Brian Looked at Cadouin (never visited) but its 'status' as a pilgrimage town is complex. Don't know if you get pilgrims/walker traveling through, but it is not part of the Vezeley route, the main southern route extending to Paris, nor is it part of the route from Le Puy-en-Valey. However, on investigation, there was an earlier route (either not or little used today) coming from Brioude that travel sty-west to Bergerac, then Agen. It seems this route was 'superseded; by the Le Puy route when the monks of Conques STOLE St Foy's relics from Agen. That's business for you. Anyway, it is recounted in my Pilgrimage book Three, but I add the story (without pics) below.
Conques pronounced Conk, like the shell, symbol of the many pathways converging on Santiago de Compostella, twelve hundred kilometres to the west. An ancient refuge on a shell-like hillside in southern France, in remote valley where eighth century monks escaped the marauding Saracans, it’s impoverished founders building a hermitage in forest constellation, in backwoods Christian Europe, Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire.
That was old Conques.
The new was born of theft, when their monk stole the relics of St. Foy from Agen (866), the theft so swift and powerful that the pilgrim route to Santiago bypassed Agen, drawn to growing Conques.
St Foy? No towering figure of speech, resistance or Greek philosophy; merely a twelve-year old girl beheaded before she knew life’s power, religious agents proffering that fervent prayer in her name, would see slave’s chains fall away, the freed, carrying them to Conques, honouring and thanking little saint, laying themselves and their chains before her.
In time, so it is said, these chains were melted and reformed as the grill protecting the relics from thieves, or perhaps the monks of Agen, peasants in awe, one step above slavery, hopefully contemplating their good fortune in serfdom, begging release only from the chains of sin. The rich could do so at their leisure, presuming continuing generosity to the church.
Rare St Foy’s relics- sculpture and adornments housed in today’s museum, a stone head with skull fragment attached, perhaps St Foy herself, crushed in the last days of anti-Christian Rome, altogether representing the saint, though the stone perhaps only a reformed Roman emperor or senator’s head, a different decapitation.
Conques drew the rich and powerful, gifting their gold, soon founded into plating encasing the skull. As miracles increased, St Foy gained a gold crown, earrings, filigree work, cameos and jewels; still later, adorned with crystal balls, throne, silver arms and hands. By the eighteenth-century, she had a body with limbs and riches of a princess, bronze shoes and warrior plates at the knees.
Monks, masons and peasants built St Foy’s abbey-church (333333), a plan so bold and formative that a century passed before completion, eventually having five radiating chapels, a ambulatory with a lower roof, the choir without the gallery and a nave. Mon deiu, Conques- your theft is Success itself.
From twelfth-century onwards, on the camino route from Le Puy-en-Valey to the Pyrenees, Conques’ was unsurpassed, Cahor, Moissac or Rocamadour on their knees. Inspired by the churches of Toulouse and Santiago de Compostela, its pilgrim traffic grew, the abbey adding a basilica, galleries, raised roof, choir and western aisle. While Europe sent thousands to their death in conquest of Jerusalem, the little hermitage became a village around stately abbey and church of fifty-nine metres, with high-crossing tower, its monks so powerful that they railed against the local bishop, depicted on its walls amongst those bound for Hell.
Yet still, in chains of guilty past, Conques’ abbots built an impressive Romanesque stone façade depicting the Last Judgment (1107-1125), including the words (roughly translated)
The depraved shall be plunged into purgatory, the wicked suffering the torments of the damned, roasting in the midst of flames and demons, perpetually groaning and trembling. Thieves, liars, deceivers, misers and ravishers, are all criminals.
Fair warning in dark times; it’s fearful and painful vision of punishment including over one hundred judged and ajudging- people, monsters, angels and demons, weighing-up those bound for damnation or forgiveness, Heaven or Hell, (the devil tipping the scales), the damned shoved down a monster’s throat, or lifted from this world by God’s gigantic hand; amongst them well-known figures of their times, the tympanum (panel above the church’s entrance) holding a rich brew of stories, largely lost, from likely murder mysteries, to historical thriller, turbulent political drama and moral tales, with occasional comic touch.
Walking into Conques that October, boots and walking sticks tapping on stone in the dimming light, crossing over ancient bridge, walking passed century’s old houses, inns and shops, descending its narrow streets, and stepping before church frontage, we pilgrims read the famous façade, coach tourists long departed, profligate birdlife twittering before the day’s curtain drew us indoors.
I witnessed not the museum relics, instead, seeing a senior religious figure standing beneath The Last Judgment, delivering compelling oratory, enthralling me for twenty minutes of an hour long speech, he, sans notes, voice and speech so erudite and melodious; a fine achievement, especially as I understood few words, and none of their meanings.
After one week tramping high country, without the ancient pilgrim pleasures of meeting the Massif Centrale’s sleet, ice, wind and snow, listening through the fog for life-saving bells, by night huddling around small fireplaces in tiny market towns, or bedding down in hay, barns and hospitales, eating bread and drinking weak beer, a modern pilgrim is ready for the joys, comforts and trials of an abbey stay, abbey perched over ancient graveyard, dark monks below in opaque contemplation. Fifty fellow pilgrims sat around dinner’s long tables, hearing and telling today’s stories, gaining and giving advice, tasting local artichokes, squash, oranges or blue-vein cheese (the best I’ve ever tasted), collectively fraternal and blissful, though I confess, including night-filled thirty-people occupying squeaky beds in common room.
Like so most pilgrims and journeyers en route to Santiago, we left next morning, without understanding much of you or the surrounding countryside. Sure, we knew of Conques’ UN World Heritage status (like so much of France), learnt of the preservation of its streets and buildings, prime location for period filmmakers, and understood its church and abbey were a wonderful step back in time. But enlightened pilgrims admit- our tunnel vision ruled most earnestly on arrival, and in departure: food, friends and distance, our journey’s trinity.
Next morning- in swirling valley mist, by stone walls and green-gray woodland fold; our first steps confirm ghostly and auspicious departure. Without cars in sight, the cobblestones underfoot, forest birdlife serene and joyous, food and friendship reconciled, distance is our tunnel. Joining endless road, crossing it, and joining another’s upward path, I breathe deep at pedestrian pathway upwards, bound for Decazeville.
But I am stealing back to Conques some day, not to repeat the experience, nor return St Foy to Agen, but to transcend it. The pilgrim journey is a first way of ways; the next, when you receive the magic within, the magic without, standing still.
© G McDougal
Note on Conques and pilgrimage on the Camino Frances. Decsending the Massif Central’s highlands, Le Puy-en-Valey pilgrims have another three day’s walk to reach Conques, via Espallion, L’Estiang, Golinac, then Conques. The pleasant, attractive route is hilly, much of it using country lanes and pastoral and (occasionally) forest track, where phone reception and internet availability not to be presumed. Yes, you are in France, to be precise, on the Averyon’s north, a thinly populated rural region on good pasture, until the less-arable limestone ‘causes’ south and west of Conques. The nearest sizable towns are Figaec and Rodez.
Town: start with Wikipaedia: Conques