Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

A Delightful Day in the French Quercy and Perigord

Medieval Pilgrimage Site of Rocamadour

Our morning starts with a nice breakfast at the Hotel, followed by a pleasant stroll around the market in Sarlat, where some of us buy fresh strawberries and local cheeses and bread, or choose the wonderful, chocolate-covered walnuts that are a regional specialty.  By mid-morning we board our comfortable bus for a scenic ride through the Perigord countryside which features views over the Dordogne River, walnut groves, and winding roads overlooking mountainous cliff outcrops and the valley of the Lot River.  Our destination is the medieval pilgrimage sight of Rocamadour, clinging improbably to those mountainous cliffs, and representing a magnificent job of engineering by the people of that age.  It would be difficult to imagine a more spectacular view than the one afforded by the three levels of Rocamadour as we descend from the bus for our first photographs of the sight.

Local strawberries for sale at the Market in Sarlat

View of Rocamadour from main street of town

Our Tour Director, Florence, explains that we are seeing the town of Rocamadour above the Alzou River, the churches above the town, and the chateau above the churches, and then leads us down to the middle level where the main church of Notre Dame is found. Above the chapel door of the church and on the surrounding cliffs are carved beautiful statues and wall paintings and the legendary sword of Roland is said to be stuck in a crevice in the rocks, thrown there by Roland to prevent its falling into the hands of the Muslim invaders.  Inside the chapel is the object which was the principal attraction to medieval pilgrims, Rocamadour’s Black Virgin. After visiting the chapel and Notre Dame church, we descend a long staircase to the lower level and the village of Rocamadour, where all of the shops and restaurants are located.  For lunch a group of us discover a wonderful café/restaurant whose specialty is an omelet made with cèpes or girolles, the two varieties of mushrooms that are available in this season.  The omelet comes with generous portions of green salad and French fries, and the travelers are well-satisfied as they find their way to the bus at the other end of the small village.

Statue of Mary and Chapel Steeple (left) and Roland's Sword, Durandal, (right) at Rocamadour

Coat of arms of French Bourbon Kings over entrance to chapel at Rocamadour

As we bid farewell to Rocamadour, we wind back down the cliffs of the Quercy and join a small road that runs along the banks of the Dordogne River and leads to our afternoon surprise, a boat trip on the river. When we reach La Roque-Gageac, we see a beautiful little town perched up against the cliffs that rise above it, and situated just across the road from the Dordogne River – except for the fairly frequent periods of flooding, when the river has been known to fill the first floor of the houses and shops. Our boat cruise provides a restful and peaceful end to the afternoon as we float for an hour’s round trip on the Dordogne.  We travel in a modernized (i.e. motor-driven) boat that is a replica of the gabarres that once plied the river delivering local products to the seaport at Bordeaux where they would be shipped to other parts of France and to overseas markets. As we float along the river our delightful river boat guide talks to us about the history of La Rocque-Gageac and the Dordogne River, its importance in the riverboat trade of earlier periods, as well as describing the variety of trees on the riverbank and hills above the river, and the great variety of fish in the river and wildlife that make the Dordogne their home. The leisurely boat ride and beautiful weather offer many opportunities for photographs as we pass the beautiful village of La Roque-Gageac and view the impressive castle of Castelnaud, perched high on a ridge above the river, and now a museum that features the military history of the medieval period and is one of the most visited sights in the region.

La Roque-Gageac seen from the Dordogne River

Castelnaud Chateau

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