If you can picture a charming little French village perched on the edge of some jaw-dropping cliffs, you just may be at Rocamadour in southwest France. This enchanting village on the edge of a gorge is not only marvellously beautiful but also a destination rich in history and religious pilgrimage.
The village is located in the region of Occitanie in France, peering over the Alzou canyon, far away from the major cities. And it is this isolation that attracted the hermit to the area in the 1st century.
But if the grotto that Saint Amadour once lived in was remote and inaccessible, the village of Rocamadour is now one of the most visited tourist attractions in France.
Indeed, Rocamadour has become world-famous for its Sanctuary to the Black Virgin which is one of the great stops along the Christian pilgrimage route of Saint-Jacques de Compostelle.
So let’s have a look at the top things to see and do around Rocamadour, shall we? Allons-y!
History of the Sanctuary and Black Virgin
The origins of Rocamadour can be traced back to the hermit who was given the name Saint Amadour. Not much is known about him, but the legend says that Amadour is believed to have retreated here after witnessing the martyrs of Peter and Paul in Rome, and the death of his wife.
It is said that Amadour built a chapel in honour of the Virgin Mary. A body was found in the 12th century, perfectly preserved in Rocamadour, giving rise to the icon.
The miraculous discovery of the body and a statue often referred to as the Black Virgin, became the catalyst for the sanctuary at Rocamadour. Word of the sacred site spread and Rocamadour quickly transformed into a prominent pilgrimage destination.
As early as 1105, Catholic Pope Paschal II mentioned the pilgrimage “to the Blessed Virgin Our Lady of Rocamadour”. Rocamadour quickly became one of the 4 holy places of Christianity with Rome, Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle and Jerusalem.
Pilgrims from far and wide flocked to this cliffside village, climbing its steep stairs in search of solace and healing. In addition in the Middle ages, criminal cases were forgiven if the guilty person made a pilgrimage to Rocamadour.
Over the centuries, the village became a site of great importance for Christians across Europe as well as a stop on the pilgrimage of Saint-Jacques de Compostelle. It has also been declared a UNESCO heritage site, adding to its allure to tourists and visitors from around the world.
Things to do in Rocamadour
1. Climb Le Grand Escalier (Grand Staircase)
As you arrive at the village of Rocamadour, you will notice that there is a parking lot above the sanctuary, as well as one at the base of the sanctuary. For the full historical and pilgrimage experience, you will want to park at the base and walk through the historical walls of the village to the Grand Escalier.
This is the path taken by the pilgrims, who historically used to climb up to the sanctuary on their knees. In the Middle ages, those who were deemed guilty of a crime were even forced to climb up these stairs on their knees with weights on.
If climbing the stairs is too much for you, there are also 3 large elevators (for a small sum) at various levels to transport pilgrims and tourists to the sanctuary and back to the upper parking lot.
3. Sanctuaire Notre-Dame de Rocamadour
Once you get up the Grand staircase, you will find yourself in the heart of the Sanctuary of Notre-Dame de Rocamadour (Our lady of Rocamadour.)
Inside the sanctuary are several chapels dedicated to various saints, including Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Saint-Blaise, Sainte-Anne, Saint-Michel, and Saint-Louis.
It is in the chapelle Notre-Dame that you will find the statue of the Black Virgin. There is also the Crypt of Saint Amadour.
Not all the chapels are open to visitors, so be on the lookout for the free guided tour offered by the sanctuary that often goes to the chapels that are restricted.
You can also walk around the walls of the santuary which has beautiful views of the canyon and village below.
3. Walled village
After visiting the sanctuary, you can walk back down the Grand staircase (or take the elevator) back to the village.
The preserved architecture and cobblestone streets still echo with the medieval footsteps of those who have walked here before. There are plenty of cafés and shops to browse through.
The restaurants do fill up fast however at lunchtime during busy periods so I recommend going early.
4. Local specialties
Rocamadour doesn’t have any weekly markets as its streets are too narrow, but there are plenty of local shops offering local specialties from Occitanie.
Perhaps the most famous is the Rocamadour cheese, a creamy goat cheese with a distinct character.
6. Gouffre de Padirac
For those seeking a subterranean adventure, it would be amiss if I didn’t mention the Gouffre de Padirac. About 11 miles (18km) from Rocamadour is a mesmerizing hole in the ground, leading to an elaborate cave system.
The caves were carved by an ancient river, and were explored in the 1889.
The chasm itself is 338 feet (103m) deep, and has a diameter of approximately 108 feet (33 metres). The tunnel itself extends over 35 miles (55 km).
Today this natural phenomenon attracts explorers and tourists alike to embark on a boat ride through a portion of these mysterious caves. You can read more about visiting the Gouffre de Padirac here.
7. Monkey forest
For a fun interlude from all that history, head over to the Monkey forest near Rocamadour. It is home to over 150 Barbary macaques monkeys who roam freely in 20 hectares of forest.
The monkeys approach freely and guides are on hand to ensure that all visits go smoothly.
The Monkey forest is located less than 1 mile (1.5km) away from the sanctuary, and about a 25 minute walk. (You can also go by car.) If you are looking for an unexpected layer of fun to the travel itinerary, the Monkey forest is a hit with families and animal lovers alike.
How to get to Rocamadour?
Rocamadour about 326 miles (525 km) from Paris and is about 150 miles (245 km) from Toulouse and Bordeaux. The only way to get to Rocamadour is by car. If you don’t wish to drive, there are tours to Rocamadour available from Sarlat-la-Canéda or Bordeaux.
How easy is it getting around?
The historical town center of Rocamadour is perched on a hill and filled with ancient walls and cobblestone streets. It is however possible to drive to the entrance of the town and take an elevator up to the Sanctuary of the Black Virgin with a stroller or wheelchair.
You can also take the elevator back down, instead of walking down. (We noticed many people on pilgrimage doing so.)
How many days should you spend?
It is possible to visit Rocamadour as a day trip if you are staying somewhere in the Perigord Noir area, but there are accomodation options if you want to get the full experience.
When is the best time to visit?
Rocamadour does get quite crowded during religious holidays (which are public holidays in France) such as Toussaint, Easter and Assumption. It also gets quite busy in the summer when several pilgrimages and religious fêtes take place.
In the last weekend of September, a spectacular sight takes place in Rocamadour. Around 30 hot air balloons take flight over the valley to pay tribute to the inventors of the Montgolfières, the Montgolfier brothers who were from nearby Ardéche.
Where should you stay?
There are not many hotels in the town center Rocamadour, but there are several in the surrounding area if you are planning on renting a car. Within the immediate vicinity, the following accommodation is recommended:
- €€ – Hotel du Lion d’Or – in the cité medieval
- €€€ – Hotel Beau Site Rocamadour – in the cité medieval
- €€€ – Hôtel Les Esclargies – further away but highly rated
If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more about traveling around the Occitanie. A bientôt!