The Cliff City Of Rocamadour – Dordogne, France
We’ve made it back to France! Full circle from a few months ago, a time that seems long and yet short at the same time.
The end of our trip is here now and it feels bittersweet. These past months have been packed with new & cool experiences, but after a while travel like that all starts to blur together too. It’s one of the reasons I write a blog, as sometimes things will come back to me as I see the pics and read my own stories, feelings that I didn’t even know I felt at the time. Do you ever get that too?
But this leg of our trip is epic, a final highlight that shines with a beacon all its own. It’s a place I’ve wanted to visit for oh-so-long, a sacred pilgrimage site, a city of 126 miracles (or so it’s been written), and a spot so spectacular it’s incredible to think that it was almost abandoned and lost to ruins. I was excited to see it, but also eager to try and capture it in photos, a challenge that’s always extra hard in places of exceptional beauty.
Rocamadour would certainly deliver for me, but would I manage to do the same for her?
We’re about to find out…
As Usual, We Make a Few Stops Along The Way
There’s ~1,200 km between our last stop in Giethoorn (Netherlands) and Rocamadour (France), so in our usual slo-mo style we make a few stops along the way.
We decide to stop in Belgium first, to see an old friend and work colleague from our time living there back in the day. He’s close to Brussels which is an awesome town, but also one we know intimately well. So, rather than sightsee we just spend the next few days with our friend chilling, swimming and eating. It’s a fab few days and feels awesome to reconnect.
Next we head to Orléans, which ends up being a loooooong drive around the craziness of Paris. It’s stressful and exhausting, with stop and go for many km around the massive périphérique (ring road). By the time we make it to Orléans that evening we both feel like a zombies and can barely keep our eyes open.
We stay at the Municipal Campground, a simple place with shaded sites located right by the river just ~2 km from downtown. After we’ve set-up Paul bikes in to see downtown, catching the last of the evening light. The next morning I do the same (in cloud unfortunately) enjoying a nice visit to the Grand Cathedral and through the pretty French city. It feels much like a mini-Paris with fabulous architecture and tons of stuff to see and do, a place that would certainly merit a longer stay. This time around however, we’re just passing through….
We Make It To “Le Sud”
As we motor south later that morning, the scenery starts to change.
A few hours into the drive the clouds suddenly part and the landscape dries. Sunshine at last! And when we stop there’s the unmistakable scent of sage and rosemary, the classic aromas of “le Sud”. The views are gorgeous and the campground turns out to be too.
We decide to stay at a smaller place (Camping Ferme Des Campagnes) just ~1km walk from downtown. It’s one of several spots you can stay in a motorhome near Rocamadour and it’s not the closest*, but from Google Satellite views it looked to be large and natural with lots of space and shade trees, plus the price was only EUR 12.50 per night. It ended up being perfect!
The whole place has a relaxed and natural feel, much like a State Park from Western USA with dirt roads, trees, and campsites ten times our size. It’s huge and quiet with sites that go way back, some of which are white gravel while others are grass. Office hours are erratic, but there’s a pay-booth at the entrance (which operates an entry barrier), so essentially you can just show up, pay and pick a spot. We opt for a site near the entrance with lots of shade and plenty of space for Polly and us to relax outside. We’re thrilled with our choice!
That evening I walk over to the duck farm just down the road to buy a simple meal of salad and various forms of duck (cured breast, fois gras, rilletes etc.) with baguette and wine. A lovely way to start our visit.
*Staying In Rocamadour With A Motorhome: There are several places around Rocamadour that accept motorhomes & vans. For “Aire-like” parking, the absolute closest spot is lot P2 by the castle at the top of the hill. Lots P1 and P4 also accept motorhomes, but are just further away. All of these cost EUR 18 for 24 hrs in season (April 1st to Oct 31st), but are free out of season. For campgrounds there are two full-service campgrounds in L’Hospital (Camping Le Relais Du Campeur, and Camping Les Cigales) , plus the one we stayed at (Camping Ferme Des Campagnes) just ~1km north of town. The first two are seasonal, while the latter is open year-round.
Rocamadour, The Rise & The Fall
We choose to visit the town early next morning, going just after sunrise with Polly.
It’s a pleasant ~15 min walk down a pedestrian trail through the fields, and this early in the day we have it all to ourselves. We get to the top of the hill overlooking the city just as the light is starting to hit the face of Rocamadour, and as soon as we see it we both gasp at the sight.
Whoah, it’s gorgeous!
Rocamadour is a city built on a cliff, and its stone buildings tumble down the hillside like an elaborate jigsaw puzzle, each piece interlinked in layers that seem to grow from the cliff itself. There are specific parts that catch the eye. The towers and ramparts of 19th century Château at the very top, the huge façade of the church sanctuaries and the Bishops Palace in the middle, and the line of smaller buildings that trail off to the side at the bottom.
It’s an old city, but it’s also been rebuilt.
The oldest parts can be traced back to the 10th century where stories say a small chapel first graced the cliffs. Religious pilgrimages started in the 12th Century, with worship dedicated to the Black Virgin ( The Black Madonna, a carving that still exists today!).
Thereafter the renown of the site grew rapidly fueled by the discovery of a corpse in 1166 attributed to Saint Amadour (thus the name Roc-Amadour… or the Rock of Amadour), as well as The Book of Miracles (written 1172 by a monk at Rocamadour) that described no less than 126 miracles on this very site thanks to the Holy Virgin. By the 13th century the town had grown significantly in both size and construction, and was a important pilgrimage site in Europe.
Then came the darker periods; the Hundred Years War, the Plague, and the final blow, the French Wars Of Religion from 1562-1598 between the Catholics and Huguenots (the second deadliest religious war in European history). In 1562 Protestant mercenaries destroyed and pillaged most of Rocamadour, burning the archives and leaving the buildings to ruin and abandon.
The city sat that way for centuries and may have completely disappeared were it not for the efforts of a Priest and a Bishop in Paris in the mid-19th century dedicated to revive the holy site. In 1856 a lottery raised the money to restore it, and the result, including some of the more “modern” neo-gothic architecture you see today are due to those efforts. We can all be thankful for that!
She’s A Photographers Dream (And Nightmare)
Whenever I go to a spectacular place like this, my mind is always on photography. How can I do this spot justice? What are the best angles to capture it? What time of day do I need to go?
As a cliff city, Rocamadour poses tons of interesting challenges.
The Valley of the Dordogne is deep and narrow so in the morning the light only hits the top of the city, while its depths remain dark, a hard contrast that’s really hard to capture. As the day progresses sun slowly fills the face, but then the stone fades to a duller grey, more muted and less interesting. Finally in evening the sun sets behind the city (at least in the fall) obscuring all details until the artificial lights turn to illuminate the stone right after dusk. The latter is likely the most interesting, but also the most difficult to shoot.
Plus there’s one more secret that took me a little while to discover.
The best (full face) views of Rocamadour aren’t actually from the city itself, but rather from a viewpoint by a restaurant (Bistrot de Saint Jean – a fab place for a meal too) in the next little town down the road, at L’Hospitalet. It’s a good 20 min walk to get there, but well worth it and it’s THE place to take evening shots after Rocamadour lights up. Now you know too…
We Decide To Make Several Visits
Our morning walk with Polly is fabulous, with spotty light but zero crowds and lots of time to peruse the trails.
We start at the top of the city by the castle and ramparts, then take the switchback pedestrian trail down the cliff past the 14 Stations of the Cross to the Sanctuaire, the cluster of chapels and churches in the mid-level of town. This is the heart of the religious city and has a square surrounded by no less than 7 chapels, the Basilica and the Bishops Palace. It’s also where you’ll find the Black Madonna. Spend some time here!
The last leg of the walk to the Cité Médiévale is another 216 stone steps down from the chapel, and that gets you as far down as you can go. This is where all the shopping & restaurants are, so it’s a bit more touristy here. If you’re exhausted by that time, there are two elevators** that can take you back up to the top for a small fee.
It’s lovely and quiet in the early AM with almost no one around, and when we get back to the castle-level we all go for a well-earned espresso before taking the trail home. Later Paul and I both come back individually for more in-depth visits of the chapels & churches, albeit with many more people around. We enjoy it all, but like most tourist spots it’s definitely much quieter in the early AM & late PM.
**Dogs Are Allowed! As with most French cities dogs are allowed everywhere in Rocamadour, except inside the chapels & churches themselves. All the trails are accessible, and the two elevators that go from the bottom to the very top and back are also dog-friendly (we asked!).
I Attempt An Evening Shot
Our final evening in Rocamadour I decide to attempt a sunset shot.
I arrive at the viewpoint in L’Hopitalet half hour before sunset, and realize I’m a bit too early. I also manage to forget my tripod (!!!) so I use some rocks and pad my camera with facemasks (always in my bag these days) to try and create a stable base. The next hour or so I just hang out and enjoy the peace and the spectacular view, snapping a few shots here and there to check positioning, waiting for the show to start. Finally, around half an hour after sunset everything comes together. The sky darkens to a deep red, the city lights up and the stones glow in a beautiful warm ochre. It’s just stunningly beautiful.
I set my camera to bracket shoot (several exposures one after the other), firing off a few hundred shots, crossing fingers that my “rock-base” is stable enough to keep them sharp. The light fades quickly and I have no idea if I catch what I need, but I’m loving every minute of it. By the time I walk home it’s pitch dark and I’m exhausted, but feel totally fulfilled.
A few days later, comfortable back at home-base I finally have the courage to open up my shots and see what I got. I blend 5 exposures, trying to find the delicate balance that reflected what I saw with my eyes, and when I’m done I sit back to review it. It’s no where near perfect, not even close, but it does something for me…it transports me back to that exact moment.
Suddenly the cool breeze is in my hair, the sweet scent of sage in my nostrils, my skin dry from a day spent outside. I hear the patrons eating and chatting in the restaurant next-door and I see the city aglow in front of me. I feel at peace and deeply thankful, connected to the earth and overwhelmed by love. I don’t know why I feel these things, and I don’t even know if I felt them then…or perhaps I’m only feeling it just now, weeks later? But such is the power of a beautiful place, a night of photography and a picture to remember it all.
Thank you for coming on this trip with me. I’ll see you back in SW France next week, and in real-time too.SPONSORED LINK:
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