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Review: Conques


Aveyron, France

A world heritage site and a popular tourist destination

  • By SilverTraveller ESW

    2341 reviews

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  • Sep 2012
  • Husband

52 people found this review helpful

Conques is a World Heritage site about 20km south of Cassaniouze, our base for the week. It is a super drive along the D601. The road is cut out on a shelf high above the valley. The river runs in a deep gorge with steep wooded sides with some bare rock. There are a few isolated settlements half way up the hillside in clearings among the trees. Once across the River Lot, on the D901, the countryside is flatter.

Built high on the hillside above the River Dourdou, Conques is surrounded by steep wooded hillsides. Visitors cars are not allowed to park in the town and there are small parks at either end of the town. These do get full early, so it is best to plan to arrive early or late afternoon.

The town grew up round the Benedictine Abbey which was founded in the 9thC. Parts of the medieval walls with turrets and gateways survive. Inside there are narrow cobbled or paved streets. Even the drains in the road are made of strips of schist. Roads and houses are built on different levels with steps between. Sturdy shoes are the order of the day.

Most houses are built from the local stone, granite and schist although there are many timber frame houses and some covered with ochre coloured plaster. Tourist Information is in an 18thC bourgeoise timber frame house which was originally the Hôtel de Ville and still has its clock. They have a free leaflet in English with map and information about the buildings and a trail to follow and also organise 45 minute tours of the upper galleries in the Abbey church.

There are several tourist type shops selling wooden items, children’s toys, jewellery and a bookshop. The bakers sells bags and tins of local biscuits; small thick rounds of a shortbread mix with ground and chunks of nuts. These are very good and make a good gift to bring home.

CHAPELLE DU ROSAIRE with rather an insignificant west frontage is sandwiched between other buildings and in the 15thC was the Abbot’s personal chapel. Inside there is a simple nave with wall pillars up to the ribbed, vaulted ceiling. Steps lead up into the chancel which has a beautifully carved modern wood altar with two angels holding a shield. In a niche under a carved portico on the east wall is Christ crucified with the two Marys. There is a modern icon of St Foy on the transept pillar.

On the ceiling are the remains of early 16thC frescoes. These have swirling blue designs with roundels and include the lion of St Mark, an angel with a book and a winged and horned four legged animal with a book.

The ABBEY CHURCH OF ST FOY is a magnificent Romanesque building with the only surviving medieval shrine on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela.

A Benedictine Abbey was founded here in 819AD by a hermit called Dadon, as the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela passed close by. In 866AD a monk was dispatched to the Monastery of Agen to steal relics of St Foy, a virgin martyred in 303AD under Diocletian and known for her ability to cure blindness and free captives. Once at Conques, these were placed in a golden statue. The monastery prospered and pilgrims left jewels to be added to the statue. In the 11thC the Abbey church needed to be replaced by a larger building which was finished in 1120.

The Chapter was dissolved after the Revolution, the church sold and most of cloisters disappeared to be used as building stone. The building was restored in the 19thC as it was about to collapse. It is now the parish church, but still attracts pilgrims.

There are two square tower at the east end with tall pointed roofs and a taller octagonal tower above the transept with a witch’s hat roof. The chancel apse has round pillars with round topped arches on the outside. Round it is the ambulatory with a lower roof line and apses off this with even lower roofs. The rest of the exterior is fairly plain with narrow buttresses. There are massive sandstone blocks at the corners with an infill of smaller granite or schist stones.

Entry is through the west door. Two wooden doors are set in a round topped arch with an amazing tympanum of the Last Judgement (1107-1125) above with at least 124 figures, including bishops, abbots and kings. There are still traces of the original paint.

Round the walls on the outside of the abbey are remains of tombstones in recessed arches and also the remains of old sarcophagi. On the south wall is the recessed tomb of Bégon III with an inscription. A small relief panel represents Christ enthroned between an Abbot on Christ’s right and St Foy acting as an intercessor on other side.

A couple of arches remain of the east wall of the cloisters. The west wall is still complete with double round topped arches with two smaller round pillars in the centre supporting the arch. The capitals are carved and there is a lovely carving of mason’s heads peering over a wall and another of knights holding a shield and spears. Behind this was the refectory building. This gives access to the Treasury.

Read my detailed review about the Abbey.

Conques is an amazing site and fully justifies its World Heritage Status. Not only is it a superb location, there are some very nice old houses and the cathedral and treasury are superb.

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