Saturday, May 11, 2013

Rocamadour, France

Pilgrims still come from all over the world to Rocamadour, where the church and chapel and houses are carved into the cliffside and long stone staircases lead seekers up to a chapel dug into the limestone. You're supposed to go up the staircase on your knees; we went down the staircase, on our feet. There was a group of people singing vaguely folk-gospel pieces when we arrived, and as we were leaving the chapel area, another group of singers came up the stairs, chanting something more medievally appropriate. We didn't stay to see the battle of the choirs.

Established some time in the 10th century, it's where the perfectly-preserved body of Saint Amator, or Saint Amadour, was said to have been found. Pope Paschal II made Rocamadour an official pilgrimage site in 1105 or so, and this year the site is celebrating 1,000 years of pilgrimages. The stones of the steps are worn away from the feet of so many millions of people, of so many years.

The focus of the site is the chapel of the Black Virgin, perhaps carved by Saint Amadour himself, according to some histories, or just by the first hermits who settled the area and established the site. The chapel is quiet and filled with the scent of melting wax, and the silent prayers of the hopeful on their knees in front of the ancient goddess.

There are houses and shops built under the sanctuary, and from the "for rent by the week" signs on many doors and the souvenir-laden tables outside the doors, it seems that anyone who actually lives in Rocamadour makes their living off the pilgrims. There are hotels and campsite areas all around the village as well; we spent the night in a very nice place at the top of the cliff, a short walk from town, Les Esclargies. I was glad that I hadn't tried to find a place in town, because the streets are insanely narrow and hair-pinny and although we saw two motor homes navigating the turns, it was nice to not have to think about traffic issues. We walked down into the old town, instead.

There was a hotel, or rather still is a hotel, built into the side of the cliff, but it's not open now due to safety issues with falling rocks (I think that's what the sign said). But I saw someone coming down from that area, so it might be where the priests live now, unless they live in the chateau above, which was built to protect the holy site.

We took the elevator built into the cliff back up to the sanctuary level, and then walked up the zigzag path of the 12 Stations of the Cross, built in the 19th century, to the old church in a cave with its carved stone pillars leading back to a dim altar in the depths of the rock.

From the top of the cliff, you can see all up and down the valley of the Alzou river, although you can't see the river itself. It must be down there somewhere, perhaps running underground. At one point there was probably a good bit of water in the valley, but that could have been well before the foundation of the site.

We walked up to the chateau, and then in and up to the top of the ramparts on the roof, where the view was even more spectacular, especially if you could overcome vertigo and walk to the edge. Which I mostly couldn't.

The narrow stone walkways along the roof went through turrets with arrow-slits, and out out out on a long point to overlook both the valley and the town. Just as we got to the end, the bells in the sanctuary and the chateau and the churches up and down the valley started ringing, and we could peer over the edge and watch the bells swinging back and forth in the steeple below.

This vacation has gotten off to a very good start. The blessing of the goddess remain with us today and always, amen.

1 comment:

  1. Have a great Mother's Day with your mom Elizabeth. You two are just beautiful!