who sang as they approached, Reine puissant, Mère d’Amour, Sois-nous compatissante, O Vierge d’Amadour! Unlike today the site was unexploited by surrounding attractions such as the foret des singes and the like, which now attract more people than the actual site itself.
    A good proportion of these also go to Padirac. Although Martel was the first to properly explore it, the chasm had been lived in in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when it was mined for saltpetre.

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