Wednesday, May 27 - Rocamodour and Sarlat

This morning we left Toulouse for Sarlat with a stopover in Rocamadour for lunch.

Rocamadour has attracted visitors for its beautiful setting in a gorge above a tributary of the River Dordogne, and especially for its historical monuments and its sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which for centuries has attracted pilgrims from every country, among them kings, bishops, and nobles. 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; it gives its name to Rocamadour, a small goat's milk cheese that was awarded AOC status in 1996.

Rocamadour was a dependency of the abbey of Tulle to the north in the Bas Limousin. The buildings of Rocamadour (from ròca, cliff, and sant Amador) rise in stages up the side of a cliff on the right bank of the Alzou, which here runs between rocky walls 400 ft. in height. Flights of steps ascend from the lower town to the churches, a group of massive buildings halfway up the cliff. The chief of them is the pilgrimage church of Notre Dame (rebuilt in its present configuration from 1479), containing the cult image at the center of the site's draw, a wooden Black Madonna reputed to have been carved by Saint Amator (Amadour) himself. Below, the pilgrimage church opens on to a terrace where pilgrims could assemble, called the Plateau of St Michel, where there is a broken sword said to be a fragment of Durandal, once wielded by the hero Roland. The interior walls of the church of St Sauveur are covered, with paintings and inscriptions recalling the pilgrimages of celebrated persons. The subterranean church of St Amadour (1166) extends beneath St Sauveur and contains relics of the saint. On the summit of the cliff stands the château built in the Middle Ages to defend the sanctuaries.

After the religious manifestations of the Middle Ages, Rocamadour, as a result of war and the French Revolution, had become almost deserted. In the mid-nineteenth century, owing to the zeal and activity of the bishops of Cahors, it seems to have revived, and pilgrims and tourists are beginning to crowd there again.

There is evidently much to see in Rocamadour but we saw just a little since we had no local guide and only a little time, which had to include lunch. We walked down the long switch-backed path to the church level and looked around. The we went into the Pilgrimage Church of Notre Dame and the saw Black Madonna. After that we took an elevator down to the lower (town) level and found a place for lunch. We saw some o f our friends there, already eating, and managed to eat in time for just a little shopping before the bus left for Sarlat.

We got to Sarlat 3:30 and got settled in our very pleasant rooms, with a beautiful little balcony for an afternoon wine and cheese. We met with our local coordinator Brigitte Bourjade and had a lecture: Introduction to the region of the Perigord. We learned that we were in the southeast corner of the Perigord, called Perigord Noir. Another, more frequently used, name for the Perigord is the Dordogne. At 5:30 we went out for a walking tour of old Sarlat, although B took the opportunity for a needed nap.

Sarlat is one of the most attractive and alluring towns in southwestern France. Population (1999): 9,707. It is a medieval town that developed around a large Benedictine abbey of Carolingian origin. The medieval Sarlat Cathedral is dedicated to Saint Sacerdos. Because modern history has largely passed it by, Sarlat has remained preserved and one of the towns most representative of 14th century France. It owes its current status on France's Tentative List for future nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage site to the enthusiasm of writer, resistance fighter and politician André Malraux, who, as Minister of Culture (1960-1969), restored the town and many other sites of historic significance throughout France. The centre of the old town consists of impeccably restored stone buildings and is largely car-free.

Agriculture has long been of importance in the Dordogne area around Sarlat. Tobacco has been grown around Sarlat since 1857 and has historically been a major commodity for the area, although it is on the wane. Other agricultural commodities include corn, hay, walnuts, walnut oil, cheeses, wine, cèpes (a sort of wild mushrooms) and truffles. Numerous visitors come on holiday to Sarlat and the lovely region surrounding it and some have settled here permanently. There are several large foie gras factories as well as a number of small producers of geese and ducks in the region that make foie gras and other cherished products (confits, pâté, etc.) from these birds.

The hotel is quite convenient to the old town. It was a very interesting walk and the town is fascinating and quite beautiful. Brigitte gave us a lot of architctural detail, perhaps a little more than necessary. We got used to that. The town is certainly photogenic. After visiting the church we saw the 12th C Lanterne des Morts, a unique structure whose specific use is unknown. After the walk we had a delicious dinner at a nearby restaurant, Le Bistro de l'Octroi.

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