The Dordogne Valley lies just south of France’s center, a region characterized by its ancient geological majesty. It is rural France at its best: tiny villages, forgotten by the march of time, divine wines produced from local grapes, gourmet specialties, such as truffles and duck, and breathtaking countryside.
But the place which stands out among all this splendor is the village of Rocamadour. Situated south of Brive-la-Galliarde, the region’s main hub, it quite literally clings to the rock face at the top of a gorge overlooking the Dordogne countryside. It is a sight to behold from across the valley, but up close, it is even more impressive. Narrow streets wind their way up the rock face, with small medieval buildings giving way to the centerpiece – the white stone church built right into the rock, towers reaching into the sky. It is almost like an optical illusion to look up at it from below.
The Church of Notre Dame
The Church is the main attraction for many visitors. It has been an important pilgrimage site since the time of its construction in the Middle Ages, thanks to the Black Madonna housed within the sanctuary, supposedly carved by St. Amadour himself – a monk widely believed to be the founder of the sanctuary of Rocamadour.
There is plenty to take in at the church itself; apart from the Black Madonna, there are frescoes decorating the walls outside, where the rock forms a natural domed roof. It is a fascinating place, so allow at least an hour to visit, including the time it will take you to scale the many steps!
A note of caution: a lot of the steps are roughly-hewn and without proper safety barriers, so watch your footing.
Stained Glass Workshop
The Church may be the most impressive building, but it is not the only interesting place to visit in Rocamadour. There are some delightful little shops selling regional produce and handcrafted trinkets on the streets below – and then there is the old stone building, located up a narrow set of stairs, which houses a working stained glass workshop.
It is not too well-known about and visitors are only welcomed in at specific hours, when I was there, it was between noon and 3 pm, though pre-booked visits can take place outside of those hours. Additionally, the artist does not speak much English, so for both of those reasons, it would be worth visiting with a guide who can arrange a visit and translate for you. However, even if you go it alone, it’s worth going up just to have a look around – seeing the works-in-progress is a unique experience and gives you a new appreciation for the medieval windows which adorn the church.
Right by Rocamadour’s tourist office on the main street is the entrance to some ancient caves, that feature prehistoric cave paintings and fascinating rock formations. You can buy tickets ($10 for an adult ticket) from the tourist office. Tickets include a guided tour of the caves with an English-speaking guide. Tours last approximately 45 minutes.
The Caves of Padirac
If you can bear to tear yourself away from the Caves of Wonder, an even more enchanting subterranean world awaits you just a few miles from Rocamadour. The Gouffre (chasm) of Padirac is a gaping hole seeming to stretch endlessly into the Earth – but it contains a wonderland. A descent into the chasm by elevator takes you from a bright, sunny world into a cool, dark, watery one. Here, boats transport you beneath stalactites. It is an eerie, beautiful place that just gets better when you step from the boats and walk around the caves, looking down into dizzying depths, with subtly lit mineral pools or up into dark heights. Then comes the piece de resistance: a stalactite of truly giant proportions – it’s almost 200 feet long – and it’s absolutely mesmerizing.
A tour of the caves takes around 1 hour 30 minutes and you are always accompanied by a guide – necessary to navigate the dark and vertiginous paths. The guides are very informative and entertaining and speak fluent English. It costs $15 for an adult ticket. The only slight disappointment for keen photographers is that photography is not allowed because it can be damaging to the minerals which make up the stalactites and stalagmites, but you can buy good quality images from the shop back on ground level. The rock formations of this part of rural France have certainly created some stunning places to visit, wheter you are high above the valley or deep beneath it.
The area of Rocamadour and Padirac is easily accessible from Brive-La-Gaillarde, either by car or on an organized tour. Toulouse is also a popular base for excursions into the Dordogne region and Rocamadour is a popular fixture of organized tours starting here.
NOTE: The author received a complimentary pass to the Gouffre de Padirac as part of a press trip; the opinions here are her own.
Photo Credit: All photos are the author’s own.