Rocamadour is one French landmark that we have been trying to get to for nearly three years and for one reason or another, it has eluded us. Although as we so often say, ‘It’s not going anywhere. There’s time enough.’ Finally 2018 – the year we made it and marked it as an important day in our calendar.
Some icons around the world are built up so vividly in our minds, thanks to those who have gone before us, allowing us to craft an image of what it will look, sound and feel like. Blogs play a fabulous role in inspiring us to visit new places, although equally they can construct an expectation that, when seen with our own eyes, can disappoint.
Whilst I had heard plenty about Rocamadour, I had never seen any pictures and as a visual girl, I was very grateful to have a blank canvas to paint with my own experiences. And I’m so glad, because our visit, one autumnal day in October was not just any old day. It was 4th October and whilst this may seem insignificant to most, it is the day we celebrate my dad’s life. I so didn’t want to be disappointed, as my parents had been here a couple of decades ago and so to tread in their footsteps on this day, of all days, I wanted it to be perfect. Check out our video footage showing the footprints we left behind at this gorgeous village and then I’ll tell you all about it…
Rocamadour, one of those iconic French villages that is on so many people’s lists and a place that draws you into its valley of wonderment, peace and spirituality. Known as the Sacred City it is famous for a number of things;
- For being vertiginous – yes I had to look this up – it means being extremely high or steep.
- For its important religious status and a source of miracles, placing it firmly on the Santiago de Compostella pathway.
- For its three-levelled construction, each one having a completely different character and charm.
- For its 8 sacred religious buildings, one of which is the UNESCO Basilica and the Notre Dame chapel, home to a walnut carved Black Madonna that is a thousand years old.
- For its 216 steps up the Grand Escalier – the Pilgrims’ Staircase.
- For its medieval castle that perches regally above the valley asserting its position in the Dordogne valley.
- For its annual Montgolfiades Balloon Festival at the end of September, which looks like a sight for sore eyes.
Let me tantalise your senses with Rocamadour’s splendour, because this is what will entice you to experience this place for yourself.
A Feast for the Eyes
We approached the village from the southern side and this gave us the most incredible glimpse of the rock temple with a face-on perspective. The castle, the Sanctuary, the little houses precariously built into the rock, created a vision that was almost out of this world. Surely this was not human-made. It looked like something that was crafted by a giant girl making a doll’s house village. Although whilst this was surely a photographer’s dream, once drawn into the alleyways, Rocamadour takes on a whole new identity.
As we wound our way to the northern aspect and parked up our van in the free overnight Aire, our eyes would be further satiated by the wiggling path that takes you to the village floor and to the heart of Rocamadour’s sacred space. And as you walk through the gates to the Sanctuary that conceals its Notre Dame and Basilica, the vista is hard for the camera to capture. It is only the eyes that can really digest the whole scene as you turn 360 degrees trying to take in this magnificent complex of buildings. Chapels, spires, staircases and intricate detail in the balconies all create a very special vision. The tower reaching way above the village looks like a Disney castle and you half expect to see Rapunzel standing there with her flowing locks. Its majesty is seen from almost every street – it is hard to not have it as centrepiece of every photograph.
And of course you cannot miss the image after the setting sun; the village set against the blackness of the night illuminates its beautiful architecture and an orange hew castes its dominance around the buildings. I wish I had taken my tripod to capture the picture professionally, as it was a sight to behold and completed my Rocamadour experience beautifully.
Music to your Ears
Upon the hour, the Sanctuary rings out its bell, which reverberates around this dramatic rock village in the heart of the valley. It’s almost as if the sound bounces from one side of the mountains to the other, as if in competition. And if you are fortunate enough, legend has it that you may even hear the sound of the miracle bell that rings from the inner sanctum of the Notre Dame chapel. The bell is said to ring when an oceanic miracle happens and a marina’s life is saved.
Combined with the melee of tourists that creates its own energy even in the autumn, Rocamadour hums with an accent of appreciation from its visitors, some of which are pilgrims making their own spiritual passage. And yet it is the sound of silence that will grip you the most as you pass through the religious chambers and wonder at the nobility who have graced these floors.
In stark contrast, as you head down the pilgrims’ stairway, the cafés and shops on the village’s lower level create their own music as they entice you to buy scented pebbles (which are delightful) and to taste their gastronomic fare.
A Sense that reaches into your Soul
There are some places around the world where there are simply no words to describe your experience; where just by standing still you can feel its heart-beat and the stories that contribute to the fabric of its identity. France’s Rocamadour is one of those places and I’m not sure whether it’s a spiritual energy brought by pilgrims past or if it’s the pure beauty of the architecture and its precarious cliff position that draws you into a speechless state. Either way, Rocamadour has a certain something that whether gazing from afar or admiring from within, there is a special vibe about this medieval ‘cité’.
Feel your feet in the footprints of those before you, feel the hope in the walls of the cheerleading houses that line the streets and sense the 1000 years of legend and history that has put this iconic village top of France’s tourist map. Built on the site of a shrine to Madonna, Rocamadour symbolises healing, borne out by the 8 religious buildings in the Sanctuary complex. And with that reputation comes a deep sense of faith, which is palpable, whether you are religious or not.
Out of season, Rocamadour is a perfect time to visit, allowing you to contemplate the historical souls magnetised towards this place, or perhaps simply acknowledge the reflections of your own thoughts as you climb the steep and winding Path of the Crosses. It gives you permission to gaze in wonderment at the underground pillars that, in some Herculean feat are holding up the rock above or perhaps sit in prayer in one of the chapels to offer your own appreciations and gratitudes. Perhaps you need some healing… well this place is certainly somewhere where you could express hope and feel that, beneath the shadow of the Black Madonna’s presence you feel compelled to trust that you are being heard by someone or something in the Universe.
How to make the most of your experience
1. Getting there
Although there may well be day trips by coach from Toulouse or Marseille, it is best if you have your own transport, enabling you to time your visit to avoid the crowds. We took the D39 and D32 which brings you in on the southern road, offering you the most staggering view of the village. It is a perspective not to be missed. For those of us in campers, this is a narrow and winding road, although it is doable for long vehicles. I always comfort myself in the knowledge that if coaches can reach it so can we. Although I suspect they don’t take this route.
Parking is plentiful around the village and all for free. The lower parking by the river is small and in high season probably very busy. It is the easiest parking area for anyone with walking difficulties or disabilities as there is little ‘hiking’ up or down to be done from here. The middle parking area, Parking de la vallee de Rocamadour has height restrictions of 2m so is limiting depending upon the size of your vehicle. The upper car park, Parking de Chateau, is the largest space and if you have a camper is ideal as there is a specific Motorhome Aire that allows free parking day and night.
2. Getting around
Depending on which parking area you choose, there is some walking to be done so come prepared. Whilst the lower streets with the cafés and shops is fairly level, the steps up to the the religious complex are more demanding depending on your fitness. Whilst pilgrims ascended on their knees, I wouldn’t recommend it; by foot is more than enough of a challenge.
If you park at the upper car park, then you have the Path of the Crosses from the chateau to navigate, which whilst going downhill is fine, coming back is a good calorie burner. There is a lift that can take the effort out of the climb which takes you to all three levels of the village.
As we’ve mentioned, there is a free Aire at the chateau that you can stay at for free, overnight. There are no facilities although it is perfect for visiting the village and seeing it by night too. Alternatively if you prefer campsites with your tent or camper, then there Camping Le Paradis, which is within walking distance, albeit it a good hike. They are open from 1 April until 30 September, so not great if you are looking for genuine out of season visiting.
4. When to visit
For us as introvert travellers, we love the peace and quiet to experience places with the solitude that they deserve. Although sometimes this is just not achievable. So if you can, we recommend visiting in March, April, September or October as these are probably the best times to experience the place without claustrophobia and shoulder barging. If this isn’t realistic for you and the summer season is all you can do, then do visit either early morning or late afternoon, when most of the crowds have dispersed. The added advantage of this, of course, is that you get to see the village in its nighttime glory, which is definitely worth staying for. It is a spectacle for sure.
I would love to have visited a week earlier so we could have caught the Balloon Festival. I can imagine how magnificent the balloons are set against the backdrop of this medieval cité. Although with over 20,000 visitors for this last weekend in September, I bet it feels a bit all-consuming if you are introverts like us.
Final thoughts of Rocamadour
Whether you have a specific reason to be at Rocamadour or perhaps you just are looking for a special experience, either way this Sacred City will not disappoint. With its commanding vistas, its Devine architectural tapestry and its charming and characterful three-tiered streets, it will take you on a journey; spiritual may be, although for sure an exploration that will enchant you from the moment you set eyes on it. Knowing I was treading in more important footsteps than the nobility before me, made it a memorable trip and one that brought me closer to my dad. This place is seriously worthy of a diversion en route to the south coast.
Rocamadour – iconic France at its best….
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