Clinging to the cliff above the Alzou river, Rocamadour is a remarkable site. It lies in the former province of Quercy, and attracts visitors for its spectacular setting in a gorge above a tributary of the Dordogne, and especially for its historical monuments that have attracted pilgrims from every country, including kings and nobles, including Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II of England and Louis IX and Charles IV of France.
The town is simple enough to explore, since there is just one street, rue de la Couronnerie, linking medieval gateways, above which the steep hillside supports seven churches.
The town below the complex of monastic buildings and pilgrimage churches, traditionally dependent on the pilgrimage site and now on the tourist trade, lies near the river on the lowest slopes.
A number of guidebooks perpetuate the somewhat dubious founding legend that the town was named after Saint Amator (sometimes Amadour), identified as the biblical Zacheus (Zacchaeus), a tax collector from Jericho, and the husband of St Veronica, who is said to have wiped the face of Christ on the way to Calvary. The validity of this (and other) accounts is untrustworthy, since there is no record of any related accounts until long after the age in which the principal characters lived. But, while this deficiency doesn't withstand sound criticism, neither does it stop pilgrims and tourists alike from flocking to the town, lying, as it does, on the route to Compostela, and, for that reason, classed as a World Heritage Site.
© Atout France/Robert Palomba
Another naming legend attributes the name 'Rocamadour' to a local hermit, whom the local people dubbed 'Roc Amator', or 'rock lover', so called because of his love for the rocks among which he lived. Some accounts suggest that the hermit was no other than Zacchaeus, who lived out his years here as a hermit. So, all-in-all a somewhat confused genealogy.
The best view of Rocamadour is from the road descending from l'Hospitalet, to the north-east, and ideally early in the morning. From the large car park above the site, a railcar (charge) takes you down to the main access to the religious level.
© Atout France/R. Cast