Rocamadour in Quercy
This medieval walled village and episcopal city spreads on the cliff that overlooks the small Alzou River.
It boasts prime views of the valley and surrounding Causses tableland.
Rocamadour has been a major pilgrimage destination for the last 1000 years, since the discovery of St. Amadour’s grave.
It is the second most visited French site after the Mont Saint-Michel.
It has a population of 650 inhabitants, but a staggering 1.5 million tourists during the peak season!
It’s best to arrive in Rocamadour via the Hospitalet.
This village’s belvedere boasts spectacular views of Rocamadour and the Alzou Valley.
It’s also where you’ll find the Tourist Office and a vast car park.
Hélène de Castelnau founded the Hospitalet – Espitalet in Old French – in the 11th century, in order to accommodate the pilgrims who stopped over on their way from Le Puy to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Rocamadour episcopal city and pilgrimage
Rocamadour is entirely pedestrian.
Several fortified gates lead into the village: Portes du Figuier, Salmon, Basse, de Cabiliert, de l’Hospitalet, Hugon or du Fort.
There is a post office, a gendarmerie, several hotels and restaurants and many souvenirs and craft shops.
It is laid out on three levels which reflect the medieval social order.
The Knights therefore lived in the upper town, religious clerics in the middle section and the secular workers downtown, by the river bank.
The cobblestone lanes run parallel to the cliff.
The main street, the Rue Roland le Preux becomes Rue de la Couronnerie once passed the Porte Salmon.
It leads to the Grand Escalier that take the visitors up to the episcopal city.
Beautifully well-restored medieval buildings border both lanes.
St. Amadour legend
In 1166, a grave containing a preserved body was discovered in a rock shelter.
Legend has it that it was the body of Zacheus of Jericho, the husband of Veronica (she wiped Jesus’ face on His way to the Calvary).
Zacheus and Veronica fled Palestine and settled down in the Limousin region.
After Veronica died, Zacheus retreated in the Alzou Valley, where he lived as a hermit until his own death around 70AD.
The most accepted version, though, is that the body was that of the Christian hermit St. Amadour.
It indeed appears that the site was initially known as Roc Amator (lover of rock), which evolved into Roc Amadour.
However, some people believe that Rocamadour evolved from Rocamajor, an Occitan word formed from roca – rock shelter and major – important.
Foundation of the abbey
The Benedictine abbey of Tulle, the owners of the land, welcomed the discovery as a great opportunity to generate substantial income.
The monks therefore built the fortified abbey on the holy site and a defense fortress on the top of the cliff.
The abbey of Rocamadour became a major stop on the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
It thrived until the Hundred Years War when it was pillaged.
It recovered, however, was once more devastated during the Wars of Religion.
Only the miraculous statue of Our Lady and the church’s bell escaped destruction.
The Protestants attempted to burn the body of St. Amadour, and axed it to pieces, when they saw that it wouldn’t burn!
The few fragments of bones that were eventually recovered were placed in the sanctuary-crypt.
Sadly, the Abbey of Rocamadour was already ruined when the French Revolution broke in 1789.
The abbots of Cahors rebuilt the abbey, the castle, St. Amadour Sanctuary and the Black Madonna shrine and revived the pilgrimage during the 19th century.
The pilgrims who stopped over at the Hospitalet followed the lane that led them to the Porte du Figuier.
They walked along the village main street, Rue Roland le Preux and Rue de la Couronnerie up to the Place de la Caretta.
They climbed the 226 steps of the Grand Escalier – Grand Stairway – Via Sancta on their knees, while saying their rosary on each step.
Those who successfully achieved their pilgrimage obtained a pardon (forgiveness).
They then received an insignia (Senhals or Sportelles) manufactured in one of the shops on Place Senhals.
A gate led them through the episcopal palace and Place Saint-Amadour, the episcopal city square.
The architect Viollet-le-Duc restored the 14th century fortified bishops palace during the 19th century.
Abbey’s seven churches
Seven churches surround the Place St. Amadour.
Most pilgrims would start with the Chapelle Notre-Dame in order to seek miracle from the Virgin.
The terrace or Plateau St. Michel serves the chapel, but also St.Michel Chapel and the now empty original St. Amadour shelter.
Chapelle Notre-Dame and the Black Madonna
In 1456, a rock fall destroyed the chapel erected on the grave of St. Amadour.
The Flamboyant Chapelle Notre-Dame, the most worshiped and visited sanctuary in Rocamadour, replaced it in 1479.
Three of its ‘walls’ were dug out from the cliff face.
The few apertures diffuse a delicate light that is enhanced by the warm colour of the mural decorations.
The refined decor of its Flamboyant entrance contrasts with the rawness of the rock.
For centuries, pilgrims believed that the holy man had carved the wooden and silver plated statue of the Virgin Mary and Child that stands on the altar.
However, the 69cm tall statuette dates ‘only’ from the 12th century.
It depicts the Virgin Mary seated with the Child Jesus on her left knee.
Oddly, she doesn’t hold the Child Jesus, who is represented with an adult face!
Most of the silver plating has now disappeared.
The statuette has turned black over the years, because of the oxidation and candles smoke, hence its name Black Madonna.
A series of miracles started to occur shortly after its discovery and at each of them, the chapel’s bell would start ringing on its own!
Believers and pilgrims flocked from all over the Western Christian world in order to worship the miraculous statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
As a result, Rocamadour became an influential sanctuary and a major centre of pilgrimage.
Many kings and queens, prominent and common people went to seek miracle in Rocamadour.
The devout King St.Louis and his Mother Blanche de Castille, Philip the Fair and Louis XI, but also St. Dominique and St.Bernard went to Rocamadour.
Sailors even came from distant Brittany in order to worship the Holy Statue and ask for its protection.
As you come out of the chapel and look up, you’ll discover an iron sword stuck into the cliff.
The legend has it that this is Durandal, the sword of the legendary Count Roland, Emperor Charlemagne’s Lieutenant.
Roland and his army became encircled by the Saracens in a narrow pass in the Pyrénées Mountains.
Seeing he had no chance to escape, Roland implored the Archangel Michael to save the magic sword from the invaders.
The monks built St. Michel Chapel in a natural rock shelter.
A beautifully well-preserved fresco depicting The Annunciation and Visitation, adorns the outside of the wall that faces the Chapelle Notre-Dame.
The Byzantine artistic influence is representative of the 12th century religious art.
A 14th century faded fresco depicting St. Christopher, the patron saint of the travelers and pilgrims, adorns the lower part of the wall.
Less well-preserved frescoes depicting the Christ in Majesty, and the Archangel Saint-Michael adorn the interior of the chapel.
St. Michel porch opens on to Rue de la Mercerie.
St-Sauveur Basilica and St-Amadour Crypt
St-Sauveur Basilica flanks Our Lady’s Chapel and its rear wall is directly anchored into the cliff face.
The impressive 11th-13th centuries church is a nice blend of Romanesque and Gothic styles.
It was restored and modified during the 19th century.
It consists of two identical naves, each of three bays, separated by large columns.
Paintings that depict the prominent pilgrims who came to Rocamadour adorn the walls.
St. Amadour Crypt is located underneath Saint-Sauveur.
It is accessed from the small Place St-Amadour, the square common to the Episcopal City’s seven churches.
Ste-Anne, St-Blaise and St-Jean-Baptiste chapels
The three chapels dates from the 19th century.
Ste-Anne Chapel boasts a 17th century gilded altar screen.
It flanks St. Sauveur Basilica on one side and St. Blaise Chapel on the other side.
St. John-the-Baptist Chapel flanks the episcopal palace.
Ramparts and Twelve Stations
The ramparts are the vestiges of the 14th century fortress that defended the access to the promontory and protected the abbey and the sanctuaries.
The impressive chateau built on the top of the cliff during the 19th century replaces the medieval fortress.
It is today the official residence of the chaplains of Rocamadour.
The Twelve Stations border the twisty path that leads up to the chateau.
Pilgrims brought back the Jerusalem Cross (Croix de Jérusalem) from the Holy Land.
It today stands by the upper ramparts, passed the Thirteenth Station – the Caves of the Nativity and the Holy Sepulchre – a sanctuary carved into the rock.
UNESCO listed both St-Sauveur Basilica and St-Amadour Crypt as World Heritage Sites under the label Chemins de Compostelle – Santiago de Compostela.
Department of Lot
Coordinates: Lat 44.799383 – Long 1.617901
Car parks: Lat 44.800181 – Long 1.616283