What to see in Rocamadour

Written by on April 6, 2020 in Midi-Pyrénées

View of the town of Rocamadour, built into and on top of a cliff and surrounded by forest

Rocamadour is a small clifftop village overlooking the Alzou Valley in the Lot, south-central France. In an area that’s brimming with outstandingly beautiful sites and towns including medieval time warp town Sarlat and the extraordinary Gouffre de Padirac, an underground cave where you can take a boat ride – Rocamadour more than holds its own. It’s like a real life Game of Thrones town… quite simply, divine.

History of Rocamadour

Rocamadour is a popular destination for tourists – and also for pilgrims. In fact pilgrims have visited for many centuries, drawn to see the Shrine of Our Lady of Rocamadour, a complex of religious structures centred on a miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary, as well as the tomb of an ancient saint.

Legend has it that Zaccheus of Jericho who was said to have conversed with Jesus, fled to Rocamadour to escape persecution. It’s said he took with him a statue of Mary. He died there in about 70AD. Soon after, pilgrims started to arrive and many reported miraculous happenings. Then, as today, there were 216 rocky steps known as the Grand Escalier, leading to the Chapel of our Lady. Pilgrims would often climb on their knees. Kings and clerics came in number.

In 1166, the fame of Rocamadour rocketed when a perfectly preserved body was found in an ancient grave near the Chapel of our Lady. It was said the body was that of Saint Amadour.  He was a 4th century hermit but not much is known about him.

What to see at Rocamadour

Wooden statue of the Virgin Mary at Rocamadour, France

It makes your heart beat and your mind boggle when you climb the Grand Escalier staircase (there is a lift too). It’s worth the climb for the amazing views over the countryside. And for the incredible architecture.

The statue of Mary, known as the Black Madonna, bought by Zaccheus can be seen (historians say it probably dates to sometime between the 9th century to the 12th century) in the Chapelle de Notre-Dame. You’ll also see sailboat models suspended from the ceiling. They are offered by sailors who prayed to Mary for safe passage and delivery from shipwreck. Above the door leading to the chapel is an iron sword that, according to legend, belonged to the knight Roland, nephew of Charlemagne. As he lay dying from battle wounds, he called upon the Archangel Michael to help him throw it so it wouldn’t fall into enemy hands. It landed several hundred kilometres away in the cliff at Rocamadour. You can see it, embedded in the stone (and looking very 18th century).

Incredible architecture

Street scene in Rocamadour, narrow cobbled walkways and houses clinging to a cliff

Backed against the cliff, the Basilique St-Sauveur was built in the Romanesque-Gothic style from the 11th to the 13th centuries. It’s decorated with paintings and inscriptions recalling celebrity visits including Philippe the Handsome.

The 12th-century Romanesque Chapelle St-Michel is sheltered by an overhanging rock. Inside are well-preserved frescoes dating from the 12th century.

The Chapelle Miraculeuse contains the Tomb of Saint Amadour. Hanging from the roof is a cast iron bell, a cloche miraculeuse, which dates to the 8th century, said to ring out whenever a sailor is saved at sea since the statue is revered by sailors. There is no rope or spring, when it rings, it is said to be a miracle though the when it rang in 2008 it was thanks to a priest who acknowledged the rescue of two sailors saved from stormy waters after they apparently prayed to Our Lady of Rocamadour.

Lower town of Rocamadour

Rocamadour at dusk, the church on top of the cliff lit by mellow lamps

In the lower town, a long road follows the line of the cliff below the sanctuary. It’s lined with souvenir shops, dozens of cafés and restaurants, just as it has been for hundreds of years.

Getting There

By train: From Paris Austerlitz station, trains depart regularly in the direction of Toulouse. At Brive-la-Gaillarde, change trains for Rocamadour.

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