Travelling through the Dordogne, it feels as if you have reached the very heart of rural France; the villages and valleys seem untouched in places, remote and volcanic. In the winter, the sense of rusticism is heightened. It is a misty morning in January when we head towards the beautiful town of Rocamadour. Driving in the truck has not been easy in this region; many times the roads are either too narrow or strewn with low-lying bridges. We have avoided the snow, but the fog has stolen away the landscape this morning.


As we drive along the narrow road down the gorge on the banks of the River Alzou, the mist clears slightly to reveal an almost fairytale image of moss-covered, tiled cottages and castles, chapels and cobbledstreets, all delicately carved upwards in a spiralling effect on the rock face, climbing some 400 metres, finally disappearing upwards into the clouds; at the very peak one can just glimpse the remains of a chateau.


The drive has certainly been worth this view, and we find an empty car park at the base of the town in which to leave the truck.










Rocamadour is not only a magical vista of medieval buildings and steep rock walls; it is also a site of ancient pilgrimage. Each year, over 1.5 million people come to visit the Shrine of Our Lady in the Chapel of Notre Dame which contains the legendary ‘Black Madonna’: a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus; believed to have been carved by Zaccheus of Jericho, an early Christian hermit who had known and spoken to Jesus.











Many believe that Zaccheus was also St.Amadour, and in 1166, an ancient grave was discovered containing what was believed to be his preserved body.
Traditionally, pilgrims climb the 216 steps to the chapel on their knees as an act of penance. Many people have reported miraculous healings at the shrine and the bell which hangs above was said to ring of its own accord when sailors would pray to the Virgin Mary for assistance on high seas, and at that moment their prayers were answered.



We walked up the stairs from the town below to the Cité Religieuse, a collection of chapels and churches, carved into the cliff face. Above them is situated the 12th century chateau which was built to protect the shrine. It is a remarkable and peaceful place, one feels almost as if you have reached a portal halfway between earth and heaven, and that eventually one could ascend further into the clouds above and reach an unknown destination.


Inside the Chapel of Notre-Dame, there is complete silence. The light filters in through deep red and sapphire blue stained glass.






The statue of the Madonna sits within a glass casing; she was carved in a simple style from walnut wood around the 9th century. We spent some time sitting there, absorbing the stillness and offering a prayer. In fact, it was hard to leave somewhere that felt so deeply calm and sacred – I could understand why St Amadour was a hermit, who made his home here on the rock, and built his sanctuary.













We follow the winding pathway up the hill, which contains the 14 Stations of the Cross. At the peak is situated the Cross of Jerusalem, overlooking the entire valley. The mist is still rolling over the treetops and buildings below, out towards the towns just visible in the distance over the gorge and everything seems serene and deserted.


It is a Monday morning, and nothing is open in the town below, not even a bakery – but this has been food for the spirit, and to have entered through this ancient gate into a nest of churches and chapels carved from the limestone, and visited the humble shrine within has been an unforgettable experience.


























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