Nestled deep inside a regional park in the very north of Occitanie is the tiny village of Rocamadour. What makes this semi-hidden place unique is its numerous churches and homes, all built along the slope of a green hill that overlooks a sweeping valley of forests and more hills. Its distinctive look, along with its history of pilgrimages, has made it a notable tourist attraction for centuries.
I was based in Toulouse when I decided to do a day trip to Rocamadour. Yet, I found the planning to be a challenge: getting there is fairly tricky if you don’t own a car, and of course, I didn’t have one. After all, Rocamadour is situated at the very tip of Occitanie, practically at the border with the Dordogne region which is over 165 kilometres north of Toulouse. Whereas it would take about two hours to arrive by car, it would take over four hours if you choose public transport. I had no choice but to opt for the latter, but I did my best with time and limited hours there.
What I had to do was first book a train from Toulouse to Brive-la-Gaillarde, a small town in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, then catch a regional bus to the Rocamadour-Padirac train station (actually situated five kilometres from the village proper) and then hike the rest of the way over. The train ride would take about two-and-a-half hours, the bus ride about 45 minutes, and the hike about an hour. There you go– close to four hours for a one-way trip!
I woke up early to leave for the train station, where I caught my ride to Brive-la-Gaillarde before 8:00. Upon arriving at Brive-la-Gaillarde’s station, I had about 30-45 minutes to kill before the next bus would turn up, so I grabbed a sandwich and a bottle of water at the Relay for lunch later on, as well as bummed off the station’s Wifi until then. I caught the bus over, and I got off at the Rocamadour-Padirac station, which was literally nothing but a post in the middle of nowhere– I wasted no time starting my five-kilometre walk over to the village itself.
There’s a narrow, dirt trail you can take to get to Rocamadour from the train station– the entrance is a bit covered up, but otherwise it’s the only convenient way to reach the village on-foot. It’s pretty scenic, too, as you pass through some residential farms and plenty of greenery. I didn’t take this path to get there, as I was pretty clueless that the trail existed; I ended up walking on the side of the road, whilst trying not to get hit by cars zooming to and from the region.
Besides taking this dangerous route, I also was feeling the late-June heat in my bones– la canicule was in full effect by then, with temperatures hitting 40°C (110°F) by midday. It was a miracle that I didn’t cave in and hitchhiked, as well as making it to Rocamadour in one piece– it also wasn’t until I reached the village and asked the tourist office about an alternate route to go back that I learned about the pedestrian trail. You can bet that I was really embarrassed about my walk on the highway!
After an hour’s walk in the heat, I reached the outskirts of Rocamadour, known as l’Hospitalet. Aside from a couple of restaurant-bars and souvenir shops, it’s a fairly-dead part of the village. However, this is where you can get one of the best views of Rocamadour-proper from the hillside, before you start your descent into the center. I definitely took a minute to rest from the hike to admire the incredible views!
The way Rocamadour is built, one must go down a rather steep slope from l’Hospitalet to reach ground level of the village’s center. While it’s not physically-straining to descend, you also know that it’ll be pretty hellish to ascend at the end of the visit, not forgetting in high heat! And even once in the village, you’ll have to ascend again to reach some of the main sites by climbing flights of stairs along the face of the hill. Either way, you’re in for a workout!
Despite the insane heat, I was surprised to find plenty of visitors milling about once I arrived in the center– I saw tons of cars in the parking lot near the ancient gate entrance, which meant that most tourists had rented or driven their own cars to get to Rocamadour easily. They certainly didn’t have to brave a train ride, a bus ride, and a hike to get there!
First thing to do was find a gelato shop. I’d already had my sandwich before reaching the center, and I desperately craved something cold to cool myself off. I found one where I ordered some of my favorite flavors: lemon and rum raisin. It was a matter of inhaling my gelato in less than a minute before starting my sightseeing of Rocamadour in the afternoon.
As mentioned, most sights require taking stairs to reach them. Rocamadour is historically a religious site, so the attractions are churches and chapels embedded in the hillside rock. I climbed the steps– all 216 of them– to le sanctuaire Notre-Dame, which is the “main” courtyard of the religious village. Here’s where you can see many of its chapels dedicated to the popular saints (St-Michel, St-Louis, St-Jean-Baptiste…), as well as le Palais abbatiale. This is where most people stop to visit, as it’s not too high up and offers plenty of lovely architecture and sacred pieces to admire.
Pro-tip: the chapels are made of stone both inside and out, and they offer incredible respite from the heat– it feels like you stepped into an icebox!
Feeling adventurous, I decided to keep ascending the hilltop to the summit. Instead of steps, there were sloped paths along the ramparts, and I soon reached the village’s château. It costs 2€ to enter, which isn’t too bad. Granted, there isn’t much to the estate grounds besides its fortifications and small, well-trimmed garden, but I got pretty good views not just of Rocamadour, but all of the valley and hills surrounding it for miles.
I descended all the way to the village center, where I browsed a few souvenir shops before deciding to slowly make my way back to l’Hospitalet. I returned to the outskirts of Rocamadour where I killed time with an apéro at a restaurant-bar that overlooked the village before grabbing an early dinner. I also browsed a foie gras shop, as the Dordogne region in which it’s near is known for producing it. Very French, in that regard!
My bus would arrive around 17:00, so I hit the road an hour prior, this time taking the pedestrian trail back. Weather was cooler in the late afternoon, so I really enjoyed my stroll through the countryside. I arrived, caught the bus, then the train, and was soon back in Toulouse around 21:00. A long day of travel and sightseeing, but it was worth it for seeing Rocamadour’s beauty.
Crazy as I may have been for spending almost eight hours in transit for a mere four-hour visit, I can say this hasn’t been my craziest day trip journey before. I’ve done a 12-hour day trip to Menton there-and-back from Avignon the month following, and I’ve also done an equally-long, eight-hour round-trip to Chefchaouen from Fez in Morocco a couple of years prior. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, especially if one doesn’t find the cost of transport and time worthwhile, but if you really want to see something, you shouldn’t let any obstacle stop you. After all, that’s part of the adventure!