Over­look­ing a gorge in Aveyron, this me­dieval vil­lage is a mag­net for pil­grims and an in­spi­ra­tion to film-mak­ers, as Ca­tri­ona Burns dis­cov­ers

France - - Contents -

Fol­low the pil­grims and dis­cover the delights of Conques in Aveyron.

We’re prob­a­bly in the clouds now,” says my friend as our car ap­proaches the hill­top vil­lage of Conques in the north of the Aveyron dé­parte­ment. I smile in agree­ment. As we make our way through the mid­morn­ing mist, chug­ging up the twist­ing path towards the Plus Beau Vil­lage, it cer­tainly feels as if we have left the world on the main road be­low far be­hind.

With our ear-pop­ping jour­ney over, we get out to stretch our legs and take in the breath­tak­ing view that sur­rounds us. Nes­tled in a wooded slope above the River Dour­dou, Conques is co­cooned by for­est and a lush green val­ley be­low – ev­ery which way I look there is a dif­fer­ent view of the gorges to ab­sorb.

I start my stroll along Rue Henri Parayre, but soon set off on my own, turn­ing up a hilly side-street be­hind the tourist of­fice. Conques was the in­spi­ra­tion for Belle’s home vil­lage in Dis­ney’s new adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. As a fan of the film, I was ex­cited to see if Conques lived up to my fairy-tale ex­pec­ta­tions and I am not dis­ap­pointed. Strolling around the vil­lage’s net­work of steep, nar­row lanes, I feel as though I am in a real-life film set; al­most too per­fect to be true. I prac­ti­cally skip through the me­dieval cob­ble­stone streets, which are laced with half-tim­bered houses and rose-cov­ered cot­tages topped by hand­crafted slate roofs.

Im­promptu per­for­mance

I end up on Rue de Château and take a peek at the old cas­tle, which is now a pri­vate home, be­long­ing to one of the 90 per­ma­nent res­i­dents in Conques. I don’t linger for long – spots of rain start to splash and I make my way down the sleepy streets, stop­ping to take pic­tures of the flower-filled door­ways and Ro­manesque foun­tains on my way.

Tak­ing shel­ter at the 12th-cen­tury Ab­ba­tiale Sainte-foy de Conques, I’m de­lighted to hear the sounds of the or­gan be­ing played by Fa­ther Jean-daniel, a mem­ber of the re­li­gious com­mu­nity that has resided here since the 19th cen­tury. He nor­mally plays most nights at 9.30, so I feel for­tu­nate to have caught his im­promptu per­for­mance.

As the rain con­tin­ues, I sit in the can­dle-lit church and ad­mire the stained-glass win­dows, very dif­fer­ent from any I have seen be­fore. De­signed by the artist Pierre Soulages in the 1980s, no two win­dows are the same and they change in colour with the sky out­side. On this par­tic­u­lar day, they emit a moody grey and black, but on an­other, I am as­sured, they can change to vary­ing shades of blue.

My prayers have been an­swered as I come out of the church to a break in the clouds. The dry spell gives me a chance to ap­pre­ci­ate the church’s pièce de ré­sis­tance, the tym­pa­num of the Last Judge­ment carved above the church’s door­way. A ma­jor art­work from the 12th cen­tury, the sculp­ture is made up of 124 fig­ures, por­tray­ing hell on the left and par­adise on the right.

As I wan­der out on to Place de l’église I no­tice ar­rows point­ing to the Tré­sor de Conques. I fol­low in their di­rec­tion, to ar­rive at a set of steps lead­ing to an an­cient vault. Here I find an im­pres­sive trea­sure trove of Ro­manesque sculp­tures, some of which sur­vived the re­li­gious wars in the 16th cen­tury and World War II. The star at­trac­tion is a statue known as the ‘Majesty’ of Sainte Foy, which was started in the 9th cen­tury. En­crusted with more than a hun­dred jew­elled stones, it makes my eyes daz­zle.

See­ing all that gold and glit­ter makes me want to buy a lit­tle some­thing for my­self, and in Conques, a place that has al­ways had a tra­di­tion for crafts, I am spoilt for choice. I pop in and out of shops sell­ing an ar­ray of hand­made gems – ev­ery­thing from horse sad­dles to glass­work and penknives – be­fore set­tling on a wooden an­gel fig­urine for my niece and a pair of scal­lop shell ear­rings.

The scal­lop shell is an iconic sym­bol of the Saint-jac­ques de Com­postelle pil­grim­age route, which passes through Conques. Walk­ing back to the car, I pass a group of weary pil­grims ar­riv­ing to spend the night at the monastery, just be­hind the abbey church. Around 30,000 pil­grims stay there ev­ery year; with my scal­lop shells safe in my pocket, I prom­ise my­self that one day I shall be among them.

CLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT: The abbey church dom­i­nates Conques; The jewel-en­crusted ‘Majesty’ of Sainte Foy; One of the many craft shops in Conques; Rue Gon­zague Florens

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