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