The Chemin de Croix is the end of the pilgrimage climb in Rocamadour, at the pinnacle of the cliff, topped by a cross.
Rocamadour is one of the top tourist destinations in France, after Carcassonne and Mont St Michel, and with good reason!
In the Middle Ages, Rocamadour was already a major pilgrimage destination. Pope Gregory VII listed it along with Rome, Compostela, and Jerusalem as one of the four major pilgrimage sites.
Over a million visitors make their way to Rocamadour every year — some as tourists, others as pilgrims. Perhaps as a stop on a longer walking quest through holy sites in the Dordogne Valley, such as the St Sacerdos Cathedral and other sites in Sarlat, or as a stop on the popular GR65 / Camino Francés variant of a Camino de Santiago path.
For us, it was a day quest from a sleepy, beautiful Airbnb in the countryside. We took long walks past quiet sheep and admired the greenery and the bird flock shaped like a fish, complete with fins (I kid you not!).
But when we parked and crossed the bridge over the stream to go up into Rocamadour, I felt like I’d walked into Gondor, straight out of the Lord of the Rings. Shops lined cobbled streets. Buildings and churches seemed to grow right out of the cliffs.
And when we reached the steps going up the holy path, we began the quest that would take us through the chapel complex, up along the prayerful Chemin de Croix.
In all, we counted 216 steps. In the past, many penitents would climb these steps on their knees. (Ouch!) Mostly we followed the path, entered the Cité Religieuse complex, looked in on the Black Madonna, read the plaque at the tomb of St Amadour (who may have carved a hermitage out of the rock), and sometimes prayed.
Past the shrine area, we followed the Way of the Cross upward — further up and further in—ending at the top where we found the big cross and a lawn sprinkled with wild garlic. My son loves the stuff and stopped to sample a little.
Here’s the Chemin de Croix (sometimes listed as the Chemin de la Croix) and the holy places of Rocamadour in a little more detail …
Way-back-when, Rocamadour wasn’t a sacred destination. But back in the Middle Ages, there was a lot of money to be made as a pilgrimage site.
Some monks in France would actually make raids on competing monasteries to acquire their holy relics. One went so far as to infiltrate the competition, bide his time for a decade, and then steal the jewel-encrusted statue of Sainte Foy, a 12-year-old martyr, to bring back to the home monastery at Conques … almost like secret-agent stuff.
The monks at Rocamadour were also enterprising. They found or produced at least four attractions to draw pilgrims to the town:
Later on, the Inquisition provided additional motivation to go on pilgrimage.
Today, visitors continue to seek out Rocamadour — some to see the sights, especially during the annual hot air balloon festival, which is stunning against the cliff backdrop, and others on more of a quest for the sacred: the Black Madonna, the rugby chapel, the Chemin de Croix, the history.
Rocamadour’s buildings rise in stages up the cliff. The lower town is filled with shops and such and is where the Grand Escalier (stairway) begins. About halfway up, the Cité Religieuse complex begins, including the local church of Notre Dame.
There is a series of chapels and holy places leading up the path, including the Chapelle Miraculeuse containing the tomb of Saint Amadour. Nearby is the Miraculous Bell, which is said to ring by itself when a miracle occurs out at sea.
Close to this is the Chapelle Notre Dame, which houses Our Lady of Rocamadour — the Black Madonna. However, the old site for this Mary statue still bears the following words in Latin: Nigra sum sed formosa. (“I am black and yet beautiful”—a reference to a passage in The Song of Songs in the Old Testament.)
At the little Chapel of Saint Louis, I enjoyed the big, spiky door and the sports gear hanging up in dedication to the Virgin Mary. Since 2011, it has been set aside for the healing and prayer of rugby players injured in games.
And since we went in March and during the week, when it’s not so busy (always my preference, when I can manage it), there was plenty of silence for prayer and reflection in the chapels along the way. Then came the Chemin de Croix.
The cross at the top of the Chemin de Croix in Rocamadour
Station of the Cross: St Veronica wipes Jesus' face
The Chemin de Croix, or Stations of the Cross, is a lovely, shaded path showing 14 scenes from the life of Jesus, beginning at the foot of the old chateau and ending with the Cross of Jerusalem at the top.
Although we’d seen chapels and relics on the stairway to this point, it was this section that was most meaningful to me. In a way, the previous structures we’d passed impressed me as things we make as humans, intermingled with the rock of where we are, to represent our journey — our attempts to see the holy. The Chemin de Croix, on the other hand, seemed to me to be for us but not about us.