On day 5 of the 14-day escorted Art and Archaeology Tour of France, we visit the decorated caves of Pech Merle and Cougnac in the Lot area of the region known as the Midi-Pyrénées. That evening the group overnights in the amazing medieval town of Rocamadour, spectacularly built up against a high limestone cliff face. Flowing along the valley floor is the river Alzou, above which and the buildings of the medieval village appear as if to ‘cling’ to the vertical cliff. The history of the village is as extraordinary as the site on which it was built. After a day looking at some of the oldest imagery in France, the day ends with an opportunity to explore some mysterious medieval art and artefacts, and discover some of the highlights of a long lasting tradition of medieval pilgrimage.
Pilgrims began flocking in large numbers to the site of present day Rocamadour some time before the 9th century. But there is no evidence of an exact date, neither are there any clues to suggest why pilgrims chose to visit this spot initially. But over the centuries since Rocamadour became associated with a strong pilgrimage tradition, and a number of religious sanctuaries were built and worshipped at.
For centuries people come from all over christendom to Rocamadour to expiate their sins, be cured or simply thank the Virgin of Rocamadour. The history and fortunes of pilgrimages to Rocamadour are complex, and are of course greatly influenced by other historical events, such as the Hundred Years’ War.
The main sanctuary in the village is the Notre-Dame Chapel. It has an amazing alter piece of gilded bronze, and holds a statue of the Virgin of Rocamadour, seated on a throne with Jesus as a child on her knee. A book of miracles in the church records some 126 accounts of miracles in Latin that are attributed to the Virgin. The church also has a few frescoes dating back to the 15th Century. The Abbey Palace was restored in the 19th Century, and now takes on a strange gothic-romantic appearance. Today the palace houses the Museum of Sacred Art, a collection of objects and vestiges from Rocamadour and various other municipalities in the Lot region. The town also has a number of modern-day art workshops and galleries.
Rocamadour is also well known for its goats cheese, le rocamadour, for which it was awarded AOC status in 1996. Les rocamadours are those small disc-shaped cheeses, often grilled and placed on a bed of lettuce in France. They are made into discs, weighing no more than 35grams, and then left in a cellar to mature for at least 6 days.