Rocamadour has attracted visitors for its beautiful setting, 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 also gives its name to Rocamadour, a small goat’s milk cheese that was awarded AOC status in 1996.
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 half-way up the cliff. The chief of them is the church of Notre Dame (1479), containing a wooden Black Madonna reputed to have been carved by Saint Amator (Amadour). The church opens on to a terrace 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.
A curious legend supposed to explain the origin of this pilgrimage has given rise to controversies between critical and traditional schools, especially in recent times. According to the latter, Rocamadour is named after the founder of the ancient sanctuary, Saint Amator, identified with the Biblical Zacheus, the tax collector of Jericho mentioned in Luke 19:1-10 , and the husband of St. Veronica, who wiped Jesus’ face on the way to Calvary. Driven out of Palestine by persecution, St. Amadour and Veronica embarked in a frail skiff and, guided by an angel, landed on the coast of Aquitaine, where they met Bishop St. Martial, another disciple of Christ who was preaching the Gospel in the south-west of Gaul. After journeying to Rome, where he witnessed the martyrdoms of St. Peter and St. Paul, Amadour, having returned to France, on the death of his spouse, withdrew to a wild spot in Quercy where he built a chapel in honour of the Blessed Virgin, near which he died a little later.
This account, like most other similar legends, unfortunately does not make its first appearance till long after the age in which the chief actors are deemed to have lived. The name of Amadour occurs in no document previous to the compilation of his Acts, which on careful examination and on an application of the rules of the cursus to the text cannot be judged older than the 12th century. It is now well established that St. Martial, Amadour’s contemporary in the legend, lived in the 3rd not the 1st century, and Rome has never included him among the members of the Apostolic College. The mention, therefore, of St. Martial in the Acts of St. Amadour would alone suffice, even if other proof were wanting, to prove them doubtful. The untrustworthiness of the legend has led some recent authors to suggest that Amadour was an unknown hermit or possible St. Amator, Bishop of Auxerre, but this is mere hypothesis, without any historical basis. The origin of the sanctuary of Rocamadour, lost in antiquity, is thus set down along with fabulous traditions which cannot bear up to sound criticism. After the religious manifestations of the Middle Ages, Rocamadour, as a result of war and the French Revolution, had become almost deserted. In more modern times, 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.
In the St. Lawrence Valley (in present-day Quebec province) in February 1536 the explorer Jacques Cartier prayed to the Blessed Virgin under the title of Our Lady of Rocamadour that he would make a pilgrimage to her shrine “if he should obtain the grace to return to France safely.”
Les Papillons is just 35 minutes drive from Rocamadour.