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Review: Rocamadour


Lot, France

An amazing sight from a distance but we were disappointed by the religious complex

  • By SilverTraveller ESW

    2374 reviews

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  • May 2013
  • Husband

100 people found this review helpful

Rocamadour must be on everyone’s tick list. When researching the trip I’d seen picture of the town and decided that in spite of the crowds we needed to go there. A cluster of buildings dominated by Basilique St-Sauveur, cling to a vertical limestone cliff above the River Alzou. At the top is the château.

Set above a deep wooded gorge, this has been a place of pilgrimage since the 12thC as the statue of the Black Virgin was supposed to have miraculous powers. In 1166, a perfectly preserved body was found in rock hewn tomb beside the Chapelle Notre-Dame. This was thought to be that of an early Christian hermit, St Amadour and Rocamadour was firmly on the pilgrim map. In the Middle Ages over 30,000 people would arrive on days of major pardon and plenary indulgence.

The town was repeatedly sacked during the Hundred Years War and its treasures plundered. It was laid to waste by Protestants during the Wars of Religion when only the Virgin and the ‘miraculous’ bell escaped. It was in ruins by Revolution. There was a major restoration in the 19thC by Bishop of Cahors in attempt to revive pilgrimage. Now it not only attracts pilgrims but also tourists in their hordes.

Rocamadour is divided into two main areas, the medieval town which includes Cité Religieuse, and the plateau with the château and the hamlet of L’Hospitaletsite of the 13thC pilgrims’ hospital, one mile along road to east. The Tourist Office here. The château is private but you can pay for entry to the ramparts for the views.

The city is pedestrianised and vehicle access limited. There is some parking along the bottom of the valley where a road train shuttles pedestrians between car parks and the city. Most parking is on the top of the plateau. From here, it is possible to follow Chemin de Croix, a shady path with small shrines on the bends, down to the religious complex. From here, steps drop down to the main village with the shops.

For those not wanting to walk, there is a funicular from the top to the religious complex (€2.50 single, €4.10 return) and another down to the main street (€2 single, €3 return)

We arrived early to void the crowds and drove to the parks at the top of the hill. Parking is charged in L’Hospital. We had a brief stop along the esplanade to take the ‘classic’ photo of Rocamadour and then parked at the opposite end by the château and funicular which is free. We had intended to follow Chemin de Croix but there was a large notice at the top saying it was closed for restoration work. We took the funicular down which is a steep drop down through a rock cut tunnel.

From the exit it is a short walk to Porte St Martial, a double arch through the old walls with a crest above and battlements. A long covered alleyway leads to the flagged courtyard with a tourist shop at the centre of the religious complex. The mass of the pale coloured stone Basilica built up against the rock face, dominates all the other buildings. A flight of stone stairs leads to a big wooden door with shields and scroll carved in wood. The nave is very tall with carved corbels beneath the roof and Romanesque windows. To the side of the door is a huge buttress with a statue of the Virgin Mary at the top.

Dating from 11-13thc, it is a fairly plain building inside and rather disappointing. There is a double nave has large stained glass windows with Biblical scenes. Two big pillars supporting the vaulted ceiling. On the west wall is a two tier wooden balcony. There are two small stone apses on either side of the high altar. Four wooden pillars with carved capitals hold up a carved portico which extends over the side apses and high altar. This forms an arch around the east window with modern stained glass of Jesus the Good Shepherd.

The high altar has with pillars with a gilt diamond pattern and gilt vine leaves between them. In the centre is a small mise en tombeau, set between narrow gilt pillars and a brick lintel above. Set on the back wall beneath the window is a large gilded host box with a crucifix standing on the top and very tall candles and candle sticks on either side.

On the north wall of the nave is the processional bier which has a wooden carving of a boat with a replica carving of the black Madonna. There are many stories of sailors imploring Notre-Dame de Rocamadour for help during storms or shipwreck. Under the balcony set in a pointed arch below a statue of the Virgin, is another small model sailing boat.

A door at the back of the nave leads into Chapelle Notre-Dame or the Chapelle Miraculeuse. Alternatively, it is reached by stairs from the courtyard to a doorway set in a stone portico with pinnacles and a statue of the Virgin Mary. Next to the chapel is the cave in the rock where the body of St Amadour was found. On an external wall set under 3 small arches with carved bases is a brightly coloured fresco.

Inside, multi-angular stone pillars with carved low round arches, support a stone balcony round three walls with a carved balustrade. There are 19thC stained glass windows and a mosaic floor. Photography is quite difficult as there isn’t much light and there were also people praying.

The altar has three carving at the bottom. Above is an elaborate retable with host box with two figures on the door and a lamb above them in the ‘roof’. On the back panel is a carving of a Basilica. The Black Virgin is set in a Gothic arch above with pinnacles and a red background. It is a beautiful carving of a seated crowned Virgin with a seated crowned Christ Child on her lap. The sides of the reredos are painted deep blue with gold fleur de lys and have carved wooden angels at the top corners. Behind is a red/beige tapestry with a series of roundels with pictures and shields.

The vaulted ceiling is painted pale gold with red stars. Two small boats are suspended from the ceiling and old leg irons on the back wall.

Also in the courtyard is the small octagonal Chapelle St Jean Baptiste. This has a locked metal door with the Lamb of God carved above. It is possible to peer through the door. Inside there is a font covered with a gold cloth and cover. At the far end is an altar with host box and a statue of John the Baptist above it. There is a tomb on the north wall.

An archway from the religious complex leads to a viewpoint of the lower town. Narrow streets are lined with tall stone or timber frame houses with terracotta tiled roofs.

L’escalier des Pélerines drops down from La Porte Sante to the lower town. This is a wide stone staircase with over 200 steps. The number varies from 213 on the board to 233 in some guide books. Devout pilgrims would climb this on their knees. There is a small metal statue of St Jacques de Rocamadour on the wall above the stairway.

Rue de la Couronnerie is the main street lined with shops with a firm eye on the tourist trade. Some sold local produce like walnuts, biscuits, cake, patés, sausages, cheese and wine. Others sold hand made soaps and table linen as well as china and clothes. There was no tourist tat and prices were reasonable. It is narrow and very busy. Only authorised vehicles are allowed. At one end is Porte Hugon and the other Porte Salmon. Once outside you lose the shops.

Rocamadour is a splendid sight (5*) but we were disappointed by the religious complex (2*). Only the Basilica, which we felt was disappointing and Chapelle Notre-Dame were open. We did however succeed in finishing off our shopping for presents in the lower town (3*). I would have regretted not having visited. Another time I would admire from the top and move on.

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