by Karen Davies | Oct 20, 2018 | France, Travel Blog
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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by Karen Davies | Oct 25, 2017 | France, Travel Blog
France’s Camargue – the land of true diversity
Imagine travelling through the heart-land of a delta region – what jumps out at you? Is it the flatness of the region or the endless acres of salt flats divided by borders of gravel banks leading to who knows where – perhaps just the horizon or some other equally distant destination that is unattainable. May be your mind leaps to a haven of wildlife and even flamingoes, hidden by seven foot reed-beds defying your camera lens access to the private ornithological playground.
Whatever your impressions or images are of delta regions, I would love to set you a challenge of falling in love with France’s Camargue. We’ve been to four deltas during our 20 months on the road; two in Spain, one in Romania and one in Italy. They are all very different – and in their individuality you can look deep within their characters to experience the true battle between land, river and sea and watch unfold an incredible evolution that serves both the human race and the natural world in an incredible dance of harmony.
Yet the Camargue, the largest delta in western Europe is one of the stand-out areas for me such is its diversity, expanse and intrigue. Nestled in the arms of the Rhône that splits out into two; the Petit Rhône to the west and the Grand Rhône to the east, the south of France claims protection over this incredibly fertile and rich plain. With a blend of Mediterranean Coast, a Spanish cultural influence and a highly balanced ecosystem of salt lagoons cut off from the sea’s reign by sand dunes and reed beds, the Camargue has supremacy in Europe for tradition, cultivation and ornithology. It is so much more than a land of flat nothingness.
Let me see if I can inspire a visit with these seven reasons to put the Camargue on your list:
1. Sexy Salt-flats?
So let’s talk salt-flats and deal with the iconic delta landscape before we delve into cultural intrigue. Now these are no ordinary salt beds; the Camargue has coloured salt-flats that just cry out for a few ‘Ooohs and ahhhs’ from passers by. Thanks to the algae in the region, the landscape is quite breathtaking and in the mid-day sun the hue sparkles pink and purple.
There’s also something quite earthy about the salt industry here, because although there’s a slight hint of exploitation of the earth’s resources, somehow there feels like a grace in which this process is undertaken, almost as if, with gratitude the salt is lifted and manufactured. A mixture of salt we use for cooking and also road salt – this production line has huge benefits to the local community and beyond. Fringed with coarse plants and crystal rocks, this area defies you to not be impressed. Go to the Visitors’ Viewing point about 2km from Salin-de-Giraud and you will be treated to a magnificent sight.
Arles is Camargue’s capital and a thriving city that boasts the splitting of the Rhône in two. Although we didn’t spend any time here other than passing through looking for petrol, it certainly looks like a place to stop. It has one of the region’s longest and most major markets around its city walls, every Wednesday and Saturday morning and if you love markets, then get your walking shoes on and go explore. On top of that you have a UNESCO site in the Roman monuments, theatre and amphitheatre and its main claim to fame is that it was host to Vincent Van Gogh who called this home for a year, creating over 300 hundred paintings. So Arles is definitely worth exploring and we will do it justice next time we’re in the region for sure.
3. Sainte Marie de la Mare
Black Madonna – Sarah
This small, Spanish influenced, whitewashed town on the Camargue’s coast has strong links with the Romany people, for whom Sarah or ‘Sara the Black’ is their patron saint. The Black Madonna, as she is also known is honoured at Sainte Marie each May, when there is an annual pilgrimage of Romanies to the town. The drive there transports you to a land that time forgot, with Ranches spring out of nowhere, where the famous Camargue horses form the heart of local’s passion and their livelihood.
It is here that you start to feel the culture behind the Camargue, where Gardians or cowboys hold their centuries old tradition of raising black bulls for the Spanish Bullfighting industry and using the wild horses to round up their herds. Today there is more of a tourist feel to this town as many of the Ranches offer horse-ridding excursions around the Delta, although it is quaint enough and definitely worth hanging around to pick up an evening vibe.
4. Aigues Mortes
Aigues’ Castle Walls
Of all the Camargue towns, Aigues Mortes (name source; stagnant water) was our favourite. As we cycled along the main road from Montcalm where we were camping at their vineyard, we crossed a river, which at its end has an imposing tower that entices you towards it. With increased pedal power you find yourself intrigued and soon enough you enter the almost Disney-like scene in front of you. Impenetrable walls that for centuries have protected its farmers and salt-miners, standing up against those who wish to claim the land for its own. Back in the day, Aigues had direct access to the sea, so protection from the Crusaders was absolutely necessary. Today bridges over the canal, a silted moat and a great road network has you within the bosom of Aigues within no time, although you certainly feel its protective prowess as you approach.
This ancient city is beautifully intact and as you walk around the walls you get a real sense of the stories that were created here and how today’s town has claimed its identity.
Inside the walls, it’s like another world. A place where you can feel the security and as you wander through the grid-like alleyways, you seriously feel like you have teleported into a Dickensian era. If like me, you take your camera with you everywhere, then Aigues is the place you will click the most. Outside of the walls you have a masterful spectacle; waterways that now provide tours for eagerly awaiting landlubbers with a chance to see the Delta up-close-and-personal; and then there’s the romantic, encased town claiming its own unique personality with sandstone walls that tell tales of battles fought, won and lost in bygone eras. In fact the town saw the largest massacre of immigrants in modern France, when in 1893, Italian workers who were brought in to work on the salt flats began fighting with the French contingent leading to riots and a massacre of Italian workers. It caused a huge diplomatic incident between France and Italy leading finally to compensation and justice.
We were lucky (or unlucky as the case may be) to have visited early October, where they have a week-long festival of Bull and Horse Running through the town. Local Gardians and Romanies gather to celebrate their Bull raising traditions and although I hate the idea of bullfighting in any manner, this bull running through the town’s streets is not something that results in death, thankfully. Whilst I love to experience another country’s traditions, the crowds that these festivals attract don’t make for an authentic visit. So whilst I appreciated seeing something completely new and I must admit to being intrigued, I would love to return so we can wander through the streets without the throng of the crowds.
5. Le Grau du Roi
I think when you come to a new place, visiting as much as you have the time and energy for seems appropriate. It’ll certainly help you form an overall impression of a place and help you decide whether a second visit or a recommendation to others is worthy. So on our last day in the Camargue, we decided to check out Le Grau du Roi and sadly it was our least favourite of all the places we visited. Whilst the canal leading to the sea and the old town to the west is full of character and we just love marinas and boat-life, which this has aplenty, the rest of the streets and harbour-front were just full with wall-to-wall tourists shops and restaurants. It left us cold and the beachfront with its high-rise hotels and marinas simply didn’t do it for us. It’s almost as if this section of the Camargue has lost its soul to the devil and really doesn’t have the same spirit as in the heart of the National Park. Whilst Le Grau du Roi is to the west of the Camargue, this town marks a significant change in both the landscape and the authenticity that the Delta offers.
Le Grau du Roi coastline
From this point as you head west, small fishing villages have been swollen up by consumerism and commerciality, with hotels rising above the trees in some sort of fight for supremacy and the authentic nature of the coastline lost to holiday-makers. Montpellier sets its southern coast marker where crowds flock rather than birds – and for us, it just wasn’t our cup of tea. We were glad to visit to see the other side, although it was a face of the Camargue that was less appealing for us and we were glad to have moved inland to find a bit more French authenticity.
If like me, you love nature and the wonders of the world, then the Camargue will not disappoint. Away from the towns and their tourist trade, you enter a magical world where nature seems unperturbed by the frenetic human activity around it. As if in some grand snobbery, flamingoes defy the photographers’ lens and coach loads of adoring ornithologists. This is a sanctuary to them, a haven of food and relative safety from the elements where they can raise their young and live their simple lives amidst the lagoons, teaming with their favourite dish of the day. Dragonflies dart amongst the reed beds, birds wade, horses roam and buzzards soar all to the delight of the onlookers.
You can visit the Parc Ornithologique at Pont de Gau close to Sainte Marie de la Mare which is open all year – here you get 2.5km of intimate sanctuary that allows you to see seasonal wildlife in a protected area. Alternatively, just spend time, like we did, cycling or driving around the region and see the area teeming with wildlife everywhere. Autumn and spring are great seasons to visit as migratory birds will be more evident here, although whatever time of year you go, there is always something on the horizon.
7. Carmargue beaches, sunrises and sunsets
Perhaps beaches are not the first thing you think of when you picture a Delta, although the Camargue has them in bucketloads. Perfect golden sands that stretch for miles offering a barrier to the lagoons from the sometimes harsh energy of the sea. As a south facing landscape, of course the added benefit of the coast is its unmistakably beautiful sunrises and sunsets. With just a little patience and commitment to perhaps an early morning or two, then you will be rewarded by the most incredible colours that turn the sky and the land into an artist’s canvas. Whether you love kitesurfing, horse ridding or simply walking with your bare feet on the the golden grains, the Camargue’s endless beaches are magnificent and just so the diversity of this treasured land.
I hope that these seven reasons for visiting the Camargue have inspired to add this French beauty to your ‘must visit’ list. Easily accessible by plane with flights into either Montpellier or Marseille and a road network of motorways from Spain and Italy, there is no excuse not to visit.
If you decide to come by car or camper, there are plenty of places to camp out which enhanced our Camargue experience although one piece of advice before I leave you – if you are driving from Martigues in the east towards Sainte Marie de la Mare, you will find a ferry that takes you across the Rhône. Take it! For no more than €10 you can cross this channel and get direct access to the Camargue, otherwise you will have a 80km detour to Arles which is the only other crossing point from east to west. Learn from our mistake and just pay the Ferryman!
Here are our camping spots should you go with your own vehicle:
- Sausset Les Pins – Free Aire (43.3318816 005.109914)
- Arles Plage de Piémenson – Wild camping on the beach between the lagoon and the Med. Windy, although stunning location in good weather. (43.348050 004.784010). Services available in Salin le Giraud.
- Domaine Montcalm – France Passion Vineyard – camping for free. Free wine tasting although no obligation to buy.
There are plenty of other camping options in the area, including official ACSI sites. However you come – just come and discover the treasures of the land that is the Camargue.