Rocamadour, South-Central France

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A hand-painted china ornament depicting the clifftop village of Rocamadour is the only physical souvenir I have from the adolescent years I spent traveling to south-central France. One might expect my anecdotal souvenirs to include the maze of monasteries, the peaceful pilgrimage churches, or the Grand Escalier staircase linking the two. Alas, my only recollections of Rocamadour involve finding out the hillside commune is named after a type of goat’s milk cheese, and almost falling to my death.

The details are as foggy as my teenage logic, but the gist of the story is that when I arrived in the parking lot below the commune and followed the signs for ‘Cite Medievale’, I somehow started ascending a fairly gradual slope which ended up feeling dangerously steep. Before I knew it, I was at the halfway point of a narrow concrete path which cut its way up the hill at a stern 45º angle. There was no backing down — I had to clamber my way to the top.

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And so I did. At the top of the path, I vaulted over a low metal bar and met the befuddled looks of a small throng of fellow tourists. Lo and behold, over to my left, there was a stony archway heralding the apex of a proper staircase. “Well fuck,” I remember thinking to myself. I was more amused than breathless, however — this was pre-Brexit, so us Brits were still free to tap into that carefree European attitude.

Over the centuries, money from pilgrims has financed many chapels in Rocamadour, including the Chapelle Notre Dame, home to the commune’s Black Madonna statue. Where ‘Madonna’ refers to any depiction of the Virgin Mary in art (from the Italian ‘ma donna’ for ‘m’lady’), a Black Madonna is a piece in which Mary and/or Jesus are black. Over a million people visit the Black Madonna every year, but nobody has ever laid a finger on her. If you do, she’ll have been touched for the very first time.

Some of the most striking parts of Rocamadour are the creases where the smooth well-constructed trustworthy stonework meets the cracked dilapidated volatile rocks of the cliffs. It conjures fond memories of the 2016 US presidential debates. Also be sure to tap a route into your navigation app which will give you a chance to see Rocamadour from across the valley. Otherwise you won’t have an outside shot of the village to use on your blog eight years later.

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