Rocamadour: The Village of Pilgrims
On the cliffs of rural Quercy stands one of the most popular tourist attractions in France.
Long before Disneyland was a thing, before Mickey and Minnie had even met and before all-in package holidays had been invented, there was pilgrimage. In the Middle Ages going on pilgrimage was almost a rite of passage. Between the early eleventh and late sixteenth centuries, as much as one-fifth of the population of Europe would either be on pilgrimage or servicing the pilgrim industry at any one time. As early as 813 AD the Council of Chalons-sur-Saone issued an edict condemning Catholic priests from using pilgrimage as an excuse to get away from their demanding congregants.
That did not mean that the Catholic Church did not appreciate the economic value that a steady stream of pilgrims could generate. Many of the major pilgrim routes such as the Saint Jacques de Compostelle continue to attract thousands of pilgrims from around the world even today. In the Middle Ages, pilgrimage was a major generator of funding for the church. It also facilitated thousands of cottage industries providing food, accommodation and even money changing facilities.
Of course, to attract large numbers of pilgrims, you needed a major drawcard; some ancient holy relic or miraculous event that would encourage people to leave their homes and loved ones and walk halfway across Europe.
Turin has the famous shroud, Lourdes is blessed with its healing waters and Santiago, at the end of the most famous pilgrimage is allegedly the place at which the bones of Saint James are buried.
Pilgrimage has been practiced by all of the world’s major religions. The devout use it as a way to get closer to whatever god they might believe in or to cleanse away their sins. Today pilgrimage is going through something of a revival. The Saint Jacques de Compostelle, which is really a series of different routes from across Europe, all culminating at San Sebastian in Northern Spain, has seen a massive increase in visitor numbers.
In 1996 just twenty three thousandpilgrims received their Compostella signifying that they had walked its last 100 kilometres. In 2018 that number rose to more than three hundred and twenty thousand pilgrims completeing the coveted last section of the route.
If I turn right when I leave my front door and walk for two hours, I will pass through a steep-sided valley, carved over millennia by the Alzou River. This is one of the many grand routes that cross France and finally reach Santiago in Spain. Thousands of pilgrims would have once walked this way every year, but I am unlikely to see another soul. At a bend in the river, the valley unexpectedly widens and one is suddenly exposed to the magnificent monastery of Rocamdour which appears to hang from the cliffs. This UNESCO heritage site is the third most visited site in France and has been attracting pilgrims and, now tourists, since 1166. In that year, a body was found in a cave on the cliffs and a rumour spread that this was the body of Saint Amadour who was said to have witnessed the martyrdoms of both Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Rome.
Having a sacred relic, or famous saint definitely adds to the pulling power offered by any pilgrim site. Scattered across much of Europe are churches containing pieces of the cross on which Christ was hung or the manger in which he was born. Rocamadour has several draw cards for the devout pilgrim. There are seven chapels, one of which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the Black Madonna, supposedly carved by Saint Amadour himself, as well as the legend surrounding the famed saint.
Out of season, there are less than 600 residents in the village of Rocamadour, but during the warmer months, the Monastery and the tiny cobbled streets of the village at its foot will attract 1.5 million tourists.
In season, the whole area becomes yet another tourist honey trap, selling trinkets and knick-knacks, the majority of which will have been mass-produced in the Far East somewhere. Out of season, when the clouds gather and the wind blasts down the valley, it regains its mystic feel. That is when I prefer to make my short pilgrimages. It is not unusual to see pilgrims ascending up the 233 stone steps on their knees, stopping to say a short prayer on each one, and a small group of Benedictine monks continues to inhabit the monastery itself.
This is where I will go to worship on Christmas morning, though I am not a Catholic. Experience tells me that it will be freezing in the ancient stone chapel but the winter light filtering through the stained glass windows and the haunting voices of the choir will bring a sense of closeness to God. It is that intimacy that makes it easier to understand why so many people have suffered such hardship to get here over the centuries. One wonders if Mickey and Minnie will still be pulling in the crowds a thousand years from now.