Château on the Hill
Rocamadour, is a popular destination for pilgrims and tourists alike. The spectacular natural and religious site perched high on a rocky plateau.
For pilgrims, Rocamadour's importance lies with the Shrine of Our Lady of Rocamadour, a complex of religious structures centered on a miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary and the tomb of an ancient saint.
Tourists come to Rocamadour for its religious interest, historical significance, beautiful architecture, and most of all, for the spectacular views: Rocamadour is situated atop a rocky plateau overlooking the Alzou Valley.
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. With the double attraction of the tomb of Zaccheus and the statue, pilgrims began to flock to Rocamadour. Many reported experiencing miraculous healings and conversions at the shrine.
Then, as 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 would regularly make the entire climb on their knees.
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 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).
What to See
Rocamadour's Cité Religieuse, a cluster of chapels and churches high on a rocky plateau, attracts casual tourists and devoted pilgrims alike. It includes a charming pedestrian precinct with plenty of souvenir shops, a château that once protected the sanctuary, and seven chapels.
The sacred site is accessible from the town via the Grand Escalier, a stairway of 216 weathered steps. Even today, devout pilgrims make the climb on their knees in penance. Along the way are 14 Stations of the Cross culminating in the Cross of Jerusalem at the top. There is also an elevator from the lower town (Basse Ville).
Backed against the cliff, the Basilique St-Sauveur was built in the Romanesque-Gothic style from the 11th to the 13th centuries. It's decorated with paintings and inscriptions recalling visits of celebrated persons, including Philippe the Handsome.
The Chapelle de Notre-Dame is immediately adjacent to the Basilique St-Saveur. Above the door leading to the chapel is an iron sword that, according to legend, belonged to Roland. Inside, the chapel is devoted almost exclusively to the venerated Black Madonna statue.
The 12th-century Romanesque Chapelle St-Michel is sheltered by an overhanging rock; inside are well-preserved frescoes dating from the 12th century. The chapel received many 19th-century additions and alterations.
The Chapelle Miraculeuse contains the Tomb of St. Amadour, who is said to have carved out an hermitage in the rock. Hanging from the roof is one of the oldest known clocks, which dates to the 8th century.