Conques, in Aveyron

23/02/2024 14:49

The small town of Conques, in the former province of Rourge and a few kilometres away from the Lot Valley, today between the departments of Cantal and Aveyron, retains the charm of having preserved its medieval appearance in the shadow of the great abbey of Sainte Foy, in the measure of what remains, a Romanesque jewel.

They say that Conques, Concas in Occitan, owes its name to Louis the Pious, who was inspired by the way it fits into the valley of the Ouche river, a tributary of the Dourdou. Perched on a steep slope of the valley, as Rocamadour, it was born in the surroundings of the monastery founded at the end of the eighth century by the hermit Dadon. The arrival of the relics of Saint Foy, stolen by a monk in Agen, activated the flow of pilgrimages to the monastery and incorporated it into the Camino de Santiago. The Romanesque renovation of the abbey to accommodate the growing flow of visitors attracted the large workforce necessary for the construction of the new temple. After the foundation of the monastery, the existence of an inhabited nucleus is already mentioned in the Livre des Miracles and, later, at the end of the 11th century it is recorded in the Cartulaire de l'abbaye, when around thirty monks already lived in the monastery. The population also grew, in the year 1370 there were 730 fires, which makes the census estimated at just under three thousand people.

Conques has magnificently preserved the medieval urban framework with only a few modifications, some from the 19th century. Narrow alleys cross passages of steps that ascend and descend through narrow streets that are at distinct levels of the terrain. Although most of the buildings today do not date from beyond the 16th century, the use of local building materials has provided great homogeneity and a monochrome appearance to the houses, many of them with stone facades. half-timbered and slate roofs. When the inspector general of historical monuments, Prosper Merimée, visited the place in 1837 he was pleasantly surprised, writing in his famous notes: “n’être nullement preparé à trouver tant de richesses dans un pareil désert”. (“Not being in any way prepared to find so much wealth in such a desert”.)

There was a time when the town was protected behind a ring of walls, with four gateways and some defence towers. Not much more than memories remain, some fragment of walls and three of the four doorways. Two of them, Vinzelle and Barry, preserve the Romanesque structure of the base, they were built in the 12th century, the third one is later. The Vinzelle door is in a corner of the upper town, inside the arch, a niche contains an image of a Virgin, above there is a half-timbered floor with a roof where grass is growing. Barry's door has also a round arch with a floor added above. Fer doorway leads towards the orchards and the river along a narrow cobbled street with flagstones and a central drain. The fourth gate, that of Foumourze, has long since disappeared. On the north side of the wall there is a circular defence tower dating from the late 15th century and crowned by a slate slab roof. Nearby is the Château d'Humières, built between the 15th and 16th centuries, it has a double structure four stories high, one of them in the shape of a polygonal tower, is topped by a kind of octagonal dome. Another notable building is the Maison Dadon, on Émile Roudié Street, with a monumental wooden portico and which once housed the former Sainte Foy general hospital. Or the one that today houses the tourist office, with a two-story half-timbered façade on which there is a clock and, even above it, a bell supported by wrought iron.

Eleven fountains distributed water in Conques, some of them still remain, the one at Plô, near the abbey, was already mentioned in the Codex Calixtinus, that kind of medieval guide to the Camino de Santiago. Behind the abbey is the Rosary chapel, a straight-headed building built in 1465, with pointed vaults covered with murals, next to where the parish church dedicated to Saint Thomas Beckett stood, demolished in 1840.

Today it is a pleasure to quietly walk its streets, especially when they are empty of visitors and a hazy shade of winter allow the sunshine through the rain. When sunset it looks like an amazing eternal flame.

© J.L.Nicolas


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