September 11, 2013


The houses are a rosy color, the stones the color of the soil in plowed fields and the cliffs on the side of roads

First, a warning. Some of the following text is based on my (faulty sometimes) memory. Some of it is based on my (faulty always) French language skills. So enjoy some salt with your read.

Street climing hill next to the church, with typical drainage channels down the middle and sides

Today I arrived in Conques. I came here to see the village, which is on the route of St. Jacques de Compostelle, to see the pilgrimage church, and certainly to see the famous statue of Ste. Foy. It was a pretty good climb, switchbacking up the hill above the River Dourdou, to arrive at the town. The town reminds me a bit of St. Jean Pied de Port, which I visited last year in the Pyrenees. There are pilgrims everywhere, and shops to serve them everywhere, though on a smaller scale, as we are further away and the various routes have not yet melded into one.

A steeper road, with a better view of the street

Looking down towards the valley below Conques

Unfortunately, I do not know how to take effective photos of the insides of these big Romanesque churches, but this abbey church is magnificent, with one of the highest vaults I have ever seen. The current church was built in the 11th century, (of course with modifications and additions as the centuries passed and wars, fires took their toll) on the site of a much earlier, perhaps 8th century edifice. The dome is 85 feet over the transept, the columns mammoth. It is light, and the stone light colored, making me believe it has been cleaned in the past 100 or years or so. I attended Vespers, and the blessing of the pilgrims. The organ, chanting, and candlelight gave a totally different aspect to a building that had been full of visitors, chatting, with cameras, 30 minutes before. There is a concert at 9:00 that I won't miss later today.

The Romanesque Abbey Church of St. Foy, 

I spent quite a bit of time, in two different blocks this afternoon, in the church treasury, where the relics are kept. Pictures are strictly forbidden, so these are from the internet. The relic of Ste. Foy caught my imagination before my 2010 trip in the Cévennes. She, according to legend, was a young girl tortured and killed for refusing to convert to Christianity sometime during the 3rd century. Many miracles are associated with her. But about the statue. As best I remember, the face and head date from the Roman era, the body made by a different artist. The whole thing was covered in gold and jewels. It was stolen from one monastery, (Conques) by another (Agen.) A monk then joined that monastery, and it took ten years before he was allowed to guard the statue alone. He stole it, and returned it here. Others recounting this story say that it was never originally at Conques; the monks at Conques stole it from Agen to attract pilgrims to their abbey church. There is a very lot of legend, and power, and riches associated with it. It is a very powerful image and somehow disturbing, mostly I think, because the proportions are askew. Here are three images from very public sites on the web giving different perspectives of the statue:

Later. OK, I am just back in my hotel room from the concert, and am just astounded, what an experience. First, I got there early and so was able to sit on the front. As I came in, the organ was playing, and there were 5 voices, it may have been the end of Compiles. When they finished, the concert itself began, with a harpist and violinist. In the introduction, the harpist told us that the two of them had met as pilgrims on the Chemin de St. Jacques, and were presenting only a short concert, because they understood that as pilgrims, we were tired. They chose sacred music to help us to find peace, and sleep.

The first piece they played was a sarabande and allegro by Handel. I am familiar with this music, to me it is simply beautiful. In this setting, it was hauntingly beautiful, and I was close to tears. They played some pieces, I think perhaps one was Rachmaninoff, one I didn't know at all. The harpist was introducing the last two pieces when one of the two (monks, I think, or perhaps priests) came up, spoke with her for a minute, and she nodded, then told us that they would be spontaneously joined by a singer. A teenage girl from the audience came on stage, (and here my French fails me, I am not sure whether her family was making the pilgrimage, or if they live locally.) But she sang, and what an extraordinarily beautiful, powerful voice she had. She rejoined them after the last piece, and sang (again unrehearsed) another Ave Maria. It was simply astonishingly powerful.

And then ... the priest/monk came back, announced that the organist would play, and invited us to climb the stairs into the top of the church, where we could walk around the upper level. Let me promise you I was with that group of people. Totally blew me away, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that experience. So, here are some more pictures, all taken from high in the ancient church:

View Belcastel to Conques in a larger map



  1. What a great experience that must have been. Conques is wonderful. I have great memories of our trip there a while back. Probably you know this already, but those cool stained-glass windows were made by famed Contemporary artist Pierre Soulages.

    1. Conques was indeed wonderful. I couldn't have named the artist, but did read a bit about him yesterday. The windows were surprisingly powerful to me, I have never seen anything like them before. They "sat" extraordinarily well with the stone of the building, I thought.

      See you before too long!

  2. Thanks for a very mystical entry! The seashell lets you hear much...

    1. It made me think often, and with admiration, of the Way of George. I believe you would have enjoyed the entire day (sauf le cyclisme!)


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