Why visit Conques?
Conques is is officially classified as one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France. You’ll find it perched on the slopes of a wooded gorge in the valley of the little river Dourdou, a tributary of the Lot.
In the Middle Ages Conques was a major stopping off point for pilgrims walking from Le Puy-en-Velay in the Auvergne to St. James of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. They came to gaze at the remarkable treasures of Sainte Foy (Saint Faith), displayed in the Romanesque Abbey, and added to the wealth of this perfect medieval little village, much to the abbey’s delight (and coffers).
Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy
The vast stone Romanesque Abbey dominates the town. Huge pointed towers rise above the medieval houses that cluster around its feet and climb up the hill behind. The Abbey is out of all proportion to the small village, a remarkable testimony to the power of the catholic church.
The Tympanum of Sainte-Foy
The first thing you see before you enter is the magnificent Last Judgement in the tympanum sculpted between 1107 and 1125 above the door. Christ is at the center with the righteous to his right, figures which include the Emperor Charlemagne. Christ points to the left and to Hell, with its damned writhing figures. The bottom level depicts Heaven and Hell, each in a roofed building with an entrance door. The righteous are welcomed by angels who welcome them to a city. At the centre, Abraham embraces two souls.
The portrayal of the damned is much more graphic and fun. The damned are forced into the Jaws of Hell, depicted as a mythical beast with its mouth wide open. The tortures that the damned will endure are shown in great detail. It’s a remarkably human depiction: a hated bishop is caught in a net while poachers on abbey property are being roasted by the rabbit they caught. ‘Vengeance is mine I will repay saith the Lord’ was clearly in the minds of the medieval carvers.
The Interior of Conques Abbey
Inside the interior is simple, somber and impressive, its size reflecting the huge numbers of pilgrims who came here to see the famous relics on display. Climb up to to the organ loft and you can clearly see the intricate carvings on the capitals and get a sense of the size of the interior.
If you’re there on summer evenings, make sure you get to the abbey at 9.30pm.
An organ recital…with a difference
We couldn’t quite believe it. Here we were, in the great abbey at Conques in the late evening listening to a white-robed monk play the organ. It was a magical moment.
Some Bach, some Messiaen which was surprising and interesting and then…were we hearing right? Surely this was the House of the Rising Sun, the No 1 hit by the Animals in July 1964?
The song’s about a brothel in New Orleans called the House of the Rising Sun after its founder, Madame Marianne LeSoleil Levant (‘rising sun’ in French). It opened for business in 1862 to accommodate Union troops and closed in 1874 on complaints by the neighbours.
So we asked the organ-playing monk afterwards. “It’s a folk tune” he said.
I did some research and yes he was right. It’s believed to be an old English, Scottish or Irish folk song, so the tune dates way back. So far, so good. But it’s based on a 16th-century folk song called The Unfortunate Rake. It laments a young man dying of syphilis.
Oh well, it’s a good tune and it was a remarkable rendition in that empty, spacious abbey.
The Abbey’s History
The abbey was completely rebuilt between 1045 and 1060, making it one of the oldest churches on the route to Santiago, a well-established pilgrimage route by the 11th century. Standing beside it is the monastery housing the Benedictine monks, a community founded by the religious order fleeing the Saracens in Spain around 800 AD. The medieval village of Conques may have been small, but it became a major destination.
This is one of the most important treasuries in Europe, an amazingly rich gold and bejeweled collection of reliquaries. There’s the arm of St George the Dragon Slayer, and the ‘A’ of Charlemagne to amaze the medieval peasants and pilgrims…though today’s visitors are less believing.
The main attraction for medieval pilgrims were the remains of Sainte-Foy, a young girl tortured to death in the fourth century for her Christian beliefs. They came to see the reliquary, to pray and be cured of blindness or to secure the release of relatives captured by whichever enemy they had the misfortune to meet.
The Majesty of Sainte-Foy
The Majesty of Sainte-Foy is an amazing work of art that has had historians and theologists debating its modeling, which is oddly scaled, as well as the significance of its gleaming gold, gems and enamels. Containing the skeletal remains of the saint, some parts of the intricate gold work date back to the 5th century.
She’s pretty impressive today; to a medieval peasant, the impact of seeing her was extraordinary. As one Bernard d’Angers in 1010 remarked: “When they saw it for the first time, all in gold and sparkling with precious stones and looking like a human face, the peasants thought that the statue was in truth looking at them and answering their prayers with her eyes.”
Cut-throat Competition for those Relics
Such relics were vital to the prosperity of abbeys like Conques and there was a pretty cut-throat trade in them. The monks had earlier had a go at acquiring the relics of Saint Vincent of Saragossa and then the relics of St. Vincent Pompejac in the rich city of Agen without success. So they turned their eyes to the relics of Sainte-Foye, also in Agen. For ten years, a monk from Conques masqueraded as a monk here, then when trusted enough to get close to the treasure, stole it. There were no repercussions; in medieval law, royalty and clerics were excused because the sacredness of the theft, and of course the person committing it, outranked the ethics. Agen today is better known for its prunes than for its religious treasures.
The treasures at Conques survived through the centuries intact. They also escaped the fate of many other religious collections in 1793 when the government of the French Revolution confiscated all they could to melt down for money. The inhabitants of Conques divided up the priceless relics and hid them in their homes or dug them into their gardens.
The Sainte-Foy Abbey is open daily 8am to 8pm.
The Treasure is open daily 9.30am-12.30pm and 2pm-6pm.
More to see in Conques
Musée Joseph Fau
You really feel you are stepping back into the past in this old house. It’s filled with sculptures and wood paneling from the 16th to 17th centuries, tapestries and stone carvings from the old cloister. It’s beautifully laid out in the wooden floored rooms.
Please Note: The museum is currently closed due to the Covid-19 restrictions. Please contact the Tourist office for more information (see below).
Check opening times at the Tourist Office
Ticket with Treasury admission €6.50 euros
The Medieval Village of Conques
The village itself is an attraction. So make time to wander through the little streets, past extraordinary half-timbered wood and stone houses, most of them dating from the Middle Ages, and up winding alleyways. Don’t miss the gardens next to the church. Medieval walls surround most of the village, with some of the gates still complete.
There are delightful discoveries to make: fountains, a circular tower, the ancient pilgims’ bridge.
The pilgrims who came from Estaing and from Le Puy-en-Velay, one of the great starting points for pilgrims to Santiago, arrived via the old rue Haute, or ‘upper street’. They continued on to Figeac and Cahors through the Porte de la Vinzelle and the rue Charlemagne which runs downhill through the Porte de Barry to the river. Walk the route that they did and you’re rewarded with the Pont Romain and the chapel of St-Roch. From here, there’s a fabulous view of the medieval village of Conques above you.
Where to Stay in Conques
Not surprisingly, the medieval village of Conques has a no parking policy in the streets, so you’ll have to park for a moment to take out your bags then take the car to one of the official car parks. But everything is very nearby so it’s not a long walk (though it is slightly steep).
Right in the middle of the village, the hotel is on many different levels (slightly difficult access so check if stairs are a problem). This is a good budget option with room rates around 60 euros a night. Rooms are small but adequate and comfortable. There’s a good restaurant which makes this the best place to eat in the center of Conques. Make sure you get a table on the terrace in summer, and also make sure you get to the 9.30pm organ recital in the church opposite. They will serve you dessert and coffee when you get back.
Tel.: 00 33 (0)5 65 72 86 36e
Hôtel-Restaurant Hervé Busset/Domaine Cambelong
In an old chestnut and walnut flour mill down by the river and slightly away from the medieval village of Conques, the charming hotel has been beautifully renovated. The eight large rooms and one suite are modern and extremely stylish; bathrooms are equally chic. There’s a swimming pool and garden and a very well regarded Michelin-starred restaurant. Rates are from €190 to €220 euros per night.
Hôtel-Restaurant Hervé Busset
Domaine de Cambelong
Tel. : +33 (0)5 65 72 84 77
If you’re walking on the pilgrim trail, you might consider staying at the hostel. It’s basic, very inexpensive and you’ll meet fellow walkers. It’ll give you a feeling of being part of the medieval village of Conques, just like the pilgrims of the Middle Ages.
Pilgrims Hostel of the Abbaye of Sainte Foy
Tel: +33(0) 5 65 69 89 43
Here’s more about the four great Pilgrim Walking Routes in France. They left from Tours, Le Puy-en-Velay, Vézelay and Arles and united at St Jean-Pied-de-Port in the Pyrenees before crossing into Spain.