In our week in the Dordogne area, we only visited one major site which was across a Department border. This was the complex and fascinating Rocamadour in the Occitanie region. However it was still connected to our earlier visits as it overlooked a valley whose river eventually found its way to the Dordogne Valley. It sits on top of limestone cliffs and cascades down to the small town below. Like the other sites we visited that week, Rocamadour was also home to humanity during prehistoric times from about 25000 years ago. The Grotte de Merveiles at the top of the cliff near the tourist office has outlines of human hands, horses, stags and a bear on its walls.
The first historical record of a developing religious sanctuary in this area dates from 1105 when a small chapel was built into a rock shelter. Over the rest of the twelfth century it became a destination for pilgrims drawn by reports of miracles associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary. Looking back from our century where news stories are closely tested for valid sources without bias and inaccuracies, the foundational stories of Rocamadour look loaded with the special interests of those looking to make a good living from attracting cashed up visitors. While the story of the discovery of the uncorrupted body of St Amador in a grave in the area only has to be taken with a small grain of salt, his created back story tests our faith in the details. It was decided that in fact Amador was the Gospel tax collector who was married, apparently, to Veronica, the woman in the crowd who wiped the face of Jesus on the way to Golgotha. Persecuted in Jerusalem, they sail away and miraculously end up on the coast of Aquitaine, etc, etc. Nevertheless, the site became known as ‘Rocamadour’ in honour of this long lived, well-travelled and connected saint. Its success as a pilgrimage centre made it the third most visited Christian pilgrimage destination after Jerusalem and Rome. Its fame spread and it became a stopping point for the pilgrims who walked the Camino de Santiago down over the Pyrenees to Spain. It was classed in 1993 as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO as part of the St James Way. Despite the medieval back story, Rocamadour is spectacular, a place no doubt imbued with significant spirituality of place.
From a distance, Rocamadour looks chaotic as it flows down the cliff. However there is a basic logic to its construction that emerged from the social structures of the Middle Ages. The Chateau at the top of the cliff housed the Nobles and the Knights. Their job it was to protect the religious clerics who inhabited the middle section of society’s hierarchy from the regular marauders who travelled up river below looking for loot. At the bottom of the cliff were the common workers in the village.
We were able to park our car not far from the entry to the ‘Way of the Cross’ at the top of the cliff. It is marked by a small rock garden holding a large Jerusalem Cross that its French sign explained was “blessed at the Holy Sepulchre” and brought from Jerusalem by pilgrims from the Cahors Parish. Any of the faithful who have arrived wishing to complete the Stations of the Cross in numerical order unfortunately have to walk down the hill to start at the first station. From my Catholic background, I was familiar with many versions of the Stations of the Cross but these were the most striking I have encountered. The steep wooded slope curved down the hill and each turn housed the image of the station inside a gated ‘crypt’. It was a memorable welcome to Rocamadour.
At the bottom of the ‘Chemin de Croix’, we turned right into the St Sauveur Basilica. This beautiful church sits over the crypt of the famous long-lived Saint mentioned earlier. St Amadour’s remains were part of the central attraction for pilgrims coming to Rocamadour and he lay in the small church below St Sauveur until the time of the French Revolution. Rocamadour was looted at this time and when the head-looter could not destroy the body of the Saint by fire, he smashed it with a ‘Smith’s-Hammer’. All that was recovered by the monks when the fires were put out and the dust settled was a bone from one of the saint’s arms. It is now kept in a gold reliquary (see image left) and was returned to its place in the crypt below the Basilica.
One of my strong memories of our trip to Rocamadour was when I walked out the other side of St Sauveur and gazed in amazement at the quadrangle that sits outside the Basilica and behind the buildings that sit at the front of this plateau half way down the cliff (the Plateau of Michel). If it is not being surrounded by ancient stone chapels, it is the awe-inspiring views up to the top of the cliff where the Rocamadour Chateau sits precariously, teetering on the edge of the canyon. Dealing with being ‘overly impressed’, we walked into the other famous chapel on site, Notre Dame Chapel, built sometime between 1152 and 1188.
The most famous feature of the Notre Dame Chapel is the Vierge Noir (Black Madonna). It is a 12th century statue carved from the wood of a walnut tree. The Vierge Noir gained a reputation for miracles and both poor and wealthy pilgrims flocked to Rocamadour to visit this chapel. One of the problems for being a chapel smack against a cliff face is that if rocks come loose above, you are a standing target. In 1427 a huge rock fell from above and crushed the chapel…there is no mention of whether any unlucky pilgrims were inside at the time. It was rebuilt in 1479.
Rocamadour has a long list of famous or influential pilgrims who have visited the sanctuary, particularly in the Middle Ages. Henry II of England (Husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine, father of Richard the Lionheart and the infamous King John) visited the Notre Dame Chapel in 1159 to thank the Virgin Mary for her healing. On a later occasion, his wife Eleanor visited Rocamadour and was very generous in her gifts to assist in the upkeep of the site.
One of the pilgrim standouts for me is a visit to Rocamadour for the winter of 1211 by one Arnauld Amalric. His claim to fame/infamy was that he was the Papal Representative that spiritually guided the military leaders (eg. Simon de Montfort) that led the brutal campaign against the Cathars in the southern regions around Carcassonne. His name has come down through history for his striking answer to a question from a soldier who asked for a solution to the moral dilemma of who should be killed when the army was sacking Beziers. Inconveniently there were just as many good Catholics in Beziers as Cathars. His advice was, “Kill them all! God will know his own.” Perhaps he was misquoted? Perhaps he spent a difficult winter in Rocamadour fighting with his conscience?
Competing with Amalric for my favourite ‘recorded’ pilgrim is Roland, an 8th century military hero of Charlemagne’s battles against invaders. There is only one ‘historical’ record of Roland but huge numbers of poems, songs and stories of his exploits spread widely throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. The historical Roland living 300 years before Rocamadour became a pilgrimage site was unlikely to have visited the area for spiritual reasons. However, Rocamadour guides will point out to visitors a rusty sword that once belonged to Roland (Durendal) stuck in a crack in the cliff face in between the Notre Dame Chapel and the Chapel of St Michel. There are various stories of how it got there, my favourite being that Roland threw it from a great distance away to be preserved in the cliff of Rocamadour. (To their credit, the local tourist office explains that it is a ‘replica’ of Durendal).
After our walk around the chapels at the midpoint of the Rocamadour Cliff (Cite Pietonne), we walked down the stairs to the village below in the Vallee de L’Alzou. We decided that given the state of our legs after all our walking, we would break our basic touring rule of never riding in a toy railway carriage around a tourist town. The train took us through the narrow main street of the village and down to the river with great views back up the cliffs to the Chateau on top. One of the things we noticed along the river was a camping area where there were lots of camper vans where visitors were able to spend a day here and return very quickly to their van for a coffee and a sit down to discuss the amazing Rocamadour. They would then move on to the next site and not have to go all the way back to their ‘non-moving’ accommodation, albeit in the beautiful Limeuil. It was these thoughts that prompted a return visit to France some years later to hire one of these mobile hotels.