Rocamadour proudly bills itself as the ‘Second Site in France’, after Mont St-Michel. The two share extraordinary, fantastical settings, the very kind of naturally sacred places that attract legends like lightning rods. Rocamadour is the medieval French equivalent of a Pueblo village in North America, a vertical cliff-dwellers’ town, the beautiful golden stone houses and chapels piled up one on top of another over a deep ravine, while far, far below the little River Alzou continues its work of aeons, cutting even deeper into the gorge.
What to see and do in Rocamadour
The pilgrims would enter Rocamadour through the 13th-century Porte du Figuier, one of four gates that defended the village’s one real street. Once in, past a gauntlet of souvenir shops, you’ll find a second gate, Porte Salmon (and the lift to the Holy City). Beyond this is the 15th-century Palais de la Couronnerie, now the Hôtel de Ville, where a beautiful tapestry of local flora and fauna by Jean Lurçat is on display. The street continues through another gate into the Quartier du Coustalou, the prettiest and least restored part of the village, with jumbly little houses and a fortified mill.
The Holy City
From Place de la Carretta the great stair, the 216-step Grand Escalier, leads up into the holy city; pilgrims still sometimes go up them on their knees. The first 144 steps lead to the Place des Senhals, where merchants sold holy medals (senhals in Occitan) made of lead and stamped with a picture of the Virgin.
Rocamadour’s oldest street, Rue de la Mercerie, extends from here, with the 14th-century Maison de la Pomette at its end. From here, continue up through the gate under the over-restored Fort, sometime residence of the bishops of Tulle.
Parvis de St-Amadour
At the top of the Grand Escalier, this small square is the centre of the holy city, where the pilgrims could visit seven churches, just as in Rome, but in a very abbreviated space. Today only Notre-Dame and St-Sauveur are open; for St-Michel, SS Anne and Blaise and L’Hospitalet and the Crypt of St-Amadour, you need to take the tourist office’s guided tour.
The 11th-century Basilique St-Sauveur makes good use of the cliff for a wall. Over the altar hangs a painted wooden 16th-century Christ crucified on a tree, his right side instead of the customary left pierced by the lance. Steps lead down into another of the seven churches, the simple 12th-century Crypt St-Amadour, where the relics of the saintly hermit were venerated. The Parvis also has the Musée Trésor d’Art Sacré (closed except for special occasions) dedicated to the composer Francis Poulenc, an atheist who converted to Catholicism after a vision here in 1936 and composed his Litanies à la Vierge Noire de Rocamadour. Inside are precious medieval reliquaries from Limoges, stained glass and 17th-century ex-votos.
On the other side of St-Sauveur another 25 steps lead up to the church of Notre-Dame and the Flamboyant Gothic Chapelle Notre-Dame. This dates from 1479, after a rock crashed off the cliff through the original sanctuary. Inside, the miraculous Black Virgin holds court. Carved from walnut in the 11th century, she sits stiffly on her throne, almost a stick figure, the Christ Child balanced on her knee. Ex-votos testify to her heavenly influence: many are from Breton sailors saved from shipwreck after praying to the Virgin of the Rocamadour – including Jacques Cartier, who returned safely from his three voyages to Canada. Miracles were often foretold by the ringing of the 9th-century bell hanging from the roof. Chains from pilgrim petitioners still hang in the back of the chapel. Outside, high in the rock above the door, Durandal is still embedded in the stone, fastened by a chain to keep it from falling on someone’s head.
Sharing this upper square with Notre-Dame is the Chapelle St-Michel, with the overhanging cliff for a roof, decorated on the outside with colourful 12th- or 13th-century frescoes representing the Annunciation and Visitation. The patron of travellers, St Christopher, is painted below; to catch a glimpse of him was good luck, so he was always made extra big. Nearby, tucked in the rock is the newest chapel – to Notre-Dame de l’Ovalie (aka rugby!) Further up, a hairpinning path lined with the Stations of the Cross (or the much easier lift from the Parvis de St-Amadour) takes you up to the ramparts of the 14th-century château (€2 for the vertiginous view) and L’Hospitalet, the district named after a hostel-hospital founded in 1050 by Hélène de Castelnau for pilgrims en route to Compostela.
Le Rocher des Aigles
The eagle’s nest atop Rocamadour is a real one, thanks to the breeding programme for endangered birds of prey (including a condor) and parrots from Costa Rica. Watching them soar high over Rocamadour is pretty impressive, and you can visit them all before or after the show. Try to go to the last spectacle, when they bring out the owls.
Travel to Rocamadour
If you’re coming by train, Rocamadour is 4km from the station; book a taxi to meet you.
Only the cars of visitors with bookings in the village hotels are allowed. In July and August the nearer car parks outside the gates fill up fast, but there are always places at the bottom, where a little train runs every 15 minutes between the car park in the valley and the Cité Médiévale. Or park in the P2 in L’Hospitalet, Rocamadour’s upper district, where you can walk down to the medieval Cité Médiévale – the steps aren’t steep, but there are 223 of them – or take the two public lifts to the level of the sanctuaries.