Rocamadour – a cliffhanger

In terms of perched, Rocamadour has to be the winner of first place. In fact it seems as if it hangs on the side of the cliff rather than perches – like a woodpecker halfway up a tree.

For over a thousand years it has been a pilgrim destination for thousands, including notable souls like Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine back in medieval times. They climbed the 217 steps of L’Escalier des Pelerins on their knees, kissing each step as they went! Myriads of other commoners and ‘not-so-commoners’ have done likewise over the centuries. Sharon climbed the steps and visited the Black Madonna, but Tina and I felt we were expiring in the heat and stayed at the bottom.

It isn’t a large town at all with only a population of about 600, but it is visited by a million or so people every year. There is really just one medieval cobblestoned street with two sets of stone portals each end, then the old monastery, pilgrims sanctuary set into the rock above. Up there also is the church of Notre Dame, where the black Madonna resides. About 120 metres from the bottom, right on top of the cliff, is the château and another of the 6 churches, but closed for repairs on our visit. We followed the Stations of the Cross on the steep winding path connecting the town to the chateau thinking of all those footsteps before us…

There were a lot of visitors when we were there, including pilgrims with their St Jacque shells on their backpacks. The day we were there was really hot – whether it was the heat or just me I don’t know but I felt quite unwell. We sat down for a bit in a restaurant and a citron and mandarin gelato got me back on my feet. A little mouse on the cobblestones also seemed to be suffering from heat exhaustion (or something worse), and a kind lady organised a little cardboard box and appropriate care for it.

All through the day, the church bells chimed tunes each quarter hour, and way up in the sky, eagles circled slowly above the town. We retreated down to the bottom of the valley for our picnic lunch – a lovely grassy spot surrounded by lots of shady trees.

Later in the afternoon, we followed a little path along the valley floor towards Fontaine de Berthiol, which we thought was the hermit’s spring. I’m not so sure now, as there seems no information about it on the net. Anyway, it was a beautiful time of day – the heat had subsided a bit and all was quiet and still in the late afternoon, except for insects drowsily floating over the grass. We passed a quaint old cottage in the middle of a large collection of quirky assemblage sculptures and finally reached Berthoil’s spring.

The water was so cool and refreshing. It certainly felt like it healing properties!

Heather, Tina and Sharon

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From the ancient to the medieval

Although we felt we travelled a long way from 30,000 odd years ago, when we saw St-Cirq-Lapopie perched on the cliff across the other side of the river, we felt we were still in some other age, long past. Even when we climbed to the top of the hill, (there is no room for cars or parking in the tiny lanes and streets so it is definitely a climb) and walked through the little town, the feeling of fairytale simply became stronger. St-Cirq Lapopie is deservedly one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France.

The village of Saint-Cirq Lapopie is perched on a cliff 100 m (330 ft) above the river and is one of the major beauty spots of the Lot valley.

During the Middle Ages Saint-Cirq Lapopie was governed by the Lapopie dynasty, under the Viscount of Quercy. It still has buldings that date from this time. The watch towers and positioning of the town 100 metres above the river all being reminders of a less secure time in its history.

In those times tradesmen turned boxwood, worked with metal to make goblets and wine casks, and tanned hides, and merchants bought and sold. During the early part of the 20th century, painters came to live and work here. Henri Martin, a Post-Impressionist stayed for a time, and was followed by Surrealists and the French poet André Breton.

I wonder what it would really be like to live in a place like this? Does everyone know everyone because they are so close together? Are most of the residents recent arrivals, or do people live here whose families have lived here for generations? Certainly a number of artists and a notable writer have moved here. Is the appearance just a veneer now, and underneath are all the hastles and stress of 20th century living – the leaking roofs, lichen on the path that makes it slippery, having to travel to do the grocery shopping – to, dare we say, a supermarket? I didn’t want the illusion to fade just yet so I didn’t ask…

Down on the river below the town, locks and towpaths, weirs and watermills are still reminders of a time when the river was the main transport route. These days you’re more likely to see kayakers enjoying a scenic paddle.

What an amazing day! Very tired, we meandered off towards home. No wonder we got lost several times! The weather began lifting, and we realised we were running late for a wonderful Indonesian dinner back at the farm with Dinny and Ben’s badminton friends!

We eventually reached home, sun shining for the end of the day. We shared had a lovely meal and evening back in the ‘present’, with people from Indonesia, Nederlands, Canada, and the UK who had ended up in this very special part of the world. Our cherry tart from the morning market and the other goodies would just have to wait for tomorrow.

Heather, Tina and Sharon

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A gallery of very old masters

Sharon and Tina started making a list of all the things to do in the Lot, and high on it, was to see the prehistoric paintings in the caves so plentiful in this area. With the day looking a bit like it was going to rain, we decided being under the ground in a cave, we would be out of the cold and wet, so off we went to Cabreret and Grotte Pech Merle. As we hurtled through a little town, we noticed a market, so had to stop and investigate. There were some fabulous baked goods which we stocked up on for later sampling… Mmm…

Eventually we found Grotte Pech Merle, but had to wait until it opened, then wait still longer until it was time for our little group of visitors to be guided through the underground chambers. Originally formed by great ancient rivers carving out the limestone, this cave was blocked up for millennia by debris from floods, thus preserving this art treasure trove in a time capsule away from climatic and atmospheric changes through the ages. To ensure these treasures continue to be preserved, visitor numbers are limited, as is the time spent in the cave (to keep to a minimum the damaging effect of carbon dioxide). The temperature and humidity are also maintained at constant levels.

The walls came alive with all sorts of wildlife… horses, woolly mammoths, even reindeer – and here and there are handprints we are familiar in Aboriginal rock art. A blowing technique has been used for many of the works, but there are also examples of finger painting. Pigments such as ochres and magnesium provide different colours, and in the flickering of torch light you can imagine the animals move. Some of the paintings are dated at 25,000 BC, while others are possibly more recent. In some cases there are layers of drawings or paintings over each other. The paintings also take advantage of the shape of the walls and protrusions that can add to he 3D reality of the images. In spite of their mind numbing age, the paintings are surprisingly fresh and masterfuly executed. They looked like they could have been done yesterday. We kept thinking how hard it was to believe they were really so old. In one chamber in the cave there are children’s footprints in what would have been clay, but which has hardened to limestone over teh aeons… In spite of the all this time separating us, there was a real sense that the ghosts of the artists and their audiences were somehow still here with us – curious about us, as we were about them – their stories and their world.

With lots of food for thought, the coldness of the cave and the still present drizzle had made us starving for lunch. Off we went to Cabreret, and found O’Louise’s Restaurant where we were welcomed and sumptuously fed with the freshest and tastiest three course feast! Duck, vegies, stunning fresh salad dressing, a yummy custard dessert, and great coffee. Louise, the mother and chef of the establishment certainly puts her years of experience to excellent use while her daughter made us welcome in the front of this wonderful old house.

Ever hopeful, with the rain still drizzling, we left Cabreret and its ancient other-worldliness in search of St-Cirq-Lapopie…

Heather, Tina and Sharon

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Visiting Toulouse-Lautrec at Albi

The monolith of the Cathedral of St Cécile dominated as Albi hove into sight. 113m long and 35m wide and with a 78m tower, it is the largest brick cathedral in the world.

Back in 1209 the Catholic church initiated what was to become a 45 year long military crusade against the Cathars – also called the Albigensies – after this city in the heartland of this early protestant movement. In 1282 the building of the cathedral was begun as an additional response to the Cathar heresy. It was an emphatic statement about the power and permanence of the church and the futility of any thought of opposition.

Entering the cathedral, is another shock and awe experience. The paintings, murals, carving and sculpture look as fresh as if they were finished yesterday by their Flemish and Italian creators, rather than in the fifteenth century. This is also where and the largest organ in France is found – a fitting tribute to St Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Her relics (are they arm bones), along with those of other saints, invite veneration along with some skulls and papal gowns. Whether the Gregorian chant we heard was a rehearsal or a recording, it heightened the sense the weight of history pressing in from every inch of the cathedral.

Albi has a few UNESCO World Heritage buildings, a bridge and districts. Right next to the Cathedral is the similarly imposing fortress, the Palais de la Berbie, was also built in the 13th century for the bishops of Albi. It is UNESCO Heritage listed as well.
Today, it houses The Musée Toulouse-Lautrec. This was a must see for me, and didn’t disappoint. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s parents bequested what is the largest collection of his art in the world with more than 1,000 works including paintings, photographs, drawings, and many posters. The bad falls he had as a small boy which resulted in damage to his legs and stunting of his growth certainly aren’t reflected in his stature as an artist and innovator.

The promotional posters for various Paris nightclubs such as the Moulin Rouge are perhaps what he is best remembered for, and seeing his preparatory sketches tracing the development of his ideas for these added another dimension to his work. Lautrec was the original ‘poster boy,’ being the one who pioneered the use of graphic posters where the pictures told the story rather than the words.

Today Albi is a beautiful and modern city with smart shops and cafes next to fountains and ancient but well preserved monuments of the past.

Maybe we were too stunned by it all and that is why we got lost on the way back ‘home’…

Heather, Tina and Sharon

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Cordes under the sky…

One day, with the sky strobing from bright sunlight to threatening showers every five minutes, we decided to go to Toulouse-Lautrec’s museum in Albi. Stunning countryside with sunflowers on their summer rampage, and on the way we came upon Cordes-sur-Ciel – literally, ‘Cordes on the sky.’ (We didn’t see it like this, but often on winter mornings there is mist in the low lying areas around the hill it is built upon, and the town really looks like it is floating in the sky).

Cordes is a medieval town we gave a perched rating of 9/10. Suddenly we found ourselves back in old Cathar territory. In 1222 Raimon VII, Count of Toulouse founded the town for refugees from the Cathar wars after Simon de Montford died (aka their chief scourge and tormentor).

So much of the town’s history is preserved – fortifications enclosing one another with their huge fortified portals. In spite of the town experiencing the gross cruelty of the Papal Inquisition, after the Cathar period, the town grew and prospered becoming a centre for trading and finance with thriving textile and leather industries. So by mid 1300’s it was also renowned for the luxurious houses and small palaces built by the prosperous merchants and noble families.

We arrived just before lunch and decided to have a picnic of local fare in a beautiful part midway up the hill, simultaneously feasting our eyes on stunning views of the surrounding countryside.

Then we climbed up and up through lanes and alleys to reach the Place and war memorial at the top, via all sorts of surprises, including Stanko Krystic‘s a sculpture courtyard, the excellent Brayer art gallery (Yves Brayer, a French figurative painter, donated this to his town) and an embroidery factory, now a museum, featuring the Saint Gallen embroidery, and many interesting shops and galleries which we just couldn’t do justice timewise.

Heather, Tina and Sharon

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