When coming from Cahors by road, Rocamadour suddenly appears clinging precariously against the cliff above the Alzou canyon. One of the most famous villages of Europe, Rocamadour seemingly defies the laws of gravity. The vertiginous Citadel of Faith is best summed up by an old local saying: “houses on the river, churches on the houses, rocks on the churches, castle on the rock”.
In the 12th century, on days of atonement, 30,000 people thronged to Rocamadour to pay tribute to the Black Virgin, amongst them kings, bishops and nobles. Now a village of 693 inhabitants, Rocamadour welcomes 1.5 million visitors each year and ranks as France’s most visited tourist attraction after Mont-Saint-Michel.
Rocamadour is situated in the Lot département in Southern France. The village is found at the heart of the Haut-Quercy, a former province of France, between Brive-la-Gaillarde and Cahors. Rocamadour is close to other regional highlights such as Sarlat-la-Canéda in Périgord, the Dordogne Valley, the beautiful villages of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, Turenne, Collonges-la-Rouge, Carennac and Saint-Céré, and the fantastic caves of Padirac, Lacave, and Perch-Merle.
The site of Rocamadour includes the village of L’Hospitalet on the plateau and down to the Alzou Valley the actual village of Rocamadour with the Shrine and its castle atop the cliff.
The village of Rocamadour is limited to the West by the Porte Basse (Lower Gate) near the mill of Moulin de Roquefraîche and to the East by the Porte du Figuier (Fig-tree Gate). The main street is linked to the Shrine by the Great Staircase or a public lift which also leads to the castle on the plateau.
A Brief History of Rocamadour
Cave paintings found in the surrounding cliffs of the Alzou Valley demonstrate that the site of Rocamadour has been inhabited for a long time.
Legend has it that the origin of the pilgrimage was Zacchaeus who would have withdrawn to this wild spot in the Quercy.
It is likely that a little oratory was erected there after the Council of Ephesus by the Benedictine monks of Marcilhac-sur-Célé.
It is believed that in the 4th century, the hermit Amadour was the first to preach the gospel in the region. He spent many years in the Alzou Valley which was then called the “Tenebrous Valley” before being buried in the site of the present-day shrine.
In 968, the bishop of Cahors signed the donation act of Rocamadour’s chapel to the Saint Martin Abbey of Tulle. The Benedictine seal – the Virgin featuredin a mandorle (almond shape), would later become the pilgrim’s emblem known as the “sportelle”.
In 1105, Pope Pascal II mentioned the pilgrimage to the Madonna of Rocamadour. The renown of the pilgrimage site became one of the four holy places of Christendom along with Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. Géraud d’Escorailles, abbot of Saint-Martin of Tulle, had a sanctuary built in Rocamadour in 1152 that could welcome the crowds of pilgrims.
The fame of Rocamadour was greatly reinforced when in 1166 the well-preserved body of a hermit, thought to be St. Amadour, was discovered in front of the Notre-Dame oratory. Rocamadour took its name from the hermit: Roc Amadour – the rock of Amadour.
In 1172, the Benedictine monks started writing the Book of Miracles in which 126 miracles were authenticated.
Rocamadour became an autonomous village by the decree of Bernard de Ventadour in 1223. Economic activity increased around the Benedictine priory and the “Charter for the Uses and Customs” was implemented. When King Louis IX (Saint-Louis) made the pilgrimage to Rocamadour in 1244 with his mother Blanche of Castille and his brothers in order to request France’s happiness, the pilgrimage took on a national dimension. At the peak of its glory, the shrine of Rocamadour included 19 churches (twelve of them have not been restored in the 19th century) and the castle on top of the cliff was fortified with three round towers.
In 1562, during the Wars of Religion, the Northern Quercy was pillaged and the body of St Amadour burnt.
In 1643, by the decree of King Louis XIII, the shrine of Rocamadour was handed back to the spiritual authority of the Cahors bishops.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the pilgrimage declined and suffered greatly from the French Revolution which saw the desecration of the shrine and its chapels.
During the 19th century, many restorations were undertaken to return Rocamadour to its former glory and many priests were willing to help revitalise the pilgrimage. Between 1858 and 1872, Abbot Chevalt, an architect and pupil of Viollet-le-Duc, worked on the restoration of the Sanctuaries.
The shrine of Rocamadour was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO as part of the St. James’ Way pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
Above the Alzou valley on the plateau above Rocamadour, a hospital was founded by Lady Hélène de Castelnau in the 11th century to offer assistance to the pilgrims on their way from Le Puy-en-Velay to Santiago de Compostela. The 13th century Romanesque Chapel still stands today. The sanctuary was renovated in the 15th century. Inside are multicoloured mosaics which belonged to the Gallo-Roman building which used to stand here before the medieval hospital.
Around the chapel are the ruins of the medieval hospital and a garden which used to be a cemetery for modest pilgrims. A stunning view over Rocamadour can be enjoyed from the carpark opposite Hôtel Bellevue. Another remarkable viewpoint is situated on the way to the castle (route des Esclargies).
The Voie Sainte
The “Sacred Way” connects the small village of L’Hospitalet to Rocamadour. It offers great views of the site of Rocamadour with the Bishop’s Palace sitting atop the cliff. The Porte de l’Hôpital marks the entrance to L’Hospitalet.
The Voie Sainte continues through Rocamadour via the main street, past the Fig Tree and Salmon Gates until it reaches the Great Staircase to the left.
Coming from the Way of the Cross or the lift station linking with Porte Salmon in the Lower Town, the entrance to the Sanctuaries is marked by Porte Saint-Martial. From the village of Rocamadour, the Sanctuaries are reached by the Great Staircase of the pilgrims.
The Sanctuaries’ motto – “Firm hope such as the rock” (“L’espérance ferme comme le roc”) – marvelously illustrates the breathtaking situation of the religious village resting against the cliff.
The shrine’s eastern entrance when coming from the Way of the Cross and the lift station is marked by Porte Saint-Martial. A covered passageway connects the visitors to the parvis.
The Sanctuaries are a shrine comprised of seven churches and chapels:
Located under the cliff, this chapel represents the heart of the shrine, the final stage of the pilgrimage to Rocamadour. The sanctuary shelters the shrine’s most important object of pilgrimage: the Black Virgin and Child of Rocamadour, revered by pilgrims for over a thousand years.
This Romanesque statue from the 12th century was made from walnut wood and measures 69 cm high. The Virgin is depicted in hieratic seated position with the child Jesus on her left knee (although not touching him). Around the statue are displayed a multitude of ex-votos given by the pilgrims thankful to Mary: models of boats, a painter’s palette, prisoners’ chains, cripples’ walking sticks and paintings.
There are rusty chains hanging on the wall which were put on pilgrims during penitential ceremonies.
Also found inside the chapel is a very old bell hanging from the vault. Dating from the 9th century, it rung itself each time a miracle occurred, for instance when sailors lost at sea were praying to the Black Virgin of Rocamadour.
In 1476 a piece of rock fell down from the cliff and destroyed the sanctuary. The bishop of Tulle, Denys de Bar, had it rebuilt in Flamboyant Gothic style and enlarged in the 19th century. From the 13th century a fresco representing a macabre dance on the outside wall of the chapel has been kept nearly intact.
Mass is celebrated in the chapel on Saturday at 11am.
Half troglodytic, the St. Michael Chapel is the highest sanctuary of the shrine and the closest to the sky. It has neither roof nor western wall as the chapel has been carved into the rock. Pilgrims in the Middle-Ages did not have access to the chapel for it was strictly devoted to the Benedictine monks. The semi dome apse is decorated with a 13th century painting depicting Christ in glory, surrounded by the four Evangelists writing the Gospel, St. Michael on the left weighing the souls and a seraphim on the right welcoming the souls to heaven.
The exterior wall facing the Notre-Dame Chapel has kept two interesting frescos. On the lower part of the wall is half of a polychromed fresco depicting St Christopher. Further above a remarkable fresco represents “The Visitation and the Annunciation”. This masterpiece, probably dating back to the 13th century, is in a state of exceptional preservation. Some guides claim that it has never been restored – and whether this is true or not – the fresco is definitively protected from the wind and the rain thanks to the overhanging cliff.
Originally dedicated to King Saint Louis who came as a pilgrim to Rocamadour, the chapel is now dedicated to rugby players where prayers are said for the injured or the deceased during or after a game. It houses a copy of Notre-dame-du-Rugby (Our Lady of Rugby) – the original is located in Larrivière-Saint-Savin in the Landes. The displayed jerseys have been donated by rugby players in honour of the Virgin.
Initially a funeral chapel, it has kept its Gothic portal from the 15th century on which a tympanum was later added representing the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The chapel has been used as a baptistery since the 19th century. The octagonal shape of the chapel and its baptistery refers to the Sunday Resurrection of Christ, on the day after Shabbat, the seventh day of the week: 7+1=8. On the walls are portraits of a few illustrious pilgrims of Rocamadour: Roland, King Louis IX and his mother Blanche of Castille.
The St. Blaise chapel is topped by the bell tower of the shrine. During the Hundred Years War, the western window was used as a surveillance point above the Great Staircase. Inside, an icon of Christ is the subject of contemplation. The chapel also bears the name of “Chapelle de la Divine Miséricorde” (Chapel of the Divine Mercy).
The stained glass from the 19th century depicts the Virgin as a young maid with her parents, St. Anne and St. Joachim and the dove of the Holy Spirit looking after her. The Baroque altarpiece from the end of the 17th century was originally placed in the Notre-Dame Chapel. On the walls of the chapel are photos of engravings showing the ruins of the shrine in the aftermath of the French Revolution.
The crypt was built in the 12th century in simple Romanesque style in order to enlarge the terrace and to support the upper church, the present-day basilica. Two ribbed bays of unequal size are separated by a two metre cross springer. The slightly pointed vault is supported by diagonal arches lacking a central keystone.
Over four centuries, the crypt sheltered the allegedly intact body of St. Amadour which was desecrated during the Wars of Religion.
The crypt is still used today for services, every day from Monday to Friday at 11am.
The largest sanctuary of Rocamadour has been elevated to the rank of Basilica since 1913. Backed against the cliff, the church was built in the 13th century in late Romanesque style. Inside, the cross-ribbed vaulting is of Gothic style. The choir gallery of the church is completely supported by the crypt. The western wall incorporates the cliff whereas the eastern side is orientated towards the rising of the sun. In the 19th century, a wooden mezzanine was added to accommodate a larger number of pilgrims.
The basilica is divided in two by pillars. In the Middle-Ages, one part of the nave was used as a shelter for the pilgrims while the other was devoted to the clerics.
Above the altar, the wooden polychrome statue of Christ dates back to the 16th century.
Today, the sanctuary is Rocamadour’s parish church and mass is celebrated here each Sunday at 11am.
At the end of the Great Staircase, the parvis is at the centre of the shrine as it leads to the seven sanctuaries. It is laid out on two levels: the lower part which is accessed through the St Martial Gate and the Great Staircase and the upper part which gives access to the Notre-Dame and St Michael Chapels, as well as the Basilica.
The upper part of the parvis also features the empty site where the intact body of St. Amadour was found (now filled with coins thrown by tourists) and the Durandal Sword.
The Durandal Sword
Thrust into the cliff wall above the exit of Notre-Dame chapel is the famous Durandal sword. Legend has it that it once belonged to Charlemagne‘s paladin and nephew Roland. According to the Song of Roland, the sword was brought by an angel to Charlemagne, who entrusted it to Roland. With the help of the mighty sword, Roland held off a Saracen army of 400,000 soldiers, allowing Charlemagne to retreat into France.
At the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, Roland knew he was doomed and to prevent his sword falling into enemy hands, he attempted to destroy it. By smashing it into the cliffs, he cut the Brèche de Roland, a natural gap in the steep cliffs of the Cirque de Gavarnie in the Pyrenees which today marks the border between Spain and France.
However, his attempt failed as Durandal proved indestructible. Desperate, Roland called upon archangel Michael for help and threw it towards the valley. Durandal flew miraculously 275 km before landing on the cliff wall of Rocamadour. This version of the story was created by the monks of Rocamadour in the 12th century and a fragment of the rusty sword is still visible today, embedded in the cliff.
The Bishop’s Palace
The shrine is flanked by the Bishop’s Palace (Palais des Évêques) which looks like a fairy-tale castle with its turrets and crenellations. It was heavily restored in the 19th century.
The Chemin de Ronde
To the right of Porte Sainte (that leads up to the shrine) is the entrance to the chemin de ronde. The protected and covered walkway runs along the bottom of the fortified basilica where guards used to make their rounds. Linking the gates of Porte Sainte to Porte Saint-Martial, it offers great views over the Alzou Valley.
The Great Staircase
From the main street of Rocamadour, the Great Staircase (l’Escalier des Pélerins) leads to the Parvis of the Sanctuaries. Pilgrims and tourists are required to climb the 216 steps to reach the shrine. During the Middle-Ages, the pilgrims had to climb it on their knees in penance and stop on each step to pray. The last flight of stairs goes under the buildings of the Bishop’s Palace coming out directly into the Parvis. This porch is called “Porte Sainte” (Holy Gate).
The village of Rocamadour
Rue de la Mercerie
Starting from the shrine and going westward, this old street of Rocamadour runs between the cliff face and terraced gardens to the 13th century Cabillière Gate.
Bordering the street is the Pommette, a fine house from the 13th century which was restored in the 15th century. The ground floor, with its arcades, used to house a shop. The second floor features a fine mullioned window.
From the street, it is possible to see the castle’s ramparts on top of the cliff face. Embedded in the rock, the Maison à Marie (Mary’s House) is not accessible to the public. This former Welcome Centre for pilgrims was built towards the end of the 19th century on the foundations of the monks’ dwellings.
The main street
The entrance to the village of Rocamadour, when coming down from L’Hospitalet via the Voie Sainte (Sacred Way) is marked by the Fig Tree Gate (Porte du Figuier).
Rocamadour’s only main street (Rue de la Couronnerie followed by Rue Roland le Preux) is one kilometre long and is bordered by houses whose thick external walls on the river side used to protect the village from invaders.
Rue Roland le Preux, with its souvenir shops and cafés, leads to the Salmon Gate (Porte Salmon). This half-timbered gate used to control access to the central part of the village.
From there, Rue de la Couronnerie continues toward the Tourist Information Centre, the Town Hall and the Great Staircase climbing to the Sanctuaries.
This fine Renaissance house was known as the “Couronnerie”, the House of the Monks. Tapestries by Jean Lurçat are found in the Council Room. The roof of the town-hall and its staircase tower is made up of lauzes (flat dried stones) and can be appreciated alongside the typical chimneys from the Chemin de Ronde which runs between the Shrine and the St. Martial Gate.
The touristic appeal of Rocamadour is undeniable here and, as at Mont-Saint-Michel, a great number of souvenir shops are found all along the main street. The Tourist Information Centre, which is situated along the street, welcomed more than 200,000 visitors in 2012.
Further on, the street is then punctuated by two gates:
The Hugon Gate (Porte Hugon):
The Lower Gate (Porte Basse):
At the very end of Rocamadour stands the fortified watermill of Roquefraîche from the 12th century which was built on the shores of the Alzou River with a keep tower.
The Bishops Castle
The Chemin de Croix
The 14 Stations of the Cross wind through the woods from the Porte Saint-Martial near the Sanctuaries to the Cross of Jerusalem, brought from Palestine. At every bend of the way, shrines represent scenes from the Passion of Christ. Towards the end of the way, a cave has been turned into a place of prayer.
A lift connects Porte Saint-Martial to the Castle, avoiding the steep ascent of the Way of the Cross.
Built on top of the cliff, the castle of the bishops of Tulle was restored in the 19th century. In 1836, Abbot Caillau bought the ruins of the castle to build the “château”, a welcoming place for priests on a pilgrimage. Of the 14th century fortress that used to stand here to defend the shrine of Rocamadour, only the ramparts remain. It is possible to walk atop the walls with vertiginous views of the village’s roofs, the vast deserted plain of the Causse of Gramat and 150 metres down to the Alzou River.
Rocamadour has given its name to a goat’s milk cheese, produced in the Périgord and Quercy. The small cheese with an average weight of 35 g has a flat round shape. It is usually enjoyed very young (after 2 weeks of aging) on hot toast or in salads.
It has benefited from an AOC label (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) since 1996.
How to get to Rocamadour
The closest airport is Brive-Vallée de la Dordogne located 40 km from Rocamadour. Flights operate from Paris-Orly, London-City, Amsterdam, Maastricht and Ajaccio with Ryanair and EasyJet. Other major regional airports are Toulouse-Blagnac (164km) and Bordeaux-Mérignac (270 km).
From Paris Austerlitz station, trains depart regularly in the direction of Toulouse. At Brive-la-Gaillarde (45 min) or Figeac (35 min), change trains for Rocamadour. The station is located 5 km from the village and there is no bus service.
From Paris, drive south on the A10 to Orléans, A71 to Vierzon and A20 to Souillac. The journey is 530 km. From Toulouse (163 km), drive north on the A62 to Montauban and on the A20 to exit number 56 north of Labastide-Murat. You will reach Rocamadour on the D32 which will offer you an unforgettable view of the village and its towering cliff.
The impressive site of Rocamadour can be admired from the open field of the carpark, located at the bottom of the Alzou Valley, near the picturesque bridge of Pont de Lafajadou. Next to the carpark is the starting point for the little train which leads visitors up to the Porte du Figuier in the Lower Town of Rocamadour.
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