Today, we took a field trip to Rocamadour, the land from which our favorite cheese comes. It was absolutely epic, like a fairy tale – photos have been added on the left.
Rocamadour is a fascinating place. It’s built, literally, into one side of the rock face of the Alzou valley, and in three levels: the medieval city, the sanctuary made up of a collection of chapels, and a castle at the very top. The history is mostly religious:
According to legend, Rocamadour was the home of an early Christian hermit named Zaccheus of Jericho. It is believed that he died in about 70 AD and had conversed with Jesus himself. According to some accounts, this Zaccheus was the husband of St. Veronica, who wiped the face of Jesus as he climbed to Calvary.
At some point after the hermit’s death and burial in Rocamadour, the site became a place of pilgrimage. Some claim the town was named for the hermit, a “lover of rock” (roc amator).
Zaccheus is said to have brought with him to Rocamadour a statue of the Black Virgin, though the statue is generally dated to the 9th century. Due to the double attraction of the tomb of Zaccheus and the statue of the Virgin, pilgrims began to flock to Rocamadour. Many reported experiencing miraculous healings and conversions at the shrine.
Today, 216 steps lead to the top of the rocky plateau on which the Chapel of Our Lady is located. As an act of penance, pilgrims regularly made the entire climb on their knees, and some still do today – nuts.
The shrine eventually became so famous that kings and bishops began granting special privileges to those who made the pilgrimage.
Many notable people visited Rocamadour over the years, including St. Bernard, St. Dominic, St. Louis, King Louis XI, and possibly even Charlemagne, on his way to battle the Moors in Spain. In fact, there’s a sword stuck high into the mountain side, within the chapel complex, that is said to be the Durandal, Roland’s sword.
In the 11th century, Benedictine monks took over the little Chapel of Our Lady of Rocamadour.
A major event occurred in 1166, when an ancient grave and sepulcher containing an undecayed body was discovered in the cliff of Rocamadour, near the Chapel of Our Lady. This was believed to be the early Christian hermit St. Amadour, who is often equated with Zaccheus.
Over the next few centuries, the numbers of pilgrims continued to increase. The town suffered with the general decline of pilgrimages in the 17th and 18th centuries, but it was heavily restored and revitalized in the 19th century. Today, the site receives thousands of devout pilgrims each year.
One recent notable pilgrim to Rocamadour was the French composer Francis Poulenc, who stayed in the city after a religious conversion he experienced here, and in honor of which he composed his Litanies à la Vierge Noire (Litanies of the Black Virgin).
The best part, though, when the weather was bad at sea, sailors would pray to Our Lady of Rocamadour to save them, or to grant them safe passage. An ancient bell, believed to date from the ninth century, hangs from the ceiling of the Chapelle Notre-Dame. The bell was reputed to ring of its own accord when the Madonna replied to distressed sailors’ pleas to her. Monks would dutifully note the hour and date when the bell rang, and would subsequently consult these records when the rescued sailors undertook a pilgrimage to Rocamadour in thanks.
We spent the afternoon making our way up through the city. It was extremely quiet; this is one of those tourist towns where all the hotels and shops close up as soon as the season is over. There were workmen everywhere, and the main staircase up to the sanctuary and chateau was closed – they were pouring new steps. But the emptiness made it kind-of better, in that we weren’t fighting to see the sights, and we got to stand alone in each place for as long as we wanted, to soak it all in. Tours guides just come up and offer to show you around on a whim, and let you dawdle. Most of all, though, it’s really just relaxing, like a vacation should be.
Did I say vacation? We’re working. We swear.