Today, 2 May, is my grandson Cian’s fifth birthday. Five years ago I was in Spain, sitting in the garden at an albergue feeling sorry for myself (I was injured, self-inflicted) when I found out that I had a grandson. Everything got better for the rest of the day! Happy birthday Cian! I see him every day because his picture is a wallpaper on my iPad. The other wallpaper picture is of his little sister Isabella, known as Bella – and she is.
The hotel in Lacapelle loses one of my expensive liner socks – so much for the 5-star service. I guess this is why I have been carrying an extra pair all this way. If they were going to lose something, why couldn’t they lose something heavier? My plan today is for a day off in Rocamadour, just 30 kilometres from here and I am going by taxi.
This is a place that I have wanted to experience for years and I want to do it fresh, not after having walked all day. The drive up is pleasant, the driver is careful and the countryside is gently rolling hills … and very, very green. There’s been lots of rain here too. The weather today is perfect, sunny, about 17-18 degrees, just right for a walk or a cab ride.
We arrive in Rocamadour but have a little trouble finding the hotel. My guide book calls it the Comp’hostel ( a little word play for pilgrims) but it has been renamed the Hotel Amadour. I am here by 11 but it doesn’t open until noon, so I drop my backpack at the entry, obscure it as much as possible and walk around a very little bit. In the event it’s not a problem.
I visit the Tourism Office and sort out how I am to get to Cahors tomorrow. There is a bus that runs from Gramat, 5 minutes from here, to Cahors in the morning, so that’s the plan. The hotel orders me a taxi for the morning to get to Gramat and also books me a bed in Cahors for tomorrow. So now I can go explore Rocamadour.
The site at Rocamadour is every bit as good as in the photos that I’ve seen over the years. The town is perched on – actually it’s partially built into – a huge cliff, a wall of rock 400 feet high. About 600 people actually live here. And since the buildings are made from the same rock it’s hard to tell where the building ends and the rock begins. The town lies above the river and the narrow flood plain, the church buildings lie above the town, then there is a rock face above that with the chateau on top of the cliff. It has been a pilgrimage site for about a millennium – Jacques Cartier came here to pray for success on his first voyage to what became Canada.
It reminds me a bit of what it might look like if you took the Barron River canyon in Algonquin Park and, on a bend in the river, built a town up the side of the canyon. It might be hard to get government money for that project.
It fell on hard times for several centuries when pilgrimages fell out of favour, but the tourism folks have been spectacularly successful in reviving the town. It is now the 2nd most visited site in France, after Mont St. Michel, 1.5 million people a year. I am glad that I am here in the off season.
There are many resemblances to Niagara Falls. The site is spectacular, the trashy tourism stuff is everywhere, including the full length of the only street in town. There are no cross streets. My hotel is just back from the edge of the gorge and from the other side of the road, the whole vertical town is in view. I take pictures here, I walk down a road into the village area, taking pictures as I go. I then walk down to the flood plain, across a bridge and up a road on the far side so that I can get a shot of the whole panorama.
Then back up into the village, quite a climb, walk the length of the main street – dozens of little shops selling treasures to tourists, of which there are lots. I am ambivalent here. I don’t feel like a tourist, but I don’t feel exactly like a pilgrim either. I sit in a little brasserie, contemplate the world and have a glass of beer with peach syrup and a small salad. Together it costs 10 Euros, which does not feel like much of a rip-off.
Next I take an elevator up to the chapel level, visit there briefly and end up walking a paved switchback path which is the stations of the cross. At each switchback point there is another station. This feature is about 130 years old, which, incidentally, is about how old I feel when I finally get to the top. There is a little more climbing – I thought that I was going to have a day off from this – and then I am out on the road that leads me around a bend in the valley and back to my hotel.
I also visit a grotto here which has some wall drawings done about 20,000 years ago. It is a short visit because the entry is right near my hotel and the little cave is only about 10 metres underground. Altogether it is less than 30 metres in any direction and from two to five metres high. The guide takes a long time to get to the interesting stuff. There is a negative impression of a left hand, some really primitive drawings of horses, done in black and ochre, perhaps an elk – you have to have a lot of imagination to see some of these. These are not anything like some of the cave paintings in other parts of France, but they are genuine. Twenty thousand years translates roughly into a thousand generations. I can’t imagine how to make that make sense for me.
I eat dinner by myself on the terrace of a small restaurant overlooking the town. Beer, a salad with a piece of local goat cheese – delicious – and a vegetarian crepe are as much as I can handle. As the sun sets, it cools rapidly so I head back to my room. I would love to stay up and see the town lit up at night, but I cannot stay up that late. I would also like to get up early and catch it in the early morning sunlight, but that will only happen if I happen to get up early.